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Limping Steelers are still in hunt for postseason

| Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, 10:50 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Dallas defensive tackle Sean Lissemore sacks Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

The Steelers need to win two, but right now, they can't even win one.

They don't look like a playoff team. They don't sound like a playoff team. They're not playing like a playoff team should with only two weeks remaining in a season in which they can't seem to keep anyone healthy or mount any late-season momentum.

They've lost four of the past five games, deservedly or not, and they're losing cornerbacks nearly as quickly; they were down to practice-squad players and backups to backups during their 27-24 overtime loss in Dallas on Sunday.

Remarkably, they still have more than a mathematical chance of making the playoffs. If they beat the Bengals (8-6) on Sunday and the Browns (5-9) on Dec. 30, both at Heinz Field, the Steelers (7-7) are in. And, if they win both games and the Ravens (9-5) lose their final two against the Giants and Bengals on the road, the Steelers will win the AFC North.

But talk about a couple of big “ifs.”

The Steelers have won only once since Nov. 12. They've dropped their past two at home. They don't know if any of their top three cornerbacks can play against the Bengals, who've won five of the past six. And they're not running the ball with any consistency; they're on pace for their third-worst rushing season since 1970.

“We're not playing right now, and that's making our goals harder to reach,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “But we still have life. We will have to make a decision and turn this around.”

There is hope: Ben Roethlisberger's right arm, stronger than it was only a week ago in his first game in a month, appears to offer a route to the playoffs.

Roethlisberger, much sharper than he was in his comeback game against the Chargers the week before, hit deep balls — a 60-yarder to Mike Wallace — and kept plays going like he routinely did not that long ago. Once, he pump-faked three times to dodge pass rushers and get off a throw.

“The whole thing revolves around Roethlisberger,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “You saw why he's regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He can extend plays, he keeps his eyes up, he's hard to tackle.”

But while his arm looks to be fine — Roethlisberger was 12 of 15 for 239 yards, one touchdown and one interception from halftime on Sunday — he appeared annoyed and perplexed afterward at some of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play calling.

Roethlisberger was unhappy that tight end Heath Miller was ignored after making five catches for 74 yards just in the second quarter. He also wanted to keep using the no-huddle in the second half after the Steelers produced 10 points quickly while running it just before halftime.

“At the end of the first half, we really were kind of getting into a lot of the no-huddle stuff, and that's when we started moving the ball and taking shots, taking the short stuff,” Roethlisberger said. “Whatever they were giving us. That's when we're at our best, and that's what we need to do.”

This was the first time all season Roethlisberger was so openly critical of the play-calling. And, coincidentally or not, he praised former coordinator Bruce Arians, now the Colts' interim coach, only a few days before.

With the Steelers truly in a must-win situation, what they don't need leading up to their most important game of the season is any publicly aired disagreement between quarterback and coordinator.

“We have to make plays in significant moments,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “And stay together. We have to stay together. If we can stay together, nobody can stop us, and we know that.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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