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Limping to the Finish Line

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No football team is ever free from injuries. No team gets through a season with their line-up intact. Some teams have it worse than others, though, and the 2016 Steelers have a bad case of the injury bug.

Even worse, the Steelers haven’t been able to find the proper remedy.

The Steelers opened the season having to deal with a pair of self-inflicted wounds caused by drug suspensions to offensive stars in Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. Then kicker Shawn Suisham went down in the preseason-opener, soon to be joined by All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a broken fibula in the first quarter of a later preseason game.

Despite Cody Wallace filling in admirably, losing Pouncey immediately put the Steelers in a precarious situation.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley said of losing Pouncey. “Because you’ve got not just the best player on the offensive line, but the best center in all of football, and that’s a key integral part.”

Pouncey excels at directing traffic in the trenches, reading blitzes and doling out blocking assignments.

“The other thing about Maurkice Pouncey,” added Wolfley, “is that he was the electricity that ran through the offensive line. He was the one that brought the energy. When the team would face adverse situations, guys would look to Pouncey to bring them up. He was the guy that did it.”

One month into the season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for four games with a knee iniury. Backup Bruce Gradkowski had been placed on injured reserve earlier in the year, so newly acquired Mike Vick took over in Roethlisberger’s absence.

After starting the next three games, Vick succumbed to injury as well—leaving Landry Jones, essentially a fourth-string quarterback—to take over. Jones looked great in finishing out a Week 6 win against the Cardinals, and played well enough the following week in a loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City.

Roethlisberger returned the next week in a loss against the Bengals, but the rust was evident. He threw three interceptions and only one touchdown. To make matter worse, the domino effect of injuries continued as Bell was lost for the year with a knee injury.

“It’s never easy losing a guy, especially a guy who’s one of the best in the business,” Roethlisberger said of the Bell injury. “We feel for him and everything he has to go through, but we have faith that DeAngelo will step up and carry the load for us.”

Williams has been solid in place of Bell, earning the trust of teammates with 204 rushing yards in the opening two games. He picked up where he left off after Bell went down, averaging 130 yards from scrimmage in four November games.

“He [Williams] is not the same as Bell, but he delivers in his own way. He has been very productive since he’s joined the Steelers. He was a key get for the Steelers in the offseason,” Wolfley said.

Roethlisberger seemed to find his stride in a 38-35 shootout victory against the Oakland Raiders the very next week. He was back on track in a game that featured the Steelers totaling almost 600 yards of offense. Unfortunately, the game also saw Roethlisberger being helped off the field for the second time this season after suffering what was later determined to be a mid-foot sprain when Oakland’s Aldon Smith landed on his foot.

With Roethlisberger far from 100 percent the next game—home against Cleveland—he started the game as a backup to Jones. After Jones was injured just minutes into the contest, Roethlisberger was forced back to action and led the Steelers to a victory. The veteran QB was again forced from the field with a concussion late in Pittsburgh’s early December loss to Seattle.

Meanwhile, left tackle Kelvin Beachum became another notable addition to the injury list this season, forcing rookie Alejandro Villaneuva to take his spot at one of the most crucial positions on the line. Linebacker Ryan Shazier missed four of the team’s first 11 games and exited two early. Fellow linebackers Jarvis Jones and James Harrison, defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, safety Will Allen and tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth have also missed time.

“You can’t get down,” Wolfley said of the spate of injuries. “You can’t sit there and say, ‘Boy if we had Ben, if we had Bell, if we had Pouncey, if we had Beachum’… You’ve got to sit there and look each other in the eye and say ‘We’ll get it done with who’s here and we’re going to do it with the best of our ability.’ It’s a long journey.”

The Steelers enter the final five games of the season on the outside of the playoffs, but still with a good opportunity to earn a postseason berth. While the injuries have weakened a defense that had significant issues to begin with—and dealt a major blow to the depth of the offense—the team’s ability to respond from adversity has not gone unnoticed. One could make the argument that adversity is what has kept the teaSteelers Le'Veon Bellm afloat.

“They’ve had to overcome a lot,” Wolfley said. “If you’re not a focused team, if you’re not a determined team, if you’re not a team that understands how to overcome that adversity… you could be a team that ends up falling.”

The Steelers are managing to remain in the playoff hunt heading into the final month of the season, but just barely. Pittsburgh hasn’t seemed to find a cure for the injuries, but they have dealt with them. How they play their hand over the season’s final month may have a lot to do with what kind of hand they’re dealt.

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