The other day, Sports Illustrated ran an essay asking about the NFL’s biggest “what ifs” of the last ten years. I’m a sucker for this kind of speculation, but (as so often happens) I was disappointed that none of their questions involved the Steelers. So I did what I always do and put together a similar piece centering around the Black and Gold.
I came up with ten fork-in-the-road moments from 2010-2019 that (I think) would have affected the Steelers most. I didn’t include the draft or free agent signings (which feel like entirely distinct articles to me), just “during the season” moments. I’ll list them below, and then make an argument for what I think could have happened if the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) ball bounced a different direction.
If this kind of counterfactual stuff isn’t your thing, you might want to click away now—that’s all that’s coming. Also you’ll notice a trend in my projections for “what could have happened.” I’m in an optimistic mood and I’m not sorry.
Anyway, let’s go. Rather than look at the list from “best to worst,” they will be done in chronological order beginning with the 2010 season.
1 – What if Rashard Mendenhall didn’t fumble in Super Bowl XLV?
If you’ve blocked this game from memory, here was the situation: In the first half of Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay had jumped out to 21-3 lead. Then the Steelers started chipping away. As the third quarter came to a close, the score was 21-17 and Pittsburgh was driving. They had the ball on the edge of field goal range on the first play of the fourth quarter. That’s when Mendenhall lost the ball, killing the drive and giving Green Bay a short field and (soon) a 28-17 fourth quarter lead.
At the time of the fumble, the Packers had amassed just 20 yards and a single first down over their previous five possessions combined. Meanwhile, the Steelers covered 162 yards in the same stretch, scoring two touchdowns and missing a field goal after another extended drive. Their offense was moving easily and their defense was shutting down Aaron Rodgers. The momentum was real. (An under-reported fact about Rodgers is he’s actually not a particularly clutch quarterback and, despite the collective memory of him “carving up the Pittsburgh defense,” he’d gone completely ineffective as the Steelers mounted their comeback—until that momentum-swinging fumble and the short field it gave him.)
My guess at the result:
If Mendenhall doesn’t fumble, I expect the Steelers would have scored on that drive and taken the lead. The Divisional Playoffs that year ran a similar script, with the Ravens jumping out to a big halftime lead, then the Steelers dominating after the break. It was how the third quarter had played out, and that’s how I picture the Super Bowl finishing if Mendenhall doesn’t fumble.
Hang onto the ball and the Steelers win their third Super Bowl in five years.
2 – What if Ryan Clark had been able to play against Denver in the 2011 playoffs?
I already regret writing this article because it’s making me revisit the most frustrating games of the last decade. In this case, I’m talking about the Tim Tebow game. You know, the one where Tebow threw an 80 yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime as the 8-8 Broncos beat the 12-4 (and defending AFC Champion) Steelers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
When people talk about that play/game they always point to Tebow, but the real problem was that Thomas got free on a deep cross. If you watch the play, you can see Ike Taylor plays to Thomas’ outside as though he thought he had safety help in the deep middle. He didn’t. This is because Pro Bowl free safety Ryan Clark has a sickle-cell condition which prevented him from playing at Denver’s altitude, so backup Ryan Mundy was the free safety. On the play, Mundy sprints toward the line of scrimmage right at the snap. It’s hard to tell if he’s trying to jam Thomas at the line, faking a blitz, or biting on play-action. But whatever the case, Thomas goes right through the spot vacated by Mundy and the Steelers’ season ends.
Pass coverage is often all about communication and diagnosing in-the-moment, and Clark was a smart veteran. Despite Troy Polamalu’s freestying, the Steelers almost never gave up deep touchdown passes because Clark knew if he needed to adjust to keep the play in front of him. It’s hard to imagine him taking such an awkward (unrecoverable) angle on the first play of overtime in the playoffs.
My guess at the result:
I predict Thomas doesn’t go for 80 with Clark on the field. Frankly, I suspect Clark’s presence would have made it so the game didn’t go to overtime in the first place. The Steelers were the better team, even on a bad day. Tebow’s career-day passing wasn’t all Mundy’s fault, but Clark’s absence played a part.
After that game, the path to Super Bowl XLVI would have been tough. Next up was New England, then Baltimore. Then again, the Steelers bludgeoned the Patriots 25-17 in Week 8 that year (in a game that wasn’t actually that close). And while the Ravens swept the Steelers in 2011, Pittsburgh had knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs twice in the previous three years. I think the Steelers were in the Ravens’ heads.
If Clark plays against Denver, I predict the Steelers run the table, defending their AFC crown and beating the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. (Are you noticing that trend I mentioned?)
3 – What if Antonio Brown had stayed in bounds against Miami in 2013?
The 2012 and 2013 seasons are kind of “lost years” in Steelers lore. The great defenses of the 2000s were retiring, and the great offenses of the 2010s were still developing. But the 8-8 squad of 2013 could have been special. That year the team started 0-4, then hit the halfway mark at 2-6 before erupting in a