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What went wrong with the Steelers?

A preliminary post mortem on a season gone wrong.

Jared Wickerham

I didn't see most of the first half of yesterday's game, so I don't feel completely qualified to fully evaluate what I saw. But I think that there are some valid comments to be made based on what I did see and there is enough on the body of work for the season to draw some preliminary, albeit incomplete conclusions about the 2012 season.

First the game. The defense gave up six points in what was in essence a playoff game. Only three on its own really. Ten of the Bengals thirteen points came either directly or indirectly from turnovers created by the offense. Not only was the offense largely impotent, it could not meet even the basic criteria of 'do no harm'. The Steelers offense did what the Cincinnati offense could not, defeat a fine effort by the Pittsburgh defense.

It seemed clear leading up to this game that if the Bengals were going to win things would turn on them using the strength of their offense, Andy Dalton and the passing game to exploit a wounded Steeler defensive secondary who would once again be without Ike Taylor. So how great was it that the strength of the Pittsburgh defense was its secondary play. The most frustrating aspect of this game was extraordinary performances by many players but especially Cortez Allen would be buried under the debris of such a disappointing loss. The defense did everything that could be reasonably asked of it. They effectively shut down the run. They produced the timely turnovers that folks were complaining had been lacking. They allowed no touchdowns.

And so the season came full circle. If you recall, in September the Steelers were losing games because the defense could not hold the leads provided by an offense that dominated time of possession and generally was able to produce an adequate number of points. And just as we subjected LeBeau and the members of his unit to harsh judgments then, similar assessments are now being made on Haley and the offense. The one constant being Tomlin. With this week's game against the Browns an exercise in playing out the string what do we make of the season?

As I mentioned in two earlier posts, care should be taken to not speak out of anger or frustration. Under those conditions the important thing becomes whom we assign blame for the disappointment. I woke up this morning and I was over it, otherwise I wouldn't even attempt this. There is also an X factor in these kinds of evaluations, what we do not, and often cannot know. There are things that take place inside an organization or a family that are not available to the gaze of outsiders, nor should they be. We may be understandably curious but the information will be withheld for reasons ranging from legitimate privacy issues to organizational competitiveness. We lose sight of the fact that even in training camp the public only witnesses half of the practice sessions, none of the in season practices and no meetings. We only know enough about injuries that are required to be publicly revealed. We don't know details of contracts that might impact playing time, performance incentives and the like. We certainly know next to nothing about what team members, coaches or members of the staff don't get along, who may be having marital problems or homesickness, who may be struggling with mental health or personality disorders (could Chris Kemoeatu's anger management issues been complicit in his on field mistakes?) or substance issues (Ta'amu or Wesley Saunders). We're not even sure as to what the actual distribution of authority is. Where does Tomlin's power begin and end? How about Colbert or even Art Rooney II? Especially now that Dan Rooney has returned. For example, who really knows what the story was concerning the dismissal of Al Everest? This is a situation not unique to the Steelers. Who knows how to answer these questions relative to the Ravens, Cowboys or Redskins?

Since we aren't privy to all the aspects of the process, we may put too much weight on the snapshot; what we see in a game or practice and draw broad conclusions that are sometimes on point, but sometimes hasty or incomplete. With that in mind, here is a partial list of what we as fans (some of us at times, many of us at others) have been wrong about just this year.

Dick LeBeau. Too old, washed up and out of touch. Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Will Allen. We were never going to have a decent secondary with these players still around. Jonathan Dwyer, Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons, Kelvin Beachum (useless, why was he kept on the roster?), David Paulson, Chris Rainey (was going to set the world on fire based on the preseason). James Harrison, Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu (washed up?). The Money Crew (unstoppable?). Bruce Arians. Yes, I still believe he was the wrong fit for Pittsburgh, but those who felt that he was totally incompetent and unfit for work anywhere in the league will have a hard time explaining the situation in Indianapolis. Just wanted to point that out for those who are presently convinced that the problem here is Haley or Tomlin or whomever, whatever.

