... involved in entertaining wild-card battles with designs of getting hot, getting help, and winning their respective divisions.
As per the norm in any Game 14 games, injuries dictate the matchups.
At 4:25 p.m. today at Cowboys Stadium, the home team is wondering how more injuries will affect its inability to stop the run. But then again, who can expect the Steelers to take advantage?
And while the Steelers are exposed at the Nos. 2 and 3 cornerback positions, who can expect the Cowboys to take advantage with an injured Dez Bryant?
Let the entertainment begin.
“A big one for us,” said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “As we know, it’s all about when you get hot, when you start playing good football, and for us the time is now. We need to start playing our best and try to put together a little run.”
It will be Roethlisberger’s second game back after missing 3½ games with a shoulder/chest injury. He should expect some help today from a Steelers running game that ought to exploit a Cowboys front seven which has been riddled with injuries.
After losing inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter a month earlier, the Cowboys in the last two weeks have lost nose tackles Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent.
Both have been placed on season-ending lists this week. They’ll be replaced by Sean Lissemore (6-3, 303), a 2010 seventh-round draft pick out of William & Mary, as well as a number of reserve defensive ends as the Cowboys slide into a 4-3 alignment on occasion.
Replacing the Cowboys linebackers have been veteran Ernie Sims and former Penn Stater Dan Connor.
Although the Cowboys have won four of their last five games, they’ve allowed 5.1 yards per rush during that stretch, an inviting target for a Steelers team that seemingly lost its ability to produce on the ground when right tackle Mike Adams went down with an injury.
The Steelers will also be without their other top run-blocker, Willie Colon, who tried to play last week on one good leg but couldn’t make it to halftime.
Adams has been replaced by Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round rookie out of Dallas’s SMU. Lining up next to Beachum, and replacing Ramon Foster, who was moved to left guard to replace Colon, will be first-round draft pick David DeCastro, who’ll make his debut in the 22nd line configuration of line coach Sean Kugler’s 46th regular-season game with the Steelers.
The rookies on the right side will determine whether the Steelers can take advantage of an obvious Cowboys weakness.
“The good thing is they came in together,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “Those guys that come in the same class tend to have good rapport right out of the gate. Obviously, they’re going to have to count on [Maurkice] Pouncey, David will. But they’re both smart guys, and Beachum has been in there now for a couple weeks. I don’t know who will be helping who but I know they’ll be communicating and they’ll be ready to go mentally and physically.”
As for the glaring hole in the Steelers’ defense, all Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had to do was watch tape of Chargers QB Philip Rivers picking on Curtis Brown and later Josh Victorian last Sunday.
With Ike Taylor injured and Cortez Allen in the starting lineup, Brown became the Steelers’ nickel back but played so poorly he was replaced by Josh Victorian, who only two weeks earlier had been released from the practice squad.
Taylor and Allen are now out with injuries, so one of the two nickel backs, or DeMarcus Van Dyke, will be promoted to the starting lineup. Rookie safety Robert Golden, a corner in college, will help out in nickel situations.
“One thing is for sure, they aren’t going to cancel the game,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “We think we have a plan. We have some good people that will step in there and pick it up. The game is still about tackling, keying and knocking down passes. We are going to show up. We know we have a challenge but I feel these young guys are going to make something good out of it.”
It might help that Dez Bryant – who’s caught 71 passes for 978 yards and 8 touchdowns this season – broke his left index finger last week against Cincinnati. He still caught a touchdown pass after the injury, but was expected to undergo season-ending surgery this week. He’ll instead tape the finger in a specialized splint and try to play.
Of course, why would anyone pass on the opportunity go up against the inexperienced and lightly regarded Victorian?
“He made a play. I thought that he knew his assignments well,” LeBeau said of his young corner’s performance in place of Brown last week. “We have had him since training camp. He’s always impressed us as a playmaker. I think that he will make a good account of himself in there.”
Victorian was asked for his thoughts on being cut from the practice squad three weeks before being asked to cover one of the best young receivers in the game.
“Roller-coaster, huh?” he said. “One week you can be ‘Joe Blow’ and then tomorrow everyone knows you. You just have to keep focus and keep going.”
If Victorian can shut down the Bryant, everyone in Pittsburgh will know his name.
“I’m excited,” Victorian said. “This is a big game for us, not only because of the playoff implications but because it’s our next game, and we need it.”