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The Steelers won’t have any trouble getting to the playoffs, but then what?

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Sunday’s performance against the Colts was Pittsburgh at its worst. Will it matter?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers are 7-2, atop the AFC North with a three-game advantage over the field and home of the league’s No. 2 defense. It will take a minor miracle for anyone else to win their division.

After that, things get a bit blurrier.

Pittsburgh has emerged as one of the AFC’s top contenders, but like the Patriots and Chiefs, Mike Tomlin’s team has flaws so visible no amount of foundation could cover them. On Sunday, they even got exposed by the worst Colts team of the last 20 years not to feature Curtis Painter.

Three-win Indianapolis looked like a gimme on the team’s calendar, but the Colts made their opponent grind through every second of a Week 10 matchup the Steelers only escaped with a last-second field goal. It was a better result than the team had come to expect after a week off — Pittsburgh had lost its last three games coming off a bye — but still a troubling path to get there.

So should the Steelers be worried?

Ben Roethlisberger looks like a man who considered retirement this offseason

Pittsburgh’s 2000s success has been defined by the man who’s taken residence behind center since 2004. Roethlisberger is one of two quarterbacks who has ever won a Super Bowl for the Steelers, but his time as one of the league’s top passers — and potential as an NFL player — is coming to an end.

Roethlisberger has struggled this fall despite being surrounded by one of the most explosive sets of skill players the franchise has ever had. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell give him two All-Pro targets downfield, but the contributions of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and a pre-crisis Martavis Bryant — along with an offensive line that’s allowed just 1.2 sacks per game -- make this one of the league’s most dynamic units on paper.

In practice, Pittsburgh ranks 12th in the league in offensive efficiency, but 2017 marks the third straight year of a decline in passing offense, falling from 301.2 in 2014 to 251.9 this fall.

Roethlisberger’s slipping play has been a part of that. While it’s unclear if his lackluster performances are the reason for offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s increased reliance on the running game or if that reliance has affected Roethlisberger’s passing performance, it’s clear he’s not the same quarterback he’s been in years past. With only 12 touchdown passes this fall, he’s found the end zone at his lowest rate since 2008. The same goes for his completion percentage. His passing yards per game are the lowest they’ve been in five years.

It’s possible this is a slump that dissipates in the final seven weeks of the season, but signs don’t look good for the Steelers. Roethlisberger isn’t the only member of his cohort to show signs of deterioration. His fellow 2004 draftees Philip Rivers and Eli Manning have each struggled in 2017; as the late 30s loom, 300-plus yard, three-TD passing games become harder and harder to come by.

That shouldn’t be a problem for a team with Bell and Conner waiting in the backfield, but ...

The Steelers are relying more on a running game that’s hit-or-miss

Le’Veon Bell complained about not getting enough carries after a Week 3 loss to the Bears. Since then, Haley has shifted toward a run-heavy offense that is devastating when it works and a grind when it doesn’t. On Sunday, and despite playing from behind most of the game, Pittsburgh ran the ball 30 times for just 88 yards — a rate that falls squarely into the second category.

At 3.6 yards per rush this fall, the Steelers rank 26th in a 32-team league when it comes to rushing efficiency. Bell leads the league in carries with 220 touches through nine games, but his yards-per-carry average has fallen from 4.9 to 3.8 this season, taking the edge off the team’s explosive play rate. Conner has been solid in limited duty as a rookie (19 carries, 101 yards), but Bell’s receiving ability and durable play has pretty much kept him from the field and it’s uncertain whether he’s more than a change-of-pace back behind Bell.

The problem for Pittsburgh is there’s no reasonable time to pull back from Bell. Games in which he’s had fewer than 20 carries have been the team’s worst this season — losses to the Bears and Jaguars and a narrow victory against the Browns. When he doesn’t get the ball, Haley risks an unhappy running back and a star player who isn’t afraid to voice his displeasure.

Even if Pittsburgh slides back to a pass-heavy offense, Roethlisberger’s 2017 raises questions about whether or not that’s a switch this team can flip anymore. The 20-point performances and 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust runs from Bell work against the Browns and Colts. It will be a different story in the playoffs.

Counterpoint: That defense is **kisses fingers**

The Steelers have invested heavily in revamping their defense with high capital draft picks in recent years, and that strategy has paid off. Homegrown stars like Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Vince Williams have turned Pittsburgh into one of the league’s most exciting young units.

The club ranks second in the league in total defense, fourth in defensive efficiency, fourth in opponent third-down conversion rate, and tied for second in total sacks. This makes sense; since 2013, the franchise has used 10 of its 16 picks in rounds 1-3 on defensive players, emerging with studs like Watt, Dupree, Artie Burns, Shazier, and Stephon Tuitt. That’s the kind of defense that can survive a 210-yard, two-interception day from Roethlisberger or a 26-carry, 70-yard performance from Bell.

That theory played out in earnest last January. The Steelers didn’t score a single touchdown in their Divisional Playoff game against the Chiefs, but a smothering defense limited the home team to just 16 points and pushed Pittsburgh on to the AFC title game. This season, they repeated that performance at Arrowhead Stadium, holding Kansas City to 13 points in October — evidence enough this team is capable of beating anyone en route to a Super Bowl.

A weak back-end schedule sets the Steelers up for an AFC bye, but then ...

Only three of Pittsburgh’s final seven games are against teams with winning records. One of them is a Packers team that’s 1-3 behind backup quarterback Brett Hundley. Another is against a Titans team that had to beat up on the Colts, Browns, Ravens, and Bengals to rally to 6-3. The last is against the Patriots, but it’s also at Heinz Field.

It’s easy to see a 12-14 win landing zone for this Steelers team, but what happens next is still a mystery. Roethlisberger isn’t playing as well as he has in the past, but Big Ben’s ability to step up in the clutch and deliver big plays is as unquantifiable as his ability to get swallowed up by a collapsed pocket and emerge scrambling toward the sideline before firing off a 33-yard completion.

Pittsburgh will remain a dangerous team with its sights set on a seventh Super Bowl title — but the seams holding this franchise together are more visible than ever, and that’s exactly what opponents will take aim at come January.