One last thing before moving forward. Please none of this 'the standard is the standard' business. It is a misunderstanding and misapplication of this term for it to function as a club to be used by fans and the external critics of this team to suggest that in addition to everything else it represents that failure somehow constitutes a betrayal of a promise. There is no promise. For the team the pursuit of success always entails the risk, indeed the likelihood of failure. And for fans the risk is the possibility of disappointment. The covenant of the standard for the team internally is that all are accountable for the success of the team regardless of their role at any particular time. Externally it means no excuses for falling short, not an ironclad promise to not fall short.

How do we reconcile the mediocre performance of this team against our beliefs that this is a very talented group as well as our high expectations as a consequence? An easy answer would be to blame the coaching since in many respects it is an unknown, a black box so to speak. Others may conclude that perhaps we overestimated the talent on this team, that years of relatively low draft choices due to the team's continued success has finally caught up to them. Maybe on both counts. But I choose another set of explanations.

Injuries in combination with transition. Injuries are not supposed to be an excuse, they are simply part of the game that must be successfully coped with if a team is to win a championship. For the most part I would agree. But there is an element of luck that comes into play with injuries. In 2008 the Steelers were lucky with whom was injured and the timing of those injuries. In 2012 they were not. In fact, the unrelenting onslaught of injuries over the past eighteen months simply cannot be ignored. Consider this partial list of players lost to injuries during that period: Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, Max Starks, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon, Chris Hoke, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Doug Legursky, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Sean Spence, David Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor, Daniel Sepulveda, Jeremy Kapinos, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Baron Batch, Bryant McFadden, Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon. Consider Ryan Clark an honorable mention due to his sickle cell trait, and former ironman Heath Miller apparently will be joining the list this week. Of the name listed no fewer than 21 were starters when injured. But let's get more specific in terms of impact.

When the team parted ways with a number of established team leaders this past spring, the expressed wisdom from sources external to Steeler Nation was that the team would experience a period of relative decline as a result of a transition. The rebuttal came in the form of what many believed to be the best draft the Steelers had conducted in many years. Fair enough, except: 1st Rounder David DeCastro suffered a severe knee injury in the preseason and has played all of two games, the last two. 2nd Rounder Mike Adams started some games mid season but has been sidelined by injury ever since. 3rd Rounder Sean Spence was placed on Injured Reserve before the season even started. The infusion of new talent that would have been the likely rationale for the Steelers being ahead of schedule in terms of reestablishing themselves as a championship caliber team never really materialized. If you had been told at the beginning of the season that the most consistent and reliable contributor from the 2012 draft class would be David Paulson, your reaction would be, what? And if you were told that Chris Rainey's greatest contribution was a one yard touchdown run, your reaction would be, what?

There is a lot of both internal and external pressure on players to return to the field as soon as possible. Being healthy enough to be on the field is one thing, being at full capacity is something else. Insensitivity to that led to some rash judgments leveled against a number of players including Casey Hampton, James Harrison and Jason Worilds. Troy Polamalu only began to show his old form this past Sunday. And while Ben has been back on the field for three weeks now, he has not been the player he was in the first half of the season. It would be difficult for an established crew at the height of their powers to withstand such an epidemic of injuries. A team in transition requires better luck to succeed.

Other issues? Sure. There have been questions circulating as to whether these injuries are related to some flaw in the training regimen. Probably the more plausible question would be are the changes brought about by the new CBA in combination with the traditional training methods and style of play of the Steelers somehow a cause? Are there other changes in the league that the Steelers haven't fully adjusted to? Watching Russell Wilson last night demands the question be asked. As mentioned in an earlier piece the level of dominance being practiced by rookie quarterbacks is unprecedented. Dan Marino went to a Super Bowl early in his career, but it was at the head of a team that was already at playoff caliber. Seattle, Indianapolis and possibly Washington making the tournament are among the big surprises of this season. Plays that Wilson and RG III seem to thrive on running such as the read option aren't part of the Steeler repertoire as far as I know. Now all of this may just be the most recent rendition of the Run and Shoot or the Wildcat. Could it also be an indication of necessary coaching adjustments? The combination of an ever evolving league landscape and the fact that as a young coach Tomlin, despite his record of success (and no, I am not buying the idea that he has merely been the beneficiary of Bill Cowher's work), has plenty of growth ahead of him.

I believe when the history of this season is written it will be viewed through the context of a worse case scenario being played out within a range of likely parameters that could define this season. Disappointing, absolutely. A disaster? Reason to make major changes? Absolutely not.