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A Season of Inches: Just how close did the Steelers come to being relevent

in which the author explores just how close the Steelers came to being relevant...

Justin K. Aller

An 8-8 season is pretty much the perfect vehicle to separate the optimists from the pessimists. Is your glass half full or half empty? Mine is half full, and I'm looking for it to be three-quarters full next season. Here's why.

76. 85. 370. 379.

Here's what these numbers mean.

76 is the number of total points scored by Steelers opponents in losses, after subtracting the number of points the Steelers made. (So it is the margin of victory in the eight Steelers losses. This includes the blowout losses to the Patriots and the Bears.) 85 is the margin of victory in Steelers wins—in other words, Steelers points minus opponent points.

370 is the total number of points scored by Steelers opponents in the eight losses, and 379 is the total Steelers points scored in their wins. This definitely looks like an 8-8 team.

Now, if you remove the two blowout losses, here are those same numbers:

35—85. 275—379.

The average margin of loss for the Steelers in the six non-blowout games was less than six points. The average margin of victory in their eight wins was 10.5 points—a touchdown, a field goal, and change. This is pretty respectable. And the Steelers certainly left some points on the field in several of their victories, including yesterday. Suddenly this looks more like it could have been a 10-6 or even 11-5 team. This is especially true if you consider their record since October 1 is 8-4. And here's an even more encouraging way to look at it:

  • Average margin of loss in September games: 10.25 points per game.
  • Average margin of loss in Games 9—16: 4 points per game.
  • Record in Games 1—8: 2-6
  • Record in Games 9—16: 6-2

So what happened, and how does this bode for the future?

I think it is fair to say the 2013 Steelers were a few inches from respectability. Let's look at the season again and consider what might have been.

0 for September. It's been quite a long time since the Steelers looked at a win-loss column as bleak as this. And feel free to tell me I'm making excuses, but you can't deny the loss of Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote in Week 1 were crushing blows to a team already struggling with injuries to some important players.

First, Maurkice Pouncey. There were two facets to this loss not evident at the time, especially as the Steelers were fortunate enough to pick up a competent center from the free agent market. The fact that Fernando Velasco could come in and play reasonably well after only a week or two disguised the very real cost to the offense, a cost which didn't become evident until we got a taste of what had been missing much later in the season.

The first loss was the run blocking scheme the offense had spent the whole preseason working on. Once Pouncey was down, it had to be scrapped. Naturally, having to start the running backs they had already deemed to be inadequate to carry the primary load because of the injury to Le'Veon Bell didn't help.

But losing their center meant the Steelers were right back where they ended the previous season—they were unable to muster up enough of a running game to take even a bit of heat off of the quarterback. And it was pretty hot in the kitchen for Ben Roethlisberger during the first half of the season. As far as the running game in the first part of the season went, "A Season of Inches" could almost sum up the yards per carry.

The second loss to the offense which wasn't at all evident at the time was to the no-huddle scheme. Until things settled in sufficiently for everyone to feel they were ready to implement it, we didn't know what we were missing. And, as Todd Haley revealed last week, had Pouncey (and probably to a much lesser extent, Bell) not been injured, we would have seen this very effective offense a lot sooner. If you consider two of the four September games were lost by a touchdown, even a slightly more efficient offense might have turned the tables.

And one other factor it's easy to overlook when contemplating the early part of the season is just how serious was the loss of two men who aren't really on most people's radar. David Johnson and Matt Spaeth were both expected to figure prominently in the pass-blocking scheme. And while neither of them are entirely sure-handed pass catchers, they are both reasonable options for a quick dump-off pass. Given that Heath Miller was not himself for a considerable portion of the season, a tight end corps which should have been excellent additions to the blocking scheme and should have provided a safety blanket for the quarterback was more of a loss than it might first appear. And the few extra inches Matt Spaeth provides in the end zone is pretty darn useful.

The loss of Larry Foote was far less discussed as a serious blow to the Steelers at the time it occurred. But, unlike the offense, the Steelers were unable to plug in a competent veteran. They tried a few veterans, and finally a sixth-round rookie, but the bleeding didn't stop. And so Troy Polamalu, a player opposing quarterbacks were accustomed to having to account for on every play, had to be essentially neutered by playing him as an additional linebacker. It's a lot like harnessing a thoroughbred to a plow. With all the goodwill in the world, a thoroughbred isn't designed to pull a plow. Not only will it prevent him from doing what he does really well, but he probably won't be that great at plowing.

