Thursday night, the Steelers lost another frustrating road game to the Tennessee Titans, 26-23, and not only dropped to 2-3 overall, but their record in the AFC fell to a very alarming 1-3. All the hope and optimism that had surfaced after the victory over the Eagles just a few days prior was now gone and replaced with anger, panic, and possibly resignation to the fact that maybe the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers are not a very good football team.
But are they a bad team? If you're a hypochondriac like I sometimes can be, you know even the smallest symptoms can mushroom in your mind and cause you to think that you have an incurable disease. You search the Internet for possible signs (always a mistake for a hypochondriac) and match the symptoms that you're "feeling" to the worst diseases you can find. The symptoms "progress" to the point where you're overcome by stress and anxiety, and you don't get a moment's rest until you either go to the doctor or have a few drinks. If you take the doctor route, 99% of the time, he or she assures you that what you're feeling is "probably nothing," but if things persist over the course of a few weeks, they urge you to schedule another appointment.
Sure enough, your fears are put to rest, the symptoms disappear in a few days, and you're back to feeling like your old self.....until you encounter your next incurable illness, that is.
As a Nation, we Steelers fans often tend to overreact and think the worst even during the best of times. If the team has a bad game, or even a bad half, we panic and often proclaim that the season is over. Of course, over the past seven or eight seasons, those symptoms have almost always proven to be imaginary, as the team has enjoyed the kind of success not seen around here since the 70's.
Even though it might be silly to panic and think the worst after a game or two, it's certainly not silly if the symptoms persist like they have since the start of the 2011 season:
Injuries are not a universal symptom of a bad football team, but injuries can certainly hinder a team and make it play like one. The Steelers have been dealing with that problem since week 1 of 2011, and any chance of them avoiding that bug in 2012 was quickly put to rest in the preseason when they lost several players to injuries for extended periods of time, including two of their top three draft picks from 2012. The Steelers were obviously counting on prized first round pick David DeCastro to step into the lineup and be a fixture at right guard for the next decade. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game and will be out of action until at least mid-season. As for third round pick Sean Spence, the rookie linebacker had wowed the coaching staff so much in training camp, it was said that they were planning on utilizing his talents on a defense that surely could have used some fresh legs.
Speaking of which.........
An Aging Defense
The Steelers have seven starters on their defense over the age of 30. I know it's nice to say that age doesn't matter, but it certainly does for an NFL defense, and it's been proven many times throughout history. Face it, the NFL is a young man's league, and it's why so many players are considered "over the hill" before they even reach the 30 year mark. I know James Harrison has been battling a knee problem (speaking of injuries), but either way, he's still 34 years old, and he looked very slow while trying to cover tight end Jared Cook during his pivotal 25 yard catch that paved the way for the Titans' game-winning field goal on Thursday. Is it age or injury in Harrison's case?
Speaking of age or injury........
Troy Polamalu is only two seasons removed from being named Defensive Player of the Year, but truth be told, he hasn't looked the same since he intercepted a Carson Palmer pass and finished off the play by doing a Superman-like dive over the pylon to score a touchdown in a game against the Bengals at Heinz Field in December of '10. He got up limping with what would be diagnosed as a strained calf/Achilles. He wasn't all that effective the remainder of that season, and even though he was solid a year ago, he still wasn't the same player that we all know and love. Was it just a matter of Dick Lebeau using Polamalu in a more traditional safety role has had been suggested several times a season ago, or was it because Troy's body had started to break down and he lost his unique ability to wreak havoc as only he knows how? In any event, Troy's injury problems have plagued him again this season, and he's missed the better part of three games with a strained calf; his return to the line up anytime soon is very much up in the air at this point. Polamalu had an entire offseason to get his body close to 100%, and if that wasn't enough time, will it ever happen for the 31 year old?
There is possible hope in younger guys named Hood, Heyward, Timmons, Allen and Lewis, but they need to start assuming more of a leadership role, and they have yet to prove that they're anywhere near ready for that task. A returning LaMarr Woodley, who is once again battling a hamstring problem (speaking again of injuries, but this time to a younger guy), could go a long way towards helping this aging defense, but it needs to happen soon because this is a very........
Remember when Ike Taylor sacked Mark Sanchez and forced a fumble that William Gay returned for a touchdown at the end of the first half of the AFC Championship game in January of 2011? Well, since that day, the Steelers have had one defensive touchdown in their last 23 games that counted, and that one occurred over a year ago in week 3.
