No team is the same from one year to the next, but one can learn about where a team is going by studying where it has been. We've watched each Steelers game last year play-by-play and pulled out a certain amount of trend-setting and trend-extending plays that earned the Steelers both a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff loss. We'll highlight what each of those plays meant from a bigger picture perspective on the season that was in 2011.
The hit QB Ben Roethlisberger took from Seahawks DE Raheem Brock drew both a 15-yard penalty flag and a $15,000 fine from the league (a "Fline"), but in the long run, it was one of many hits the mobile quarterback took that ultimately wore him down to the point of ineffectiveness.
It just didn't really stop him, or the Steelers' defense, from kicking the tar out of Seattle.
The Steelers shut out the Seahawks in their second consecutive game since defeating them in Super Bowl XL. It was a 21-0 win in Week 5 of the 2007 season the first time, and this time, it was 24-0, and the Seahawks, led by QB Tarvaris Jackson, failed to cross midfield until the fourth quarter.
Wallace v. Browner
The Steelers led 14-0 late in the second quarter - plenty cushion for a defense that allowed just 164 total yards on the day - when Brock hit Roethlisberger low. He returned to the game to finish off a field goal-scoring drive.
How healthy was he, though? At the end of the third quarter, the Steelers went five wide, with Wallace on the line between Hines Ward and Heath Miller. The Seahawks come out in man coverage, hoping the pass rush can get to Roethlisberger before the speedy Wallace can get down field.
It almost worked. Roethlisberger took a (legal) shot just after he launched a deep pass for Wallace, who burned Browner off the line, held up, then burned him again as he adjusted for the throw, which was off the mark by quite a bit.
Wallace makes a sensational catch on a poorly thrown pass for a 53-yard gain. Incidentally, I choked when I saw Brandon Browner in the Pro Bowl at the end of last season. I'm not sure I can recall a cornerback as overmatched as Browner was in this game. I didn't see the rest of his season, but wow...he was awful in Week 2.
It wasn't that Roethlisberger's injured knee affected the throw, but it was a clear example of the numerous opportunities the Steelers had in 2011 to get Wallace the ball in a position to be able to run after the catch, but for many reasons (in this case, taking a shot to the chops), they weren't able to connect.
It wasn't the same play, but Wallace had to adjust to a poorly thrown Roethlisberger pass against Denver in the AFC Wild Card playoff game in January. Wallace was unable to maintain possession of that one.
For a team to base its offense heavily around the idea of getting the ball deep down the field, the inability to sustain pass protection long enough for Roethlisberger to step into his throws, and the additional hits he took outside the pocket, eventually would make that deep option far less successful, albeit dangerous.
This play in Week 2 worked, but the frequency of these kinds of plays early in the year would lead to Wallace's diminished production and Roethlisberger's multiple injuries down the stretch.
Goal Line Futility
After a (brutal) pass interference call against Browner, the Steelers had first and goal on Seattle's 1-yard line. Enter Doug Legursky as a blocking fullback. First carry, RB Rashard Mendenhall, behind the motioning TE David Johnson, no gain. FS Earl Thomas knifes in to make the play.
They've got approximately 570 pounds in the backfield to block, and another 225 from Mendenhall. Thomas weighs maybe 200 pounds. No one got a hat on him.
Second down, same formation, but they run play action out of it. TE Weslye Saunders blocks his man inside, leaving S Atari Bigby free to sack Roethlisberger for a 7-yard loss. The blame probably falls on RT Marcus Gilbert, who should kick down and cut the angle off for the free rusher, but he pushed too far inside, and couldn't get back to stop Bigby.
Another misfire in the red zone.
Third down, another pass, Seattle blankets every Steelers receiver. Roethlisberger scrambles, and is taken down inside the 1-yard line. Every receiver the Steelers had on the play ran a quick route, turned, didn't see the ball and stopped. That was another problem with the team's overall red zone struggles. While I don't know the play call or the specific intentions of it, it appears the call was essentially a quick-hit throw by Roethlisberger, and if nothing was there, he was to run it. But Roethlisberger ran away from his receivers, and none of them followed him. He nearly gets across the goal line, but Seattle made another tough stop.
The Steelers elect to go for it on fourth down, and in comes the heavy package again, and again, the run off left guard behind Johnson and Legursky. Again, no one prevents Thomas from knifing in and making a play. Legursky missed him in the hole, and Mendenhall had no chance.
Credit the Seahawks, who had a very strong defensive team in 2011, but the Steelers had 1st and goal from their 1-yard line, gained nothing and walked off the field without any points. I liked the decision to go for it, but the execution was poor, setting the tone for a season of disappointment inside the 20.
Don't Forget 43
The series after the Steelers' goal line SNAFU, Steelers SS Troy Polamalu forces a 3-and-out almost single-handedly. On first down, Seattle tries to scrape him with TE Zack Miller while running a flare to RB Marshawn Lynch. Polamalu isn't fooled, and pushes Lynch out of bounds for a 1-yard gain. They try to run away from Polamalu on second down, but he chases Lynch down from 12 yards away for a 1-yard loss. Third down, Polamalu lines up on the offensive left side, and chases Lynch down again, this time for a 1-yard gain.
Polamalu, top to bottom, played brilliantly in 2011. He had a few gaffes in coverage (we'll get to those in this series), but he was so crucial for this team in run support, the year would have ended much worse if he wasn't out there.
He made the splash plays in 2010, which was the biggest reason why he was named Defensive Player of the Year (the defensive player with the most splash plays, not the best all-around body of work, wins that award now, just ask Terrell Suggs). Polamalu made less splash plays, but was more important to the defense in 2011. That first possession, and others that season, are evidence to it.