T he Steelers’ short-term challenge is to beat the New England Patriots Sunday without their franchise quarterback, their top defensive player, their starting right tackle and maybe their second-best defender. Their long-term task is just as formidable. They must find a way to overcome their injury adversity and thrive the way the Patriots did without suspended Tom Brady and injured Rob Gronkowski.
I know, it seems hopeless.
Ben Roethlisberger will miss the game Sunday because of a torn meniscus in his left knee, which was repaired surgically Monday morning. If his rehabilitation goes well, he might only miss one game because of the Steelers’ off week Oct. 30. Their next game is Nov. 6 against the Baltimore Ravens. But, at this stage of his career, at 34, it won’t be surprising if Roethlisberger misses more time.
Cam Heyward will miss his second consecutive game because of a hamstring injury. He, too, will be fortunate to be back for the Ravens game.
Marcus Gilbert likely will miss his third consecutive game because of an ankle/foot injury. Offensive linemates Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are more honored, but Gilbert is so well thought of that the Steelers gave him a five-year, $30.8 million contract.
Ryan Shazier has a chance to play against the Patriots after missing the past two games with a knee injury. Can we agree the Steelers could use that sort of lift after everything they’ve been through with injuries?
These are not good times for the team despite its 4-2 record and first-place standing in the AFC North Division.
Let me point that out another way.
How do you like the Brady-vs.-Landry Jones matchup Sunday?
I thought so.
It’s hard to have faith in Jones. The Steelers coaches clearly don’t. They allowed Roethlisberger to play on his bad knee in the second half of the team’s 30-15 loss Sunday to the Miami Dolphins. They allowed him to play with a bad shoulder in the playoff win in Cincinnati in January when he barely could throw the football 10 yards. You also might remember Mike Tomlin’s lukewarm evaluation of Jones’ work after last season.
But Jones won the backup job in training camp and during the preseason. He will get all of the practice time this week with the first-team offense, which should help. If there’s another reason to believe in him, it’s the way he played against a very good Arizona team last season in place of the injured Roethlisberger. He led the Steelers to an improbable 25-13 win. It’s hard to imagine him doing it again against the Patriots, but it is the NFL, right? Anything can happen. On any given Sunday, blah, blah, blah.
Tomlin and the Steelers medical staff are taking a beating this week from critics because they allowed Roethlisberger to come back in the game against the Dolphins after he was injured midway through the second quarter. But the docs cleared Roethlisberger and said he couldn’t do additional damage to his knee. Given a choice, he’s always going to play. I’m not going to knock him or Tomlin for that.
It’s fair to think Roethlisberger would have had a better day if Gilbert had played. The line played well without Gilbert a week earlier against the New York Jets but was thoroughly outplayed by the Dolphins defensive front. Roethlisberger was sacked twice and hurried six times. He was a physical mess after the game for the first time this season.
“He’s one of the toughest guys in the league. I would never rule him out of anything,” Brady said Monday on his WEEI radio show in Boston. “He’s just a stud, just an incredible player. He’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever played against. It’s pretty spectacular to watch the way he’s able to shrug off defenders and make plays and throw the ball down the field.”
Shazier and especially Heyward also would have made a difference against the Dolphins, who gashed the Steelers for 222 rushing yards, 204 by running back Jay Ajayi. Without the ability to stop the run, the pass rush was non-existent against quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was sacked 17 times in Miami’s first five games. Vince Williams had done a nice job filling in for Shazier, although, like everyone else, he was not at his best Sunday. Heyward is, simply, the Steelers’ best rusher and also stout against the run.
“Cam is a tremendous player,” Williams said. “Obviously, his presence was missed greatly. You can’t replace a guy like Cam, as you guys could see.”
The Steelers are going to have to find a way at least until the Baltimore game.
If the team needs any inspiration during this tough injury stretch, the players need only to look at the Patriots to see that a short-handed team can survive and even thrive.
New England went 3-1 during Brady’s four-game DeflateGate suspension, using Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. It is 2-0 since Brady returned with a chip the size of Massachusetts on his shoulder. He completed 76 percent of his passes for 782 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions with a passer rating of 135.5.
Gronkowski, arguably the NFL’s best player and perhaps the greatest tight end in league history, missed the first two games with a hamstring injury and most of a third, but the Patriots still rolled. In the past two games with Brady, he has 12 catches for 271 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots are 5-1 and the class of the AFC, if not the entire NFL.
The Steelers can only hope they can get by as well without Roethlisberger and Heyward. They can only hope they get the same kind of lift when Roethlisberger and Heyward play again.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.