By Jason Keidel
In pro football, when Team A learns that Team B is without its best player, Team A neither grins nor gloats, and always professes a profound desire to face their foes at full strength.
But we’d be delusional to think the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, or at least their coaching staff, didn’t exchange a few high-fives over film study this week, knowing that Aaron Rodgers was not suiting up for the Green Bay Packers when they play at Heinz Field this Sunday.
It’s inelegant to say this, but the difference between Green Bay with or without Rodgers is almost like playing a pro team versus a college team.
Not to pile on Brett Hundley, who’s giving it the old college try, or the rest of his team, which is doing the same. But even in the new-age NFL, which is now built by and for the quarterback, the Packers’ potency is alarmingly reduced since Rodgers broke his right clavicle.
In the five games he’s played since Rodgers was injured, Hundley has thrown two touchdowns and seven interceptions. Aaron Rodgers threw seven interceptions over the entire 2009 season. He threw six in 2011 and 2013, and just five in 2014.
Green Bay (5-5) was 4-1 in the games Rodgers started and finished, and are 1-4 since. They averaged 27.4 points over their first five games, and 13.4 points in the following five. It’s unfair to compare anyone to Aaron Rodgers, much less his backup. But sometimes a player proves his worth equally if not more when he misses playing time. Rodgers is not their only issue, of course. The Packers are close to signing truckers and bartenders to replace all their injured offensive linemen. They’re a mess at running back. And it seems Hundley couldn’t spot Jordy Nelson if you handed him a life-size poster of the Pro Bowl WR.
Not that the Steelers (8-2) will complain. They are already on a roll, winning five straight, and enjoy a three-game bulge over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. No one doubted the Steelers’ firepower on offense, with perhaps the most talented triumvirate in the NFL — QB Ben Roethisberger, WR Antonio Brown, and RB Le’Veon Bell — but it’s been their defense that has failed them the last few years.
Not so far this year. Opponents have averaged just 15.2 points against Pittsburgh over their last five games, with none scoring more than 17 in any one of them. It’s an unlikely eruption of victories, for sure. Just six weeks ago, the Steelers were humiliated at home, 30-9, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Likely the worst game of Roethlisberger’s career, he threw five interceptions, and waved a caustic tongue at reporters after the game. As he spoke in doomsday cliches about not having what it takes anymore, the media feasted on Big Ben’s march toward mortality, questioning his talent and his temerity.
There were sideline tantrums from Brown, more disciplinary issues with the wildly gifted but wholly troubled WR Martavis Bryant, and it felt the entire team was on the edge of mutiny. Until it wasn’t. It seems that, beyond their defensive revival, the Steelers recognized one vital item. Antonio Brown may be the best wideout in the NFL; Big Ben may be the leader of the team; but Le’Veon Bell is the most important player on the team. Once the Steelers made a point of feeding Bell the ball, the entire offense — and the entire team — came together.
The critics have been way more muted over the last month, as Big Ben and the Steelers have plowed through their schedule, heading toward what should have been an epic matchup with the most gifted quarterback of his (or any, really) generation. But Vikings LB Anthony Barr put a stop to that showdown, when he drilled Rodgers and then drove him into the granite turf after Rodgers had released the ball.
More than a few people, including Rodgers (and yours truly), question the fairness of that hit. A few videos have pinballed around social media showing Rodgers getting more nimble by the day, jogging, jumping, and doing all kinds of calisthenics. Some say he will return sometime in December. But for at least one Sunday, the Steelers and their fans won’t cry over Rodgers missing one more game.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.