Packers, Steelers positioning for stretch run

Posted Nov. 19, 2012 @ 1:19 p.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

One of the key measuring sticks to define greatness in the NFL is determined by how a team can fare when it loses key pieces. The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the teams that are able to return to full health in December, as the Giants did last season, often position themselves best for a Super Bowl championship.

No team has been hit harder by injuries to key performers this season than Pittsburgh, with Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall missing most of the season, and James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger all missing action. With a relatively soft schedule down the stretch outside of another key rematch in Baltimore in two weeks, what’s most important for Pittsburgh is that it holds off a surging Bengals squad that it will face in Week 16 and find a way to rest its talent enough to hit January as fully intact as possible, especially at the quarterback position.

Green Bay already has placed the highly underrated, hard-hitting Desmond Bishop, rookie pass rusher Nick Perry, steady ORT Bryan Bulaga and workmanlike RB Cedric Benson on injured reserve, not to mention being without impact performers such as ROLB Clay Matthews, SS Charles Woodson and WR Greg Jennings against Detroit last week. They have been as decimated as the Steelers but remain very much in contention for a divisional championship, despite being robbed of a win in Seattle by awful replacement officiating.

What sets the two storied franchises apart from the pack is the next-man-up blueprint of GMs Ted Thompson and Kevin Colbert, the down-to-earth, demanding leadership styles of Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin and the savvy coordination of two of the NFL’s most tenured and respected defensive coordinators, Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. But most importantly of all is the QB position.

Packers ORG Josh Sitton and C Jeff Saturday were beaten repeatedly by the quickness of an emerging Nick Fairley and the soft edges repeatedly folded against a very active Lions defensive line. Behind the rapid-firing arm of Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s most accurate quarterback throwing on the move, the Packers were still able to fend off heavy pressure, with a big assist from second-year FS M.D. Jennings. The undrafted free agent, stepping up in Woodson’s absence, flipped the game in the second half when he snared a tipped pass off Tony Scheffler’s hands and returned it 72 yards for a pick-six.

Without Roethlisberger, the AFC’s top playmaking passer, able to work his magic at the end of the game when the Steelers needed it most, they were narrowly defeated by the Ravens, as Byron Leftwich came up flat on the final drive, unable to create outside the pocket the way No. 7 does so well. Special teams, the forte of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, proved to be the difference in the Ravens’ 13-10 victory, as a very well-blocked 63-yard Jacoby Jones punt-return score compensated for a dismal offensive effort in a battle of defenses.   

• After Doug Martin fumbled on the goal line and the Panthers marched down the field to take a 21-10 lead with six minutes remaining in regulation, the Buccaneers outscored the Panthers 17-0 the rest of the way, including overtime, to pull off another key division win and remain alive in the wild-card hunt. Part of Ron Rivera’s legacy as defensive coordinator of the Bears in Super Bowl XLI was sitting in a soft cover-2 shell in the second half, allowing Peyton Manning to sit back and dink and dunk his way down the field. Predictable, easily beatable defensive play-calling sealed the Panthers’ fate against Atlanta and Chicago earlier this season, when the Panthers had control of both games late in the fourth quarter. On the final drive in regulation against Tampa Bay with the Bucs having no timeouts and needing to go 80 yards for a touchdown to tie the score, the Panthers were sitting in the same conservative coverage throughout the seven-play drive. The plight of Philadelphia can be traced back largely to the passing of legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was relieved of his duties in Philadelphia after struggling to fill Johnson's big shoes and the struggles have continued in Carolina and Philadelphia — a big part of the reason why coaching changes are coming.

• The absence of fired Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has done little to correct the Eagles’ confusion on defense, as CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha showed after being torched on a play-action pass for a 49-yard TD in the second quarter, when Aldrick Robinson was left wide open, with Asomugha being the closest defender nearly 10 yards away. It shocked former Raiders coaches that Asomugha commanded as big of a deal in free agency as he did in Philadelphia and surprised evaluators even more, given that he was coming from such a dysfunctional organization and had never been part of a winning team. Since he has arrived in Philadelphia, where he is not expected to stay next season, he has brought a heavy dose of dysfunction.

• As devastating as it can be for any team to lose its top offensive weapon, as the Patriots did when TE Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm Sunday, the Patriots already have shown they could overcome the loss of Aaron Hernandez and are one of only two teams, along with the Packers, to carry five active tight ends on the roster, a clear sign of how much both teams value the position in their offenses and have sought to stack it with depth. There is a considerable drop-off in talent from Gronkowski to Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe and Michael Hoomanawanui, but the likely return of Hernandez could go a long way toward sparking the Patriots’ offense on Thursday night against the Jets.

• Two defensive linemen — Jets DRE Muhammad Wilkerson and Rams DLE Chris Long — were notable in the Jets’ 27-13 victory that clearly showed Mark Sanchez can be effective when he is not asked to do too much. Wilkerson, one of the NFL’s most unsung performers, feasted on Rams OLT Rodger Saffold all day and produced the biggest, momentum-changing play of the game when he strip-sacked Sam Bradford and Bart Scott returned the fumble 38 yards to set up a Sanchez TD throw that gave the Jets a lead they never relinquished. Long recorded two sacks in the first half by outworking the underpowered Austin Howard, something Long has done so well against the NFL’s weakest right tackles this season.