Sporting legends are often tales of overcoming adversity. Adversity in football is typically injury related. No matter how many years pass people will always retell the story of Ronnie Lott cutting off his finger, when Donovan McNabb played on a broken ankle or that time Terrell Davis won a Super Bowl MVP while battling a migraine. The thing about great tales is that the reason they are great is because they are so rare. For every Terrell Davis, there is a Philip Rivers, who played on a torn ACL in an AFC Championship game, but lost. This is the bind that the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in right now. Will they become the next in a short line of NFL legend or will they just add to the long line of those who failed in their attempts?
‘Overcoming adversity’ and ‘Next man up’ are two of Mike Tomlin‘s favorite phrases, yet his team have failed to do either this season. Losses on defense and inconsistency at the quarterback position have negatively affected the Steelers’ season so far this year. Of course, those injuries are only partly the reason that the team is entering Week 16 facing the prospect of being beaten by the Cincinnati Bengals and missing out on the playoffs completely. There is a lot of focus on how the Steelers will deal with the loss of Ike Taylor on defense, having had their secondary picked apart over the past few weeks without him. However, another significant loss is being overlooked on the offensive side of the ball. A loss that could have a greater impact on this game than the absence of Taylor. After missing the past few games dealing with a knee injury, the Steelers placed starting left guard Willie Colon on IR this week.
Colon’s loss puts rookie David DeCastro, who played well in his first start last week, into the starting lineup, but moves Ramon Foster into the spotlight. Albeit a secondary spotlight to the one on Cortez Allen. Foster is used to being overlooked in the media, but is also used to performing when his teammates need him to. Foster will switch from right guard, where he has started all season long, to left guard, where he first started last week against the Dallas Cowboys to accommodate DeCastro. Foster is comfortable at both guard positions, but playing left guard against the Cowboys is a completely different task to playing left guard against the Bengals. Playing the Bengals will require Foster to spend much of his time matched up against Geno Atkins.
If it weren’t for JJ Watt and Von Miller, Atkins would be the clear favorite to win the defensive player of the year award in spite of Aldon Smith‘s sack numbers. Atkins combines a physical stature that allows him to dominate players as well as the speed and acceleration to expose any mistakes in assignments. Atkins has got to the quarterback 12 times this season for 10.5 sacks. In 707 total snaps, Atkins has also hit the quarterback 13 times and hurried the quarterback 44 times. Despite being the focal point of a very talented Bengals’ defensive line, Atkins has fought through double teams all season long. Foster himself isn’t having a bad season either however, as he has consistently been a good pass protector, if a below average run blocker. Running on the Bengals isn’t as important as keeping Atkins out of passing plays. The Steelers can double team Atkins or trap him with a pulling guard or tight end if they get creative trying to run the ball.
Despite Ben Roethlisberger‘s comments about Todd Haley‘s play-calling this week, the Steelers should rely on him and the team’s receivers to beat the Bengals. Even with the return of Rashard Mendenhall from his one week suspension, the Steelers remain a below-par running team. Regardless of what they do on offense this weekend, the Steelers will need Foster to have a big day against one of the very best players in the league.