"It's unfortunate. When I talk to you guys, whether it's individually or a group, at the beginning of the season everybody always asks me, 'What's the key to this season?' I always say, 'Staying healthy.' Sometimes, the bug just gets you."
-- Ben Roethlisberger, Nov. 4
The 2015 NFL regular season is nine weeks old, barely half over, and the Steelers are without their first-team All-Pro running back for the rest of it, without their starting left tackle for the rest of it, certainly looking like they're going to be without their first-team All-Pro center for the rest of it. For goodness sakes, this is already the second time in the last month-and-a-half they've been forced to ponder life without their starting quarterback.
But even in the face of this infestation, this NFL season continues the process of determining which of the six teams in each conference will get to participate in the playoffs and thus have a direct hand in crowning the eventual champion. It's true that sometimes it can be more survival than a competition, but either way some end up as winners and others will end up as losers.
The Steelers survived yesterday at Heinz Field, the week's assignment being a tussle with the Oakland Raiders, who despite their recent reputation for slappyness arrived with a winning record and as legitimate a claim to be considered a playoff contender as anyone else in the AFC. The Raiders recently had broken a decade-long habit of offseason foolishness, and as a result had learned to utilize free agency and the draft to put together a roster that contained a competent quarterback complemented by some quality talent at the skill positions to pair with a defense boasting a nice combination of up-and-comers and savvy veterans. In other words, not an opponent to be counted upon to beat themselves for you.
Losers of two in a row for the first time since 2013, these Steelers remain a work in progress, primarily and unfortunately for them because injuries have prevented many of the core individuals from playing together enough to allow for many of the kinks to smooth themselves out. On any other day, looking back on a 38-35 victory over the Raiders that snapped their mini-losing streak and raised their record to 5-4 would provide a pleasant memory and hope for the future. But today it feels more like doubt mixed in with some dread, all because their franchise quarterback is injured again.
This time it was Ben Roethlisberger's left foot, and this time it was injured on a sack by Raiders defensive end Aldon Smith. This time the initial reports, all attributed to "sources" naturally, are that he's going to miss "a few weeks," but at this early stage it's less of a prognosis and really some combination of guess and prayer. Doing the math – because that's always one of the first things to do in these situations – "a few weeks" would cover next Sunday's game against Cleveland, the bye, and then a cross-country flight to Seattle for an afternoon with the Seahawks. That's 5-4 going against the 2-7 Browns at home, followed by a week off, following by a game against an NFC team carrying no real implications in the tiebreaker process.
What follows then are five games against AFC opponents and another chance to try to become that team on the rise as it heads into the playoffs …
It's all going to depend, though, on whether they can get Roethlisberger back and keep him back, because with all due respect to Mike Tomlin's slogans and his players' dogged adherence to the standard being the standard and all, there are certain realities they're not going to be able to escape.
In the meantime, against the Raiders, the Steelers relied on historic performances from DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown to become the first NFL team ever to have one player with 300 or more yards from scrimmage and another player with 200 or more yards from scrimmage in the same game, albeit most of that coming when Roethlisberger still had two healthy feet; they got just enough from a defense that otherwise allowed its most points of the season; and the kid placekicker bounced back from the first real in-game adversity of his five-game NFL career to swallow hard and bang through the 18-yard field goal that provided them with the margin of victory.
There were enough deficiencies in each phase of their performance to give the coaches things to harp on during the upcoming preparation for the visit by the Browns, but without any real continuity of personnel from one week to the next the work to develop and maintain some consistency of performance makes that a constantly moving target.
"We're not concerned about that," said Tomlin after the game. "You can waste a lot of time focusing on the guys who aren't available to you. We're just focused on the guys who are and how we can put together the right mix to be successful, how we can utilize their skills, how we can work to minimize their weaknesses individually and collectively. Injuries are as much a part of the game of football as blocking and tackling. It's unfortunate, we don't like it, but we embrace the challenge that comes with it. We're not looking for excuses. That's just how we have to be. We're not the only team that deals with it. They had a lot of guys who got hurt in game today. I'm sure they feel the same way we do."
Sure, misery loving company is the natural human condition, and there is little doubt Tomlin was speaking to his players through that microphone in the postgame interview room. He's just doing his job by saying all that, and the players will show up each day and try to embody those words. Then next Sunday, there's a game against the Cleveland Browns that will be must-win for them in every sense but the mathematical.
And when that's over, it'll be time to check for any new bug bites.