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Great teams don't lose the way the Steelers did on Sunday

The Steelers had a chance to jump out to their first 3-1 start since 2010 but, instead of taking care of business against an 0-3 Buccaneers team at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, they fell back to .500 after a heartbreaking, last-second loss. It was frustrating for sure, but it wasn't totally unexpected, given their mediocre level of play the past two-plus seasons.

Joe Sargent

If you were a frustrated Pirates fan for most of the record-setting 20 years of losing that stretched from 1993-2012, you probably remember that anytime they seemed to get close to respectability (for them, unfortunately, that was simply a .500 record), they would implode by going on a seven- or eight-game slide.

If you're currently a fan of Pitt football, you know that whatever the program can do to keep its current streak alive of losing at least three games every season since 1981, you probably weren't too shocked when the Panthers lost at home to Akron on Saturday.

These are the kinds of things that fans of mediocre-or-worse sports teams learn to anticipate because, much like a really good team, an average or bad one will always find a way to make sure it maintains its essential character.

Obviously, if you were a Steelers fan in the recent past and you got to cheer on guys like Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, James Harrison and countless other legendary players who helped the team make it to three Super Bowls, winning two of them, you could count on your favorite team taking advantage of an early-season road win against a playoff team by following that up the next week with a business-like victory at home against a winless team.

The odds-makers certainly had that thought when they installed Pittsburgh as an eight-point favorite against the Buccaneers (0-3 entering Sunday's action) in a Week 4 tilt at Heinz Field.

But maybe the odds-makers are still lagging behind a bit and don't know these current Steelers as intimately as perhaps they should.

Following their impressive and mostly unexpected 37-19 victory Carolina in Week 3, the Steelers had a chance to jump out to their first 3-1 start in four years on Sunday. And after the Buccaneers turned the ball over on downs in the red-zone with only 1:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and Pittsburgh clinging to a 24-20 advantage, it looked like that fast start was being realized.

But this new Steelers team, the one that combined to go  16-16 during the past two seasons, isn't a great team. Great teams with great offenses find ways to run off the final 1:44 of game time. Great teams don't commit crucial penalties or go three-and-out on critical drives. Great teams don't boot 29-yard punts and make the opposing quarterback's job easier by setting up his offense only 46 yards away from paydirt with less than a minute to play.

Great teams don't allow 41-yard passes to journeymen receivers like Louis Murphy.

Great teams with great defenses don't allow opposing offenses to gain 301 yards in one half like the Buccaneers did in final two periods at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon after totaling only 49 during the first two.

Great teams find ways to get after quarterbacks, protect their own (the Bucs Mike Glennon was sacked once, while the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger was taken down five times) and finish up on the plus side of the turnover equation more often than not.

Great teams don't commit 125 yards in penalties.

Pittsburgh did exceptionally well in just about every conceivable area against the Panthers in Week 3 (well, aside from penalties), and that's why they appeared to be a great team, even if only for just a half or so.

But the operative word in that last sentence is "appeared," because it was just an illusion.

Yes, the Steelers are what their record says they are: a mediocre team with an average 2-2 record and perhaps on their way to another 8-8 finish.

But, hey, at least the Pirates are in the playoffs for a second straight year, and, that's starting to become as familiar as the Steelers mediocrity these days.

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