Heading into their fifth game a season ago, the Steelers were looking a bit shaky at 2-2. And with James Harrison, Aaron Smith, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton and Ben Roethlisberger all suffering injuries of varying degrees in their week 4 loss to the Texans, the Steelers were in much need of a signature performance to get back on track and sort of ease the pain.
Pittsburgh got that in the form of a 38-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans. In that "feel good" game, a returning Max Starks started at left tackle and was almost flawless, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer filled in for the injured Mendenhall and led a ground attack that pounded out 174 yards, Chris Hoke did what he always did and played admirably in Hampton's absence, and Big Ben threw five touchdown passes while playing on an injured foot.
It was the kind of win that got the Steelers out of their early season doldrums and acted as a catalyst to their 12-4 finish.
Funny thing is, this season has started out a bit like last season. The Steelers have been a bit shaky on both offense and defense during their 2-2 start, and of course, they can't seem to shake the injury bug that has plagued them for well over a season--LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu are out of action this time around--and wouldn't you know it, the Steelers will be facing the Titans once again in game number five. And as Neal Coolong so eloquently explained on Tuesday, it's a very bad Titans team; one that has given up 30 points or more in each game during its 1-4 start. It's the kind of opponent that a team looking for its first real signature win of the season may be able to feast on.
Only problem is, unlike last season's fifth game, this one won't be played at the friendly confines of Heinz Field, meaning the Steelers will be on the road, and we all know how that's been for them recently.
During the Steelers game against the Raiders a couple of weeks ago, it was mentioned by the CBS broadcast crew that the Steelers had won 12 of their previous 17 road games. And, even though they couldn't hear me, I shouted at my television, "Yeah, but they're 5-5 over their past 10!" Make that 5-6 after the Steelers blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead in a 34-31 loss in the Black Hole.
The buzz word around town this week is the Steelers lack of a "clean" road win in quite some time. In fact, you have to go back to week 17 of the 2010 season to really find a Steelers road victory that was decided well before the final whistle, when they went to the Dog Pound and demolished the Browns, 41-9.
A season ago, the Steelers were 5-3 on the road, and that's not bad when you can go 7-1 at home like the team managed to do. However, the average record for the five teams that the Steelers defeated was 6-10, yet, the average margin of victory in those games was 5.8 points.
Despite the fact that the Steelers faced Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter in week 3, they needed a Shaun Suisham field goal at the end to seal a 23-20 victory in Indianapolis against a Colts team that would go on to lose its first 13 games.
Despite the fact that the Steelers faced a Chiefs team that turned the football over four times--including three interceptions by quarterback Tyler Palko--the defense needed a Keenan Lewis interception to snuff out a last minute drive and preserve a 13-9 victory.
Speaking of 13-9. Despite the fact that the Steelers went into the game still alive for a division title and first round bye, that was the final score of the week 17 contest in Cleveland against Colt McCoy and the 4-12 Browns.
Why such a tough time on the road?
Maybe it was the turnovers. Of the 28 turnovers the team committed a season go, 20 of them came on the road. That's one way to allow teams with quarterbacks named Palko to hang around until the bitter end. That could also explain the fact that the Steelers averaged 15.6 points per game on the road as opposed to 25 at home.
Thankfully, turnovers haven't been a huge problem for the Steelers so far this year, but all three of their turnovers have occurred on the road, including the two fumbles in Oakland that led directly to 10 points.
Was it the penalties? Well, the Steelers were only penalized for 395 yards on the road a year ago, so maybe that wasn't a big deal.
But this season? Well, forget about just road games, through four games so far in 2012, both home and away, the Steelers lead the NFL in penalties with 346 yards and have averaged just over nine infractions a game. That's the mark of an undisciplined football team. And undisciplined play usually comes back to bite teams on the road, especially a team with an offensive line that likes to commit its fair share of false starts, and a defensive unit that likes to commit its fair share of personal fouls and pass interference.
I know others, like college football guru Beano Cook and our very own Maryrose have pointed out numerous times how difficult it is for teams to go on the road and win at any level. However, it's not asking too much for it to happen every once in a while.
Much like a season ago, when the defending AFC Champion Steelers used their fifth game to finally stand up and show the rest of the football world what they were made of by grinding the Titans into the turf of Heinz Field, maybe the 2011 edition can use its fifth game to go into LP Field and be very rude guests to a Titans team that has all the makings of a very hospitable host.
You know, get one of those "clean" road wins for a change.