Can Ben put himself back together? (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
Earlier this season, there was talk on Behind the Steel Curtain that the Pittburgh Steelers' defense is not playing championship caliber football this season. Early on, most fans were ecstatic about the offensive production, although the offense left points on the field. While I agree that the Steelers defense is not as dominant as it was last year, I put more of the blame on the offense and special teams. Having seen the games this year, I am convinced that the problem with the team lies more in mental toughness than anything else. In at least two of the losses, the team dominated in most categories but found ways to lose. Offensive and special teams miscues have spelled doom for this team on multiple occasions so far this year.
If you look at the games that they have lost this season, each one of them were games where offensive or special teams failures have given the opposing team big, momentum changing plays. In Week 2, against the Bears, Jeff Reed missed not one, but two, FGs (38 and 43 yards). This left the door open for the Bears to rally and win by 3 points at the end of the game.
In Week 3, against the Bengals, the Steelers completely dominated in Cincinnati for nearly 3 quarters, but the offense failed to capitalize on that domination. Limas Sweed dropped a sure touchdown pass that would have put the Steelers up 20-3. So, rather than being up at the half 20-3, Pittsburgh held a 10 point lead. Early in the second half, Santonio Holmes failed to adjust his route during a blitz, leading to an interception that was returned for a touchdown. They did take an 11 point lead into the 4th quarter, though. Had the offense capitalized on those first half opportunities or at the very least, not gift-wrapped a touchdown, the game would have been far out of reach. As it was, two long Bengals drives, with an anemic 3 and out from the Steelers offense, sealed the game for Cincy. Blitzburgh said after the game, and rightly so, that the defense was owned in the 4th quarter. But, the offense set them up by not delivering the knockout in the first half and then failing to convert even a single first down in the 4th quarter.
Last week, the special teams allowed the Bengals to return a KO for a touchdown. The defense held the Bengals to 11 points, which would have been enough even for the anemic offensive output of a mere 4 FGs.
Finally, we come to this week against the Chiefs. The defense essentially held KC to 10 points in the game. After the Steelers gave up yet another KO for a TD to open the game, spotting the Chiefs and quick 7, the Steelers went to work and seemed to control the game until a Roethlisberger interception led to the first offensive points for the KC. Then, deep in Kansas City territory, a second pick from Ben led to a Chiefs FG, tying the game. So, for another game, the Steelers dominated everywhere but the scoreboard. Big Ben had a great day, statistically. But his two turnovers gave a beaten team new life.
This seems to be the story of this year's Pittburgh Steelers. They clearly have elite level talent, but they don't seem to have the mental toughness to avoid mistakes that have led to losses this year. I saw a stat that they have set a new record with 8 straight games with a return for a touchdown against them (either interception, fumble, or kick or punt return). These are the kinds of splash plays that excite an overmatched opponent and give them life when they should be beaten.
Now, having blamed the offense and special teams for each of these losses, I guess I should bring it back to the defense. In each game except the second Bengals game, the Steelers had leads late in the game which the defense failed to hold. But, in each game, when I look at the course of the game, it is the other two units that have given up big plays when needed. The offense couldn't drive down and score a FG in OT against Kansas City. The offense failed to respond after Cincy cut an 11 point lead down to 4 points. Against both Chicago and Cincy (game 2), the offense only scored 14 and 12 points respectively. I guess I ended up blaming the offense again there. Even the defensive lapses could be pointed to a lack of the mental toughness that the Steelers displayed last year, but there are few cases of huge mistakes on the defense. That is certainly not the case for the offense and special teams, for which there are many examples of huge mistakes.
From what I've seen, if the offense stops making stupid turnovers and the special teams becomes reasonable again, this team can win it all. But, if they don't shore up these things, which are mental lapses, this will be another disappointing team, a la 2006.