The 2005 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was unquestionably the most fun I've ever had following a team. Everyone knows the story; the team battled hard down the stretch to get in to the playoffs as the 6th seed in the AFC, and they rode the wave of momentum straight through three road playoff victories and to their first Super Bowl trophy in over a quarter of a century.
The 2011 season looked as if it very well could be a repeat of that year, especially after the team battled back from some early-season struggles. In early December, despite being on the wrong end of the AFC North tiebreaker with the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers looked as if they were peaking at just the right time. The Steelers had just dispatched the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, 35-7. They were 9-3 and looked like a team that could really do some damage in the playoffs, even as a wild card entrant.
Just a few days later, the Steelers were set to take on the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on Thursday Night Football. Little did we know that their season would forever change that night.
Early in the game, Ben Roethlisberger was playing pitch-and-catch with his receivers up an down the field. The team's first drive ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery.
It looked like it would be a repeat performance of the Bengals game just a few days prior, but then midway through the second quarter, Browns defensive lineman Scott Paxson twisted Roethlisberger's ankle in a gruesome manner during a sack, and the Steelers franchise quarterback suffered the dreaded high ankle sprain.
Even though Big Ben did return in the second half and added to his legend by hitting Antonio Brown with a 79-yard touchdown to seal the deal, there was no doubt that the injury he suffered was very serious.
In the game, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey also suffered a high ankle sprain, and suddenly, the Steelers went from being a team on a roll to a being a team that was battered and bruised.
And the injuries just never stopped coming. Lamarr Woodley never did return to his mid-season form after suffering a hamstring injury in the Patriots game, and he was in and out of the line up down the stretch.
Utility running back Mewelde Moore suffered a sprained knee in the Monday Night game in San Francisco, and he never played again the rest of the season. And just last week in Cleveland, star running back Rashard Mendenhall was lost for the playoffs with an ACL tear.
The Steelers traveled to Denver for the first round of the playoffs with a quarterback at less than 100%, without their starting running back, without their starting center, and without free safety Ryan Clark due to the potential life-threatening reaction that the high altitude in Denver could have on the sickle cell trait that he carries.
So, instead of the Steelers going into the wild card round of the playoffs clicking on all cylinders, they went in limping, just like that did four seasons ago--the last time they had to open up the playoffs in the wild card bracket.
The 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers started out 7-2 under first year coach Mike Tomlin, and just when it looked like they had a team worthy enough to challenge the unbeaten New England Patriots in the playoffs, injuries started to mount down the stretch. Ryan Clark was lost for the year following a game in Denver when he had a violent reaction to the altitude and had to have his gallbladder and spleen removed. In addition to that, Aaron Smith was lost with a biceps tear during a game against the Bengals, and in the next to last game of the regular season in St. Louis, running back Willie Parker, who was leading the NFL in rushing at the time, suffered a broken leg and was out for the playoffs.
So, the Steelers entered the playoff game against Jacksonville with Najeh Davenport starting for Parker, Tyrone Carter starting for Ryan Clark, Travis Kirschke starting for Smith, and to rub even more salt in to the wounds, Mike Tomlin announced at his Tuesday press conference before the Saturday night clash with the Jaguars that Trai Essex would be starting at left tackle for an injured Max Starks who was starting for an injured Marvel Smith.
In the game against the Jaguars, the Steelers found themselves behind 28-10 before mounting a furious comeback. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Even if they had won that game, how would such a battered and bruised team be able to play with a New England team that had just throttled them in a game during the regular season?
As I was watching yesterday's game unfold, and as I saw guys like Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton leave the game with injuries, I couldn't help but think "what's the point? How many injuries can one team sustain?"
But, just like that game against Jacksonville four years ago, it didn't stop me from cheering and believing, and when the Steelers came back from two-touchdowns down to tie the game late, I thought they would pull it out. But, just like that wild card game from 2007, it just wasn't meant to be.
Too many injuries. Too many mistakes, and in the end, just like that 2007 season, even if they had won yesterday's game, the Steelers were probably just delaying the inevitable.
Great season, Steelers. Even you guys can only endure so much. May you win the war of attrition next year and give us another great season.