I mentioned last week that the 2011 Steelers season just didn't seem as magical as the 2010 campaign, and for good reason. The '11 Steelers couldn't duplicate what the '10 version was doing a year ago at this time when they were in the middle of a memorable Super Bowl run.
Regardless of how any season ends, however, even the years with disappointing conclusions have memorable stretches.
For me, it was a four-game stretch in October when the Steelers showed the rest of the NFL that they were still a force to be reckoned with despite many cries to the contrary, and at least one person calling their defense "old, slow and done."
The Steelers opened up the season with a 2-2 mark, and the way the team looked in losses to the Ravens (35-7) and Texans (17-10) as well as in their 23-20 victory over the Peyton Manning-less Colts on Sunday Night Football, even the most optimistic Steelers fan (yours truly) had to be at least a little concerned about the state of the team after the first quarter of the season.
When the Steelers lost to the Texans on October 2nd, not only did they look completely over matched most of the game, but they suffered various injuries that threatened to diminish the team's performance even further. Linebacker James Harrison suffered a fractured orbital bone that would cause him to miss several weeks of action, Rashard Mendenhall suffered a hamstring injury, Ben Roethlisberger a sprained foot, and to rub even more salt in the wounds (literally), Aaron Smith also injured his foot against the Texans, and in the course of having that injury examined, it was discovered that Smith would need neck surgery and have to go on IR for the fourth time in five seasons.
At that point, things could have snowballed much like they did during that five game losing streak towards the end of the '09 season, but just when things looked their bleakest, the defending AFC Champions stood tall and proud, and over the next four games, the Steelers may have played their best football of the year.
Ben Roethlisberger played in the game against Tennessee the following week despite the foot injury and proceeded to throw five touchdown passes in the 38-17 victory, including two to legendary receiver Hines Ward, who showed Steelers fans that he still had a little left in the tank. During the week leading up to the Tennessee game, the Steelers re-signed veteran Max Starks due to a deficiency along the offensive line, and not only did Starks play against the Titans, he started at left tackle and turned in an almost flawless performance. Mendenhall missed this game due to the hamstring injury he suffered in the Texans' game, but Isaac Redman and Jonathon Dwyer filled in, and the team accumulated 176 yards on the ground, including 107 by Dwyer, who recorded the team's longest run from scrimmage in 2011 with his 76 yard scamper helped along by picture-perfect blocking from Starks and the rest of the big guys up front.
The Steelers pass rush was pretty anemic during the first four games, and Lamarr Woodley, fresh off of signing a new $61 million contract in the off season, was barely even noticeable. With Harrison out for an extended period of time, calls for Woodley to be a difference maker were louder than ever. Number 56 more than answered the challenge. Starting in the Tennessee game, Woodley recorded 7.5 sacks over a four-game period. Unfortunately, he suffered a pretty severe hamstring injury in the game against the Patriots that hampered him the remainder of the season. But during those memorable four games in October, Woodley showed that, when healthy, he's one of the premiere pass-rushers in the NFL.
Next up were the Jacksonville Jaguars, and during a conference call just days prior to the contest, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin hung up on a group of Jacksonville reporters who seemed to be more interested in talking about the Jaguars wild card playoff victory over the Steelers a few years prior than anything having to do with that week's match-up.
Rashard Mendenhall was back in the lineup against the Jags and answered some of his "he dances around too much" critics by having his best day of the year. Mendenhall rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown as the Steelers jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held on for a 17-13 victory to improve to 4-2.
The Steelers even managed to perform well in their one road game during this four-game winning streak. In a rematch of Super Bowl XLIII (kind of), the Black and Gold traveled to the desert to take on Pittsburgh West, better known as the Arizona Cardinals. Just like in the Super Bowl clash, the Steelers led 17-7 at halftime. The Cardinals briefly made a game of it early in the 3rd quarter, thanks to a LaRod Stephens Howling 73-yard touchdown catch and run, but then the Steelers responded with a Roethlisberger touchdown pass followed immediately by a safety after Woodley forced Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb into an intentional grounding penalty from his own end zone. The game was never in doubt the rest of the way as Pittsburgh built an 18-point lead and went on to win, 32-20. Ben Roethlisberger threw for three touchdown passes on the day, including a team record 95-yard hook-up with Mike Wallace.
Now it was back to Heinz Field for a Devil's Night match-up with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Brady had his way with Dick Lebeau's famous defense just a year earlier in a, 39-26, victory on Sunday Night Football. Lebeau's philosophy had always been to have his corners play off their receivers in the hopes that this would eventually lead to a mistake by the opposing QB. But since Tom Brady is probably better than any quarterback at playing pitch-and-catch up and down the field, the Steelers defense looked helpless more often than not whenever they faced the three-time Super Bowl winner. However, on this day, Lebeau proved that even a Hall of Famer isn't above changing as he had his defensive backs play a more aggressive style against Wes Welker and the rest of the Patriots pass catchers. Brady looked frazzled most of the day as he threw for just under 200 yards. He did throw for two touchdown passes, but one was set up by a turnover deep in Pittsburgh territory, and the other came about thanks to a pass interference call on 4th and goal. It was Ben Roethlisberger who won the battle of the elite quarterbacks on this day, utilizing the underneath pass to torture New England's secondary. Big Ben was 36/50 for 365 yards and two touchdowns, as the Steelers won in very impressive fashion, 25-17, in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate.
The Steelers more than answered their critics during this four-game period where they improved to 6-2. The offense looked as good as it did the entire year, averaging just under 420 yards a game, Lamarr Woodley led a rejuvenated pass rush, and the much maligned secondary improved so dramatically, it became a team strength down the stretch.
What were your most memorable moments from the Steelers 2011 season?