By Jeremy Hritz
The Bengals sit atop the AFC North after shellacking the Ravens 41-17, and the gap between the Steelers and first place has lessened. On Sunday, the Steelers will have a chance to keep pace with their divisional counterparts, as they play the Browns, who are currently weakened due to injury, and stay relevant in the AFC North.
What became evident at the end of week 7 is that the games the Steelers have lost have come against teams who boast a combined record of 15-4, giving some solace in the misery of falling short. Maybe we have been too hard on this team in those losses, and some grace should be extended. This is not to absolve them of their deficiencies, but it should be acknowledged that they have played some pretty outstanding teams.
Halloween’s game against the Browns will be the turning point in the Steelers season, because the outcome will most likely indicate the path this team will have to travel. Win, and stay relevant in the AFC North. Lose, and face an uphill battle. With the injury to Baker Mayfield, there are questions aplenty for the Browns, and it may be just enough uncertainty for the Steelers to score an upset. Factor in that since 2002, the Steelers are 4-0 after the bye, and the Steelers chances, at least historically, are in their favor.
The team hasn’t forgotten the drubbing that occurred in the Wild Card round last January when the team was embarrassed by an upstart Browns team that thoroughly pounded the Steelers into submission. Whether via the running or passing game, the Browns moved the ball at will, while Ben Roethlisberger went on a turnover tear, and the defense was ineffective and leaky against both the pass and the run. It was the game that forced the questions about Roethlisberger’s future and really influenced many of the decisions the team made this offseason.
The Steelers have not shown they have fully grown from their mistakes from last season, and there is residue in terms of some of their existing deficiencies. The running game has improved, yet at times it still looks very 2020. Roethlisberger looks sharp at times but others is very 2020. The defense, well, has not looked very 2020 at all, and have taken a step back from last season.
But the hope is that the bye has helped with all of that. The coaches have had the time to self-study and to prepare for a divisional game with far-reaching implications. The players have had time to heal and to revise their gameplan to be more effective within the system in which they operate. Now, whether or not those course corrections will have a positive impact remains to be seen, and we will not know if they were effective until Sunday around 4:00 pm.
One thing is for certain, if the Steelers win, this season will show signs of life, and they will be in a realistic position to go 6-3 before starting the brutal part of their schedule against the Los Angeles Chargers. Lose, and face an uphill battle all the way until the end of the season that just may be too much for this team to overcome.
Whatever the outcome, this is the game of the year for the Steelers thus far in a very young season, and one that you have to appreciate and savor as a Steelers fan.
A big opportunity is here for the Steelers. Wil they capitalize?