Speaking of Ike, after having his best year a season ago, he looks to be doing a 180 and is having maybe the worst year of his career. Instead of being the shut-down corner that we all know and love, he has become a pass interference machine. There may have been some blatantly horrible calls that went against Ike in week 2 vs. the Jets, but he's more than made up for those calls with some blatantly obvious clutches and grabs in the weeks since then. When was the last game in-which Taylor wasn't flagged for some sort of infraction against the guy he was covering? And even though I love Ike, don't you just want to reach through your screen and punch him when he does his weekly John Cena "you can't see me" wave after a blatant infraction against the opposing receiver and then acts befuddled when he turns around to see that the officials have thrown a flag on him?
Speaking of defensive backs, nobody from that group not named Ryan Clark has picked off a pass this season, and he only did that once. Remember the '09 campaign when no Steelers corner intercepted a ball until week 17? Well, they're well on their way to achieving that feat again this year. To go along with the theme of this article, that's downright sickening.
Speaking of remembering, remember a year ago when the Steelers sack total decreased from 48 in 2010 to 35? Well, with 11 sacks so far this year, the Steelers defense is on that same 35 sack pace.
Finally, Thursday night marked the fourth time in five games this season that the defense failed to protect a fourth quarter lead. When it happens once, you can forgive it. However, when it happens 80% of the time, that's a very real symptom that cannot be ignored.
Are the Steelers Playing Down to Their Competition Against Weak Road Teams, or is Just a Matter of Water Seeking its Own Level?
Heading into the Tennessee game, there was hope that the Steelers would finally end their string of sloppy road games and get a nice, "clean" victory over a Titans' squad that appeared to be in complete disarray. Well, not only was the game sloppy and filled with more breakdowns, penalties and injuries than even the most pessimistic fan would have predicted, the Steelers lost the game when Rob Bironas kicked a 40 yard field goal as time expired. That marked the second straight road game in-which the Steelers lost on a last-second field goal to an inferior opponent. But was it an inferior opponent? Last season, the Steelers struggled in just about every road game, and a good deal of those contests were vs. teams that were considered "cupcakes." The average record for teams that the Steelers defeated on the road a season ago was 6-10, but their average margin of victory in those games was 5.8 points.
And that brings me to their schedule from a season ago. Did the 2011 Steelers achieve their 12-4 record via an easy schedule? Well, the average record for their opponents a year ago was 7-9. Not too easy, I suppose. However, they played five games against four teams who would finish the year a combined 48-12--the Ravens, Texans, Patriots and 49ers--and they lost four of those games and were totally outclassed in three of the contests, losing by a combined score of 72-20.
I know Mike Tomlin likes to say that style points don't matter, but maybe the Steelers were just whistling past the graveyard a year ago and are now realizing just how serious their condition is.
In Steeler Country, we've been talking about the potential for a dynamic offense seemingly forever. We all know the weapons--Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Rashard Mendenhall, et al--and the opinion held by many was that the unit just needed an offensive mind who could bring it all together and allow those weapons to flourish. However, despite the fact that Roethlisberger is playing maybe the best football of his career--10 touchdowns to two interceptions and nearly 300 yards a game through five weeks--the offense is still only averaging the same 23 points a game that it did a year ago when Bruce Arians was still the much maligned offensive coordinator.
Despite the optimism that new offensive coordinator Todd Haley would bring a fresh, innovative approach to the offense, the unit is still struggling to find an identity. For all the talk of re-establishing the running game, through five weeks, the offense is only averaging 76 yards a game on the ground, and that average is inflated a bit thanks to Mendenhall's only full game of the season in week 4 vs. the Eagles--he left Thursday night's game due to an Achilles injury after only six carries. One of the many criticisms of Arians was that he was too stubborn and wanted to tailor the offense to his philosophies instead of recognizing the strengths of his unit. Well, many believe that the Steelers have the best all-around receiving corps in the NFL, yet, there is greater emphasis on utilizing the backs out of the backfield under Haley, but the results have been mixed at best. And I don't know about you, but I was screaming at the television when, despite the fact that Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were both out of the game, a running play was called on 2nd and 6 from the Titans' 36 yard line in the final minutes of the game when the Steelers were marching for a potential game-winning score. Maybe it's too early to conclude that a new offensive coordinator is a familiar symptom of a bad Steelers team--the last three times the Steelers have hired a new offensive coordinator from outside the organization, they failed to make the postseason--but it's certainly a symptom to keep a close eye on.
In conclusion, I think it's time to consider the possibility that the 2012 Steelers are showing the signs of a bad football team.
However, they say getting over any sort of illness requires a great mindset. Hopefully, those symptoms will start to improve next week vs. the Bengals. A road victory in prime-time over a division rival could be just the tonic the team needs to get back on the road to recovery.
It's no miracle cure, but 3-3 and 1-0 in the AFC North sounds a lot better than 2-4 and 0-1--that could prove to be fatal.