|Big Ben limps down the steps to the locker room after Pittsburgh beat Cleveland last Thursday. (AP)|
By Ryan Wilson
The Steelers became the first AFC team to 10 wins when they defeated the Browns Thursday night. But it came at a price: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey suffered high-ankle sprains, and it's unclear if either will play nine days from now when Pittsburgh plays San Francisco on Monday Night Football.
For now, the win moves the Steelers to the top of the AFC North, a half-game ahead of Baltimore, at least until Sunday afternoon when the Ravens faces the winless Colts. And it's the remaining schedules for both teams that could determine how Pittsburgh proceeds with Roethlisberger.
Assuming Baltimore beats Indy (yes, we know, the Raven's three losses are against the likes of the Titans, Jaguars and Seahawks but we're giving them the benefit of the doubt against the 0-12 Colts), they will be 10-3, the No. 1 team in the division and the No. 2 team in the AFC. The Steelers, meanwhile, will be the No. 5 team, and at 10-3, they're pretty much locked into that position. (The 7-5 Bengals are currently the sixth seed, but the Titans, Raiders and Jets are also 7-5 and vying for the last wild-card spot.)
With games remaining against the 49ers, Rams and Browns, the Steelers' schedule ranks as the second-easiest in the league. The easiest? That honor goes to the Ravens, who face the Colts, Chargers, Browns and Bengals.
If Thursday night's game was any indication, Roethlisberger will try to play against San Francisco. But whether he takes the field could be determined by what the Ravens do the day before. If they beat the Colts (and they should), the Steelers could choose to give backup Charlie Batch the start and let Big Ben have another five days to rehab.
Batch has a long, successful history of replacing Roethlisberger in the lineup. Big Ben had knee surgery in 2005 and Batch went 2-0 in his absence. He also won the 2006 opener against the Dolphins while Roethlisberger recovered from an emergency appendectomy. Batch lost to the Ravens during a meaningless Week 17 game in 2007, and was 1-1 in 2010 while Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension to start the season.
If the Chargers somehow find a way to beat the Ravens, then we should expect to see Big Ben take the field in San Francisco. Because a victory there, followed by wins against the Rams and Browns, would mean that the Steelers would be no worse than the No. 2 seed in the AFC and get a much-needed bye week during the first round of the playoffs. But again, we can't envision a scenario where Indy pulls off the upset.
A bigger concern for Pittsburgh: Pouncey's health. If there's a silver lining to his latest high-ankle sprain it's this, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac: "Doctors always have maintained that players who have a second high-ankle sprain heal faster and return quicker than players who have suffered one for the first time."
The dark cloud, again via Dulac: "The Steelers think it might be harder for Pouncey to play against the 49ers because he needs his ankle for leverage in run-blocking and pass protection. Pouncey injured his left ankle against the Browns, and it is the same one he injured in the AFC championship game that kept him out of Super Bowl XLV. Pouncey said after the game Thursday night that he will play in San Francisco. Of course, he said much the same thing before the Super Bowl, too, even though the Steelers knew all along he wasn't going to play."
Doug Legursky filled in capably for Pouncey in the Super Bowl and again Thursday. The problem, however, is that he's the starting left guard. Which means that when he moves to center, Chris Kemoeatu comes into the game. Kemoeatu, who has 52 career starts with the team, lost his job in recent weeks for, as Mike Tomlin likes to say, playing below the line.
In two quarters against the Browns Thursday, Kemoeatu had three penalties, two of which came on third downs that the Steelers had converted. He has played so poorly this season that he'll likely be replaced by career backup Trai Essex going forward.
The upheaval along the o-line is another reason not to rush Big Ben back in the lineup; why let him play, risk further injury, and jeopardize the rest of the season?
In one sense, Roethlisberger's high-ankle sprain could be a blessing. It will allow him a few weeks off, and some much-need time to get healthy. That said, after watching his peg-legged performance against the Browns Thursday, we suspect he thinks getting healthy is overrated.
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