This might have been the most serious result of the loss of Larry Foote, but there were ripples all through the defense. Once again, we didn't begin to see how disruptive this loss was until the defense settled in enough to start to look like at least a shadow of its former self. When you have a defense which is first and foremost predicated on stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, when you aren't able to stop the run or get that pressure because of personnel problems, the secondary is going to be overburdened on pass plays and the defensive front is going to be gashed by big runs.

And of course Larry Foote wasn't the only injury to the defense, just the most serious. All you need to know is the Steelers were starting Stevenson Sylvester and Chris Carter at OLB in the second Bengals game to know something was amiss.

  • And yet—and yet the Steelers were two blown officiating calls in the Chiefs-Chargers game from making the playoffs.
  • Or two Shawn Suisham under-40-yard field goals from winning the Oakland game and making the Chiefs game meaningless. Suisham was otherwise perfect, from any distance, during the season.
  • Or two inches of Antonio Brown's shoe from getting a touchdown in the Miami game, a play which would have received its own name and gone down in Steelers history. (And made the Chiefs game irrelevant.)
  • Or one egregiously annoying referee call (not giving Le'Veon Bell the forward progress and hence the touchdown when two Baltimore defenders tried to decapitate him, and for that matter no spearing call either.) Which hopefully would have meant the next play, the pass to Cotchery, was the two point conversion. Thus the game would have gone into overtime, potentially making the Chiefs game irrelevant.

One could go on and on - and I generally do : ) - but before you fill up the comment section, I freely admit the Steelers were the recipients of two rather important non-calls by the refs who Steeler Nation is convinced have it out for the boys in black and gold. The first was the Mike Tomlin Two-Step. Although it is perfectly reasonable to argue that Jacoby Jones would have been caught anyhow, the refs could of course have issued the Ravens a touchdown had they seen fit. The second was for Terence Garvin's savaging of a poor defenseless punter who wasn't bothering anyone, other than possibly the player trying to score a punt return for a touchdown. However, strictly speaking, in neither case would the final outcome have been affected. The Steelers lost the Ravens game, and won the Bengals game by more than a touchdown.

Of course, the entire course of the game could have been affected had these two things gone differently, and the outcome, for good or ill, might have been even more different. You can say this of any of the instances given above, except the Miami Miracle (as it might have been called), since the play ended at 0:00 in the fourth quarter.

But given the larger average margin of victory to average margin of loss, particularly if you remove the Bears and Patriots games from the equation, I believe it is reasonable to say it was only inches preventing the Steelers from making the playoffs, despite the very real disadvantages under which they were laboring.

I know, I know. All teams deal with injuries. But I contend the particular injuries and timing of them dug the Steelers into a hole they couldn't quite climb out of.

Now for the good news.

  • Although there are still a few more difficulties, the Steelers are getting close to the end of the salary cap hell they got into by, understandably enough, trying to keep together a veteran core which had headlined several championship teams.
  • Although it wasn't helpful right away, at least in terms of winning games, a lot of young guys got a lot more playing time than would ever ordinarily be the case in Dick LeBeau's defense. As a result, the coaching staff and front office surely have a much better idea than they ordinarily would as to how these guys are likely to develop. Thus they have a pretty good idea as to whether the youngsters can be considered to be part of the future, and consequently where they need to focus in the upcoming draft. And they have pretty good draft position in which to address the needs.
  • They've found a way to keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy for a whole season. At least assuming even more catastrophic injuries don't happen to the offensive line next season. The importance of this can scarcely be overstated.
  • They appear to have their "bell-cow" running back of the future. This is also an excellent thing.
  • From a hot mess, the offensive line has managed to turn into a unit which functions well even when parts have to be mixed and matched. Given the recent history of the O-line, this is also huge.

In short, I fully expect to not spend the final day of the 2014 regular season chewing my fingernails down to nubs as I wait to see whether some other team's back-ups are going to get the Steelers into the playoffs. I expect the AFC North to be as tough as ever, perhaps even without the exception of the Browns, who could be really good with the right coach and the right quarterback. But I expect the Steelers to be able to contend next season for the division title. I'm not sure even the most optimistic of us thought this was a possibility this season, at least by about Week 2.

So guys, go home, spend some time with your families, and rest up, because there are big plans afoot for the 2014 Steelers. Thank you for not giving up on yourselves, even when so many fans did, and thank you for giving us something to care about all the way to the end.

A happy New Year to everyone, and Go Steelers!