CBS envisioned a premier matchup Sunday with potential Super Bowl implications when it gave Steelers-Patriots the national 4:25 p.m. time slot and assigned its No. 1 announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.
Instead, CBS gets a Patriots team struggling to score points on offense, and a 2-5 Steelers team struggling to make it through the season with 53 healthy players.
The Steelers are known for two things — being able to run the ball and rush the quarterback — and they aren’t doing either this season. They’re 29th in the NFL with a 3.3-yard average on rushing plays, and have just 10 sacks on defense, tied for 30th.
And they limp into town Sunday with several key injuries along the offensive line. Center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and tackle Levi Brown (triceps) are out for the year, while guards David DeCastro (ankle), Ramon Foster (concussion), and Guy Whimper (knee) all got hurt in last Sunday’s loss to Oakland. Coach Mike Tomlin is hopeful that one or more of the three will be available against the Patriots, but it’s too early to know.
The offensive line injuries have led to some woeful performances by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the offense, which is ranked 28th in points (17.9 per game). The Steelers have allowed 27 sacks — tied for seventh-most — and have already had their bye. Roethlisberger has thrown only eight touchdown passes against seven interceptions.
The one bright spot on offense has been receiver Antonio Brown, who leads the NFL with 56 catches and is tied for ninth with 630 yards. But the loss to the Raiders marked the third time this year the Steelers have fallen behind by double digits in the first half.
“We, as a coaching staff, take responsibility for the manner in which the game is started,” Tomlin said. “We have to do everything in our power to give them a chance to have success. Obviously, we didn’t do that.”
The Steelers aren’t quite up to their lofty standards on defense, either, with an aging roster featuring five starters 29 or older. The Steelers have actually held five opponents under 300 total yards, but they allowed a combined 74 points in losses to the Bears and Vikings, and let the Raiders rush for 197 yards.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (five sacks) and defensive end Brett Keisel (two sacks) still anchor the front seven, but it features a few new faces in 2011 first-round pick Cameron Heyward (seven tackles in seven games) and 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones (15 tackles in six games).
They have perhaps the most veteran secondary in the NFL with three starters older than 30: cornerback Ike Taylor and safeties Ryan Clark (one interception) and Troy Polamalu (one interception, one sack). The Steelers have the NFL’s second-ranked pass defense, but only because opponents are often running the ball on them in the second half.
The Steelers have also been victimized by big plays, allowing six of at least 51 yards. Five of the six plays have occurred in the first quarter, and in the loss to Oakland, the Steelers let quarterback Terrelle Pryor run 93 yards for a touchdown on the Raiders’ first offensive play of the game.
“We just can’t spot teams that many points and try to fight back,” Keisel said. “When we come out of the locker room, we’ve got to come out ready to go. Sometimes plays like [Pryor’s], you’re going to give up, but you’ve got to settle down and keep them out of the end zone.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.