Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempts to escape Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins in a game played in Cincinnati in 2011. The Steelers return to Paul Brown Stadium in Week 7 of the 2012 season. - Matthew Stockman
Are the Steelers at the point they can no longer maintain the level of success they've had in recent years? We're all going to find out when they take on Cincinnati in Week 7.
Sunday's slate of NFL games culminate with the Steelers (2-3, winless away), on the road, facing division rival Cincinnati (3-3) in what has already been described here at BTSC as a "do or die" game.
In light of the Bengals being a divisional opponent; a team that's coming off two consecutive losses in conference, one to a division rival; a team that's averaging only 24.8 points per game scored (just ahead of the Steelers at 23.2); a team that is giving up 27.2 points per game (while the Steelers are allowing 23), and...
...in light of the winds of mediocrity that are blowing throughout the AFC as a whole with seven teams at .500, seven teams below .500, and only the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens owning winning records...
...and assuming the Charm City Ravens are not in fact living a charmed life, that their loss last Sunday of both Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis for the season from a defense having already allowed almost 400 yards of total offense per game...
In light of all this, the Steelers/Bengals game is a "Jumping the Shark" moment in the Steelers' season.
"Jumping the Shark" was a phrase originally coined to reference a specific episode of the t.v. show "Happy Days" that became a generally accepted symbol of the point in time when the show had run out of the creative ideas, where the quality of its writing began a serious decline from the heights that made it (at the time) the most popular network series ever.
Modern American culture now uses this idiom to describe a specific moment in time that signals when an organization can no longer maintain its commitment to excellence and its level of success has waned.
It is the precise moment when you recognize that something is really over although it's momentum carries it on for a few steps.
Before you scoff, look at some of the threads found in some of the recent posts here at BTSC; comment after comment talking about who the Steelers should draft next year; have so many commented so much about next year's draft this early in a Steelers' season over the past several years?
It won't be too early to start thinking about next year if the Steelers lose Sunday night. They would fall to 2-4; 0-1 against the division, one game back of the Bengals in third place, three games behind the Ravens and a game behind the entire AFC East for a wild card slot.
Meaning even if we sweep the Ravens, our "destiny" in terms of finishing ahead of them would still out of our hands. Almost as disturbing, we would be only 1 game ahead of the Browns (the benchmark for futility in the AFC).
It would mean that despite the magnitude of this game, as recognized by players like Larry Foote who is quoted as saying "...We can't lose any more...The panic button, we're tapping on it..."...despite the extensive time with which they had to plan for it (10 days instead of the customary seven)...
A loss by the Steelers on Sunday would demonstrate an inability of the players and coaches alike to rally the fortitude necessary to rescue this season.
Instead of declaring to the rest of the NFL "we're still relevant to playoff discussions", a loss to the Bengals, with all its import, will signal to the world that the Steelers are no longer a force to be reckoned with in 2012.
Win, and they're still in the hunt. Lose, and even the division leader's recent setbacks won't help.
The Bengals share the same current woes of mediocrity as the Steelers, but will the Steelers dig deep into themselves and find the lost art of defending the pass? (I'm looking at you Ike Taylor).
Will they summon their professional pride, the drive and determination necessary to play inspired football? (I'm looking at you Lawrence Timmons)
Will the Defensive coaching staff accept that they do not have the talent nor the skill sets to continue with the schemes that worked with players no longer on the field (or not currently playing up to form) and instead formulate a more basic game plan that will maximize the physical skill sets that led the Steelers to draft a Ziggy Hood, a Cam Heyward or a Cortez Allen, and let them compete straight up, without ill-suited gimmicks, against the likes of Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Brandon Tate, or Benjarvus Green-Ellis?
If the Steelers can go on the road, against a comparable divisional opponent, and play solid, mistake free football for a full 60 minutes, then the shark tank can be avoided.
But if they sputter, if mental errors and stupid penalties allow the Bengals to gain momentum, in front of a home crowd that wants to see both a victory against the hated Steelers and one more step towards their first consecutive winning season since 1981-1982...
...If the Steelers can't muster the physical and mental fortitude to win a crucial game such as this, then grab your life vest Fonzie, ‘cause you're jumping the shark.