Where Do The Steelers Go From Here? - By Greg Stephens

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

The entire city of Pittsburgh has basked in the glory of it's beloved Steelers' first Super Bowl victory since men named Bradshaw and Swann wore the black and gold and were coached by a legend named Chuck Noll. On a Sunday night in February, 2006, one of the greatest football cities in America became the football capital of the world and rode the Bus to the promised land.

A mere eight months later, the Bus has been parked permanently, and a proud city begins to wonder if last season's glory will continue on to establish a new dynasty in the NFL, or if fate will intervene to make the 2005-2006 World Championship a memory to be cherished, but not repeated.

The Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2006 campaign as the team to beat -- in the AFC North, the AFC, and the NFL as a whole. With the exceptions of Jerome Bettis, Kimo Von Oelhoffen and Antwaan Randle El, this year's Steelers unit remained virtually intact, returning it's famously strong offensive line, it's promising running back Willie Parker, it's monster defense, and it's stud quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

Things have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

In the off-season, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a motorcycle injury that, in all rights, probably should have killed him, or at least ended his playing career. He has undergone an appendectomy since the young season began. He is playing the worst football in his entire career, on any level.

Willie Parker isn't breaking out the way he was expected to in his quest to fill the gap left by Bettis' retirement. Star receiver Hines Ward has been hampered by nagging injuries, as has Troy Polumalu. The defense constantly looks worn out by the middle of the third quarter of each game. Injuries mount, as Joey Porter sits on the shelf this coming weekend against the Chiefs. In the midst of all of this, the questions begin to linger on fan sites and talk radio. Can the Steelers survive a 1-3 start and return to the post-season in an effort to defend it's crown?

The Baltimore Ravens

The first factor in the ultimate question resides in the city of Baltimore. Brian Billick is threatening to return his team to it's better days as his Ravens sit atop the AFC North with a 4-1 record, a full two and a half games better than the Steelers in the standings.

The Ravens' defense has never been an issue. Ray Lewis and his squad have allowed a miserly forty-six points in only five games. Granted, three of those teams were bottom-five teams in the Browns, Raiders and Bucs, but the other two teams were the revitalized Chargers, and the always strong Broncos.

In those five games, the defense has allowed seventy-four yards per game on the ground, one hundred forty-six in the air, intercepted the ball nine times, and sacked the opposing quarterbacks eighteen times.

The area that has kept the Ravens in check in recent years has been it's anemic offense. In order to rectify this situation, the Ravens acquired long-time veteran quarterback Steve McNair, and the dividends have paid off remarkably.

McNair has thrown for nine hundred eleven yards, with only five touchdowns while throwing six picks. These aren't stellar numbers, but they are good enough to make the passing game a concern for opposing defenses. This distraction from the Ravens' running game has allowed the team to post an average of ninety-seven yards per game on the ground for two touchdowns. While not the numbers of the Falcons, this combination has allowed the Ravens to score eighty-nine points -- forty-three more than the collective opponents.

Looking ahead, the Ravens have the Panthers, the Bengals twice, the Saints, the Steelers twice, the Browns, the Titans, the Falcons, the Chiefs, and the Bills. The Ravens have the ability to pick up victories against the Panthers, the Bengals at least once depending on whether Cincinnati can address it's issues, the Saints, the Steelers at least once, again depending on how they address their problems, the Browns, Titans, and Bills. They can beat the Chiefs and Falcons, but those will be the toughest two non-division games on their schedule.

If the Ravens finish their remaining schedule at 7-4 based on the above, that makes them 11-5 for the season, almost assuring them at least a wild card spot, and quite likely the division title.

The Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are a more difficult factor to analyze than the Ravens. The Bengals offense was not supposed to be an issue this season, returning possibly the best offensive line and deepest receiving corps in the NFL. The only question mark was Carson Palmer and his knee.

Injuries have thrown the front line into disarray, with center Rich Braham's absence causing Palmer to see a lot more time on his back. Chad Johnson hasn't been effective this season so far, due to the lack of T. J. Houshmandzadeh the first two games, and the issues that have plagued Chris Henry off the field, removing him from last week's loss to the Patriots and the next two games on the schedule.

Palmer's knee hasn't been an issue per se, but Palmer has been very rusty this season, throwing six touchdowns in four games, with four picks. The fifteen sacks he has already suffered has thrown off his timing and caused him to fumble the ball four times. The Buccaneers game will tell if Carson has regrouped back to his old form, or if this may turn into a let-down season after Palmer established himself as one the game's premier passers last season.

Rudi Johnson still looks strong, and the Bengals expect third down back, and excellent receiving back, Chris Perry to return soon, boosting both the run and giving Palmer more screen and short pass options.

The question mark for the Bengals for the past twelve years has been the defense. Had last year's defensive unit been one step better, the 2005 Bengals could have finished at 12-4, or maybe even 13-3 and went deeper in the playoffs.

The Bengals tried to answer the defensive issues with the acquisition of back Dexter Jackson, and lineman Sam Adams. Jackson was injured in the second game of the season and hasn't been seen since. Adams spent the training camp and pre-season injured. The Bengals picked him up due to his size to plug the holes up front, but his age and overabundance of size have led to a mere four tackles this season, resulting in a major let-down in that acquisition.

Added to the Bengals' defensive woes are the loss of David Pollack to injury, the loss of Odell Thurman to stupidity, and the apparent aging of Tory James. James, a great corner last season, is losing a step here and there and getting burned by opposing receivers far too much.

To the Bengals credit, many did not expect them to come out of the bye week with a 3-1 record. With the Steelers and the Chiefs on the early season ticket, the best anyone predicted was maybe 2-2. The remainder of the season is brutal, however, as the Bengals face the Buccaneers, the Panthers, the Falcons, the Ravens twice, the Chargers, the Steelers, the Browns, the Raiders, the Saints, Colts and Broncos. Depending which Bengals show up, who is healthy, and how Palmer recuperates, the Bengals could come out of those twelve games as high as 8-4, or as low as 3-9.

The Steelers Themselves

As the Steelers proved last year, each team is greatly in control of it's own destiny. The 1-3 Steelers have started the season with many issues. Most of the issues are connected, to some degree, to injuries and health issues. Some are not.

Will Roethlisberger recover from whatever has thrown him off his game? Most claim this is health related, but no one can know for certain. A healthy Roethlisberger posted a poor Super Bowl performance, throwing one pick and receiving a rating of only 22.6, masked to a great degree by the team's ability to win despite Roethlisberger. Even if his issues are health related, the more he goes on the field and performs as poorly as he has in the Steelers' three loses, the harder it will be for him to recover mentally and emotionally.

The Steelers' remaining schedule presents the Chiefs, the Falcons, the Bengals, the Browns twice, the Ravens twice, the Broncos, Saints, Raiders, Buccaneers and Panthers. Out of those twelve games, the Steelers would be realistic to believe their best could be 8-4, while a miserable 5-7 isn't out of the question. Unfortunately, with the Bengals and Ravens in the same division, and the Jaguars, Chargers and Broncos in the same conference, an overall 9-7 record probably does not send the champs back to the dance.