Two kicks and two catches. On the surface, that was the only difference between the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2009 version. If Jeff Reed makes two field goals against Chicago that he usually makes; if Limas Sweed catches the ball right in his belly against Cincinnati; and if Joe Burnett catches the easy ball in his chest against Oakland, the Steelers would have matched their 12-4 record of a year ago. Wipe out the two ridiculous kick returns against Cincinnati and Kansas City and the record is even better. And yet another loss was a three-point overtime game in Baltimore with an infant quarterback. All told, the Steelers lost five games by three points and another by six. The only game they were handled easily, astonishingly, was against the Cleveland Browns, and that was only by seven. The Steelers are the only team in the NFL this year that did not lose any game by more than a touchdown.
Two kicks, two catches and two kick returns. It was almost as if someone made a deal with the football gods in 2008 to find ways to pull out ballgames, including the Super Bowl, and in return had to give them all back in 2009. The bad news is that you never want your team to make the precipitous drop of being Super Bowl Champions one year to not making the playoffs the next. The good news is the operative words "Super Bowl Champions" in any form or fashion.
Beneath the surface evaluation, however, the Steelers had bigger issues than a few splash plays that didn't happen. Dick LeBeau is Luke Skywalker, the coordinator that Steelers' fans love to love. He is praised at every opportunity. Fans want to kiss him on the face. Bruce Arians is Darth Vader, the coordinator that Steelers' fans love to hate. He is ripped at every opportunity. Fans want to punch him in the face. Part of that is the transparency, or lack thereof, of their job descriptions. Offensive coordinators are like baseball managers. Everyone is an armchair expert and knows precisely how to call better plays. Defensive coordinators are like hockey coaches. The mainstream fan can only look at the scoreboard to critique the jobs they do, without strategically knowing how to do better.
Be all that as it may, the Steelers offense and defense were like two ships passing in the night this past year. In 2008, the defense won the championship with the offense making sufficient contributions. In 2009, the offense easily played well enough to win a dozen ballgames, only to watch the defense surrender game-winning points on five final possessions (Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Baltimore and Oakland), almost unbelievably. In the Cincinnati game, the Bengals desperately converted a 4th and double-digits. Against Baltimore, the Ravens used back-to-back conversions of 3rd and 22 and 4th and 5 to send the game into overtime. The Oakland game was an absolute joke. Three fourth-quarter touchdowns led by journeyman Bruce Gradkowski answered Pittsburgh's touchdowns until the Steelers had no more time. So predictable was this pattern, Mike Tomlin ordered an onside kick against Green Bay, incredibly conceding a score, just so his offense would have the ball last. Fortunately but pathetically, the plan worked.
|Points Per Quarter|
When it comes to defensive football (or offensive for that matter), it is not just quantity, but the quality that really counts. The Steelers' defense played above the line in terms of quantity. They finished fifth in defensive yards allowed and 12th in points allowed, so the defense wasn't that bad overall, just bad when too many games and too many critical plays were on the line. Therein lies the quality. Pittsburgh gave up 135 points in the fourth quarters of games this year. They ranked 31st in a 32-team league. This coming from a team who gave up only 223 points (first in the NFL) over the entire 2008 season. And keep in mind, the Steelers schedule was significantly weaker in 2009 than 2008. In 2008, the Steelers only lost to playoff-bound teams. In 2009 they let also-rans wreak havoc in the second halves of too many games.
A more telling statistic is third-down conversions. Again, quality over quantity. In 2008, against tougher opponents, the Steelers ranked first in the NFL in defense allowing (or not allowing) third-down conversions (31%). They were third in the league when factoring both third and fourth-down conversions (33%). In 2009, the defense went from the penthouse to the outhouse. The defense could not get off the field on third down plays. They were a horrific 41 percent, ranking 28th n the NFL. On fourth down plays, they surrendured 70% and were 31st in the league. Combine the two and the Steelers were at the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of critical "get off the field" downs. Moreover, these were not just third and ones or twos we're talking about here. Pittsburgh could not stop third and eights to save their lives all season long. Most NFL fans smile when their defense is playing third and long. How many times did Steeler Nation cringe at "third and eight" because the opponents had us right where they wanted us? The third down statistics were alarming to say the least. Not only did we allow way too many third and fourth down conversions, we allowed huge chunks of yardage in the process.
And how is it possible for a team to get to the final game of the season before having a cornerback intercept a pass? How is it possible that three individual NFL players had as many interceptions (nine) as the entire Steelers' team after the first 15 games? No one expected the defense to live up to its 2008 standards. Admittedly, that would be grossly unfair. But to allow a predictable pattern of fourth-quarter collapses and stunning "get-off-the-field" conversions is totally unacceptable.
In fairness to the defense, playing without Aaron Smith and especially Troy Polamalu most of the season could fairly be called the difference in winning and losing at least a few games, maybe a handful. On one hand this excuse is valid, while on the other hand this excuse cannot be valid. Championship teams cannot be that fragile. Tyrone Carter cannot be the answer on anyone's roster. It should also be pointed out that the defense played well enough to win the Chicago game, certainly the Cleveland game and at least one of the Cincinnati games. The defense won the opener against Tennessee (13-10) and also won the Minnesota game with two amazing, long fourth-quarter defensive touchdowns.
The offense, on the other hand, played above the line much more than below it. For the first time in franchise history, the Steelers boasted a 4,000-yard quarterback, two one-thousand yard receivers and a thousand-yard rusher. In addition, tight end Heath Miller had the best year of his career and young Mike Wallace added a vertical dimension that was both productive and exciting. Capping it off, the offensive line played its best ball since Super Bowl XL, though admittedly that is not necessarily saying much. Everything about the offense improved in 2009. Sure, the Cleveland egg was on the offense and some other times when settling for three, or even missing three, cost a couple ballgames, but over the course of 16 NFL games that is going to happen.
The Steelers offense racked up almost 1,000 yards more in 2009 than 2008. The defense gave up more than 1,000 yards more. The offense went from 4,991 yards (22nd) and 347 points (20th) to 5,941 yards (7th) and 368 points (12th). The offense remained steady in third and fourth down conversions, ging from 40% to 41%. The defense went from allowing 33% of conversions to 43%, almost unbearable.
On the flip side, the offense was not without its Achilles heel. Despite the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh could not run the ball when it absolutely had to. The result was that the Steelers became involved in clock-stopping shootouts in fourth quarters instead of keeping the lead with a punishing ground game that could run out the clock. Third down and one turned into passing downs. This cannot continue.
It is said that nothing good comes from losing, but I disagree. To the contrary, more can be learned from failure than success. Yes, there is a silver lining to a season where the team failed to make the playoffs after a Super Bowl. That silver lining is the ease in which change can be enacted. After Tomlin's first season, the team improved from 8-8 to 10-6. You certainly cannot demand change with that type of improvement from a first-year coach. Then in Tomlin's second year the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Again, how can anyone demand change? What can motivate a team that just won the title to insist upon change? Why mess with success, right?
But now it's different. That Super Bowl team plummeted out of the postseason, even if on the surface only a handful of critical plays did the trick. Now there is no excuse for not making some tough decisions and realizing that the Pittsburgh Steelers are not going to win by simply showing up. The defensive backfield needs to change both in terms of personnel and scheme. Special teams coverage units and coaching personnel cannot be allowed to continue status quo. Age must be converted to youth. Third and short must be running downs. And those are just a few of the changes. The good news is that there is no longer an excuse not to change, not to explore an impact free agent or two and not to think outside the box.