Paul Zeise: Steelers need to improve — and get healthy — to have a shot at the Super Bowl

Two lessons we learned Sunday afternoon with the Steelers’ debacle — a 30-15 loss to the Dolphins — is that every team in the NFL has enough good players to beat any other team and the Steelers are capable of playing really poorly.

Of course, we have always known the former and we have had plenty of examples of the latter, as well. But a third lesson to be learned from this game is that “next man up” and “the standard is the standard” are nice, cutesy little slogans but they are just that: cutesy slogans that have no meaning. Simply put, you can’t keep losing starting players and expect the same level of production from a unit or a whole team. That doesn’t mean a team can’t win a game or two with a few key injuries, it means a team isn’t the same team without its best players.

The Steelers played Sunday without Cam Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Sammie Coates and Marcus Gilbert. Then Vince Williams got banged up, and, of course, Ben Roethlisberger injured his knee and wasn’t the same the rest of the game and now we know why as he was diagnosed with a torn meniscus and needs surgery.

Understand this: I’m not blaming the Steelers loss on injuries. They did not play a good game, they were physically dominated on both sides of the ball and, frankly, if the Dolphins weren’t so inept at kicking field goals and playing red-zone offense the score would have been something like 45-15. What I’m saying is the team I and many others picked to win the Super Bowl is not the team that played Sunday against the Dolphins.

The Steelers are good, but they didn’t play a good game Sunday, nor did they have all of their best players, and that’s a factor too. Heyward is by far their best defensive lineman and may be their best defensive player, to be honest, and I’m not saying his absence is the reason the Dolphins ran wild all over the Steelers (Jay Ajayi ran for 204 yards, in case you missed the game), but it certainly was a factor. It’s the same thing with Shazier, who is small and thus seemingly always getting banged up. When he plays, his speed and quickness in getting to the ball is a huge factor in the Steelers’ ability to stop big running plays. Roethlisberger’s injury is obviously the most troubling, especially with New England looming, but as long as he’s back in a few weeks — as is the prognosis — the Steelers have more than enough time to go on and win the division. Maybe Landry Jones can find a way to win next week’s game against the Patriots, but let’s face it, that’s going to be a long shot for a number of reasons.

This is actually a very important game for the Steelers now that they lost to the Dolphins. A loss to the Patriots all but assures they will have to go through Gillette Stadium to get to the Super Bowl. That wouldn’t be ideal because the Steelers haven’t been very good against the Patriots in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. That’s especially true at Gillette, where they are 1-4.

Quarterback isn’t the only position where an injury can sideline a team, and in the Steelers’ case there are multiple injuries on the defense and one along the offensive line that has changed the team, and not for the better. The Steelers will have a lot better chance of beating the Patriots if Heyward, Gilbert, Shazier and Coates can all play, too. They’re much better players than the guys who fill in for them, and that is the reality in the salary-cap era NFL.

The Steelers need to play better than they did Sunday against the Dolphins if they want to win another game this year. But they also need to be healthy going into the playoffs if they want to win the Super Bowl. While the standard might be the standard, the Steelers’ backups clearly aren’t as good as their starters.

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