DENVER, CO - JANUARY 08: Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos stiff arms Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers to score an 80 yard touchdown in overtime during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 8, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Denver Broncos defeated the the Pittsburgh Steelers in over time 23 - 29. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
I got an email from Hombre De Acero, admitting he had one and a half too many, but wanted to know if what he just saw was a bad dream.
It's a cold reality Steelers fans could - should - have seen coming. That doesn't make it any less painful, nor does it make it any less surprising.
Before the tar reaches the boiling stage many have been waiting for so they can go find anyone associated with the Steelers organization, and before the trolls continue to overrun these articles, let's reflect on what exactly just happened.
A table built with four legs won't stand long if one of those legs is broken. Doesn't matter if the table is build from oak or plywood. It's not going to stand for long. Credit to the Broncos, they didn't lean on the broken leg, they kicked it out, and kicked out another, and lit the whole thing on fire.
Not since Week 1 had the Steelers been savaged that badly on defense. It wasn't even a play-to-play kind of whipping, it was all big plays; things the Steelers hadn't allowed all season. Pittsburgh's game plan sold out to stop the run, and it largely worked. The problem was the lack of adjustment to the skill and athleticism of Demaryius Thomas.
Say what you will about Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, but he sticks by his players. He placed immense faith in CB Ike Taylor, and kept him locked in man coverage on Thomas throughout the game. Taylor's failures were not technique, they were with overconfidence. And frankly, every Steelers defender can be accused of that today. They didn't respect the Broncos offense, and were going for the interception on every pass.
I'm ok with it. Why? Because I was saying all week they can gamble and force turnovers. They gambled and they lost.
As I typically do at the end of a season, I page through iTunes, and listen to music, hoping to find some perspective. In that search, I'm finding a few random songs to apply to Steelers fans and players/personnel alike.
In no particular order:
The Heart of the Matter - Don Henley
I'm tryin' to get down to the heart of the matter/because the flesh will get weak/and the ashes will scatter/so I'm thinkin' about forgiveness/forgiveness/even if you don't love me anymore.
This goes out to the veterans; Taylor, Hines Ward, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, James Harrison, Bryant McFadden, Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Willie Colon, Trai Essex, Charlie Batch, Heath Miller, and of course, Ben Roethlisberger.
We'll be asking ourselves all off-season whether this is the last run of this generation of Steelers players. There's a zero percent chance all of the aforementioned players will be Steelers next season. The flesh gets weak. Ashes will scatter. We may not love them now, but in six years, at the Steelers' 10 year reunion of the Super Bowl XLIII team, tell me you won't be misty-eyed.
That's the heart of the matter. Champions don't always win, but they always handle themselves like champions. If Taylor isn't doing that today, in your estimation, there's something wrong with you.
You Can't Always Get What You Want - The Rolling Stones
You can't always get what you want/But if you try sometimes/you might find/You get what you need
To Lebeau, for having to navigate through what history will show as the transition year from the second-greatest Steelers dynasty to whatever they will become in this decade. Ravaged by injuries, forced to play rookies far more often than he ever had before, even with the letdown against Denver, he led the league's best scoring defense throughout the season.
In the end, it's obviously not what he wanted, but the experience gained by those younger players will be something he'll need next season.
Turn The Page - Metallica
So you walk into this restaurant, all strung out from the road/And you feel the eyes upon you, as you're shakin' off the cold/You pretend it doesn't bother you, but you just want to explode/Yeah, most times you can't hear 'em talk, other times you can/All the same old cliches, is it woman, is it man?/And you always seem outnumbered, you don't dare make a stand/Make your stand.
To Heath Miller. Denver had no answer for Miller early, and while the offensive line was being overrun, Miller was needed in pass protection. He could have been an even bigger part of the game plan than his five catches on seven targets day suggests. And he was barely a part of the offense after a monster game against New England in Week 8. Miller is said to be the consummate team player, and doesn't vocalize his opinion to the media often, so perhaps he's saying more behind the scenes than we know. There's no reason a player as talented as he is should be averaging just north of three catches a game.
Streets of Philadelphia - Bruce Springsteen
I walked the avenue/`til my legs felt like stone/I heard he voices of friends/vanished and gone/at night I could hear
the blood in my veins/black and whispering/as the rain/on the streets of Philadelphia
To Mike Tomlin. While on the surface, this has been his team for a while now. He's been a part of coaching changes and enough roster turnover where he's clearly put his stamp on things.
But this offseason will really project Tomlin's leadership acumen. He's going to ask himself some extremely difficult decisions, highest on that list are the questions about Lebeau and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Tomlin knows his defense played lights-out overall this season, but the financial aspect of this game is going to force them into some difficult decisions. He has to be happy with the development of his younger defensive backs, but how much longer is Troy Polamalu going to play the game?
An even more painful question, where are the Steelers without Polamalu? Is Lebeau the right leader for the team's trademark defense? Tomlin is an excellent leader, and he knows these kinds of questions must be asked and the answers evaluated.
As for Arians, there have been obvious rumblings for a long time, but the continuous regression of the offensive line and the insistence on a style of offense that will invariably lead to injuries to Roethlisberger - and as we saw in 2011, cost the Steelers the season - have to be questioned as the long-term direction of the franchise. Roethlisberger couldn't move, and couldn't avoid four sacks taken in the final two minutes of each half.
The Standard is The Standard seems more like "Place All Your Eggs in One Basket" today. I wrote Sunday Roethlisberger needed to be great in order for the Steelers not only to win the game, but to justify their stubborn insistence on offensive game plans centered solely around Roethlisberger attacking vertically, results be damned.
Roethlisberger was not great. The Steelers lost. Many will argue, and fairly so, Roethlisberger was hurt and can't be held accountable. He was hurt, and what's being held accountable is the fact he's being enabled to get the ball down field, regardless of the cost. Mike Wallace is not a physical receiver. Yet, they're throwing passes to him where he needs to go up and be physical. Roethlisberger should have been intercepted twice in the end zone, and we all saw the backward lateral blown call.
With such a vicious pass rush coming from Denver at the end of that game, other options could have been used. The Broncos weren't playing a two-minute defense, the Steelers could have run more underneath routes, and used their last timeout that way. Instead, it came after a sack.
The Steelers have invested high value draft picks in offensive linemen the last two years (C Maurkice Pouncey in the first round and T Marcus Gilbert in the second round). The decision to cut Max Starks at the beginning of the year and only to bring him back a few weeks later damaged their salary cap position. Starks hurts his knee and is replaced by the guy he sent to the bench in Week 5. And Jonathan Scott out-played him.
They need to find the right combination of offensive linemen. I wonder if Tomlin is thinking about Russ Grimm's return as an offensive coordinator.
The game of musical chairs the Steelers are playing with their offensive line, whether it's due to injuries or a lack of performance, is destroying their rhythm. Tomlin has to ask himself if Arians is the right leader for a potentially great offense that can't seem to get out of its own way.
Where The Streets Have No Name - U2
The city's aflood/And our love turns to rust/We're beaten and blown by the wind/Trampled in dust/I'll show you a place/High on a desert plain/Where the streets have no name
To Kevin Colbert and the Steelers front office. We're all anguishing in a tough loss in a season where things just never got on track. Colbert's never had a bigger challenge in all his time in Pittsburgh. The roster will likely be turned upside down, but he'll validate our faith in him. He'll show us that place, we just don't know where it is right now.