Every week, I hope to bring you a quick Q&A with someone who covers the Ravens’ opponent that week. This week, I chatted with Alan Robinson, who covers the Pittsburgh Steelers for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
MV: What is status of the injury situation at quarterback for the Steelers, and I know it's early, but who do you expect to start Sunday? Might Ben Roethlisberger make one of his dramatic returns?
AR: Mike Tomlin says they're preparing Charlie Batch to start. Roethlisberger threw lightly on the side Monday, but it would be a major surprise if he has healed from a significant injury so quickly; non-Steelers doctors estimated he would be out 3-to-6 weeks. The expectation is Roethlisberger will throw in practice Wednesday but will get ramped up to play only if he proves he can throw the ball with velocity and without pain; those are big "ifs" given he's recovering from a dislocated rib and a shoulder-related injury that would be worrisome by itself. He rushed back last season from a high ankle sprain to play in San Francisco, but could barely walk, could get nothing going and the Steelers sat him a week later. They don't want to go through something like that again, not with them in position to get one of the two AFC wild cards.
MV: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has listed Jonathan Dwyer as his starting running back going forward and "Mike Wallace or Emmanuel Sanders" as a starting receiver. Is Tomlin trying to send a message there?
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AR: Trying? Message received. Mendenhall might be on his last legs with the Steelers; his contract is up and Tomlin was so angered by his two fumbles in Cleveland that he's now listed as a third-teamer. He has started and finished only one game this season because of knee and Achilles injuries, and the Steelers might be ready to move on to Dwyer and Isaac Redman. As for Wallace, Tomlin wants to see more catching and less pouting. Charlie Batch rarely looked his way in Cleveland as he repeatedly targeted Sanders instead. Wallace had three productive games in a row before Antonio Brown injured an ankle, but has only eight catches in three games without Brown. Brown is expected to come back Sunday; the Steelers hope Wallace will come back with him as he no longer must go against each team's top cornerback.
MV: After losing eight -- eight! -- fumbles in a loss to the Cleveland Browns last week, what can the Steelers do to improve ball security in the span of a few days?
AR: They've gone to extremes in the past, ordering backs to carry footballs with them in the team complex. Not sure if they'll do that this time, but Tomlin is taking the blame for the fumbles. He said the players aren't heeding the messages sent by the coaches that fumbles are unacceptable, so that's on the coaches. Dwyer has been the most productive back all season and, unless he starts putting the ball on the ground again with regularity, he's likely to keep his job.
MV: The Steelers defense continues to play well, but they aren't getting much pressure on the quarterback, as we saw a couple of weeks ago at Heinz Field. Can the ineffectiveness of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley simply be chalked up to injury issues? And who else needs to step up there?
AR: Woodley (ankle) is doubtful, so he's unlikely to play; he would be replaced by Jason Worilds, who had a pair of sacks in Cleveland. Harrison has been coming on as his surgically repaired left knee finally regains strength; he's had 12 tackles and two sacks the last two games. And the Browns quickly stopped running to his side after they didn't gain a yard on five carries his way. Harrison said his left knee won't be 100 percent until the offseason, but he can tell he's getting back some of his explosion. Until now, part of his problem was the knee prevented him from getting the initial surge that allowed him to shed linemen at the line of scrimmage and disrupt plays. But you're right. While the Steelers are ranked No. 1 defensively as usual (total yardage and points allowed), they're still not forcing turnovers -- Lawrence Timmons' TD interception Sunday was an exception -- or getting many sacks. They're only 24th in sacks and they're minus-10 in takeaways (compared to the Patriots' plus-24 and the Ravens' plus-12).
MV: What has been the vibe around the Steelers since the last time these teams met? They went from being in position to get the inside track in the AFC North to the fringe of playoff contention in a span of two weeks.
AR: They've gone through three quarterbacks and four running backs in the last three weeks; that didn't build any continuity as they lost consecutive games for the first time since late in the 2009 season. And in only 10 days, they've gone from having a chance to seize the division lead (if they beat the Ravens in Pittsburgh) to being on the verge of elimination. All of the changes and the constant adjusting -- Is Leftwich the quarterback? Is Batch? -- probably won't stop until Roethlisberger returns. Once he does -- and if Brown returns, too, along with Troy Polamalu -- the Steelers will finally be the Steelers again. Polamalu has played only one full game since the end of last season. But the division could be long gone by then. Hello, wild card?