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.
No win in 2011 - or in many other seasons, for that matter - was celebrated as a loss the way the Steelers' 23-20 (OT) win at Indianapolis was. Winning their second consecutive game after a brutal start at Baltimore was secondary to the pains in which it took to dispatch the hapless Colts, even if primetime road games are the toughest to win.
Of the Steelers' five total losses, two of them were road primetime games and one was a primetime home game. Perhaps that's why I'm now classically conditioned to feel ill at ease every time I hear the Football Night in America music.
This game more than any other signified the team's shift toward deep passing, and as I mentioned in the Week 2 version of this story, how mediocre pass protection hindered that goal.
Offensive Intentions Obvious From the Start
The Steelers' first 13 plays were scripted to set up the 14th. QB Ben Roethlisberger was 4-for-8 for 75 yards on his first eight throws, and RB Rashard Mendenhall had four yards on his first five carries. The Steelers led 3-0 when they trotted to the line on 2nd-and-5 from their 19-yard line. In double-tight, WR Mike Wallace and Hines Ward are split left, with Wallace flanking Ward's outside.
Roethlisberger sells the play fake, which doesn't fool second-year CB David Caldwell. He's simply overmatched by Wallace, who runs a deep post, and creates three yards of separation.
The protection is perfect, Roethlisberger has no time stepping into his throw and delivering a perfect strike to Wallace about 47 yards down the field. It hits him in stride, and Wallace races from Indianapolis' 32 yard line into the end zone. It's an 81-yard touchdown pass, and could be the finest play the Steelers had run in 2011.
Lemme highlight the key factor here; the protection was perfect. Amazing, considering the scheme had RG Doug Legursky pull right to sell the play fake, leaving DE Dwight Freeney on TE David Johnson in a 1-on-1 situation. Freeney busted in, but with a rare clean pocket, Roethlisberger was able to move a little and buy himself the time he needed to make the deep throw.
It would be the last time the Steelers' offensive line would get away with such a risk. It certainly wasn't for a lack of trying, however.
Jonathan Scott the Scapegoat
After the Wallace touchdown, Roethlisberger took seven-step drops on nearly every pass attempt he made for the rest of the game. He checked down often, with three of his 11 passes going for two yards or less.
The Steelers next four series went thusly: sack and fumble recovered by Indianapolis (led to a field goal, 10-3 Steelers), sack and fumble recovered by Indianapolis and returned for a touchdown (10-10), Roethlisberger deep interception (led to a field goal, 13-10 Indianapolis), Roethlisberger kneels out the half.
That's three turnovers leading to 13 Indianapolis points, and a kneel-down. Roethlisberger was 9-for-11 passing on the final four drives of the half, with two fumbles (losing both) and an interception.
Colts DE Robert Mathis had the first strip-sack, taking RT Marcus Gilbert around the pocket to knock the ball free outside the left hash. Gilbert ultimately takes the blame, although it speaks more to Mathis's motor, and Roethlisberger's lack of awareness. He pumped a pass, and after doing so, keeps the ball outside his body and looks behind to his left. Mathis is inside Roethlisberger's right (ball) side, and slaps it away.
Freeney's sack comes on 2nd-and-10 inside Indianapolis territory. The play appears to be a quick slant to Wallace, who's on the right side of the formation. Scott takes a quick drop and turns his body outward, largely suggesting the quarterback is not taking a deep drop. Gilbert maintains more discipline on the right side, but he didn't block for a deep drop, either.
Keeping Roethlisberger's drop short is probably a good idea, considering the heat the Colts edge rushers are bringing. Roethlisberger drops two quick steps, pumps a pass to Wallace (who's clearly expecting the ball), then drops a few more steps. Scott doesn't see this, and Freeney simply goes off Scott's outside shoulder (Scott is in no position to stop this), and Freeney tees off Roethlisberger, who was drawing his arm back to throw.
TE Heath Miller, on the left side, runs a four-yard pattern, and takes a blocking stance. Clearly, the play was meant to go right side short, but even with what appeared to be Roethlisberger ad-libbing the play, Scott's form is poor, and gives the edge to one of the best edge rushers the game has ever seen.
Scott deserves blame (holding and illegal formation penalties in this game as well), but the overarching point is the offense is simply not on the same page, and it nearly cost them the game.
Steelers OT Max Starks was signed not even two weeks after this game, and replaced Scott just a few days after joining the team.
Ike Taylor's over-aggressiveness
On a 3rd-and-4, Painter is looking to WR Pierre Garcon on his right side. Garcon runs a hitch-and-go, starting at the first down marker. Taylor bites on Garcon's movement badly, even without as much as a pump from Painter.
Taylor is an excellent cornerback with very good coverage skills. What makes Taylor good at what he does is his aggressiveness. As we saw in Week 3, and especially in the AFC Wild Card loss at Denver, Taylor's aggressiveness is also his worst enemy. It caused him to lose sight of Demaryius Thomas multiple times in regulation. Instead of defending the man, his eyes got wide at the thought of QB Tim Tebow lofting one of his patented ducks. Thomas slipped behind him for a few big gains during regulation.
Plain and simple, Painter completely blew the throw, and it should have been 20-13 Indianapolis at this point. Instead, the Colts punted back to the Steelers in a tie game.
Don't think for a second the Broncos didn't watch this game when making their game plan to face the Steelers in the playoffs.
Harrison and Woodley
Week 3 would be the last time Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley played together for a full game at 100 percent. And through the Colts' first drive of the second half, they had one QB pressure between them on 23 Kerry Collins pass attempts.
That would soon change against Indianapolis, but the lack of consistent pressure on the passer dogged the Steelers' defense all year. There were times Harrison took over the game (Week 9 vs. Baltimore) and there were times Woodley took over the game (Week 8 vs. New England), but it never clicked for both of them in the same game.
Harrison does what the Steelers' offense had failed to do since the first quarter. He made a play that resulted in a touchdown. Forcing a fumble off a sack of Painter, Polamalu returns it for a touchdown. It was a rare forced turnover for the Steelers, who only had 15 takeaways all year. This was a big one, giving the Steelers a lead they'd need at the end of the game.
The suddenly effective Curtis Painter drove the Colts down for a game-tying touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter, but the Steelers won it in OT, as Shaun Suisham hit the field goal he should have hit in regulation.
Problems with the kicking game continued most of the year, as Suisham had one of the lowest field goal percentages in football.
A win may be a win, but this game was wrought with mental and physical mistakes, setting up a showdown with emerging AFC power Houston the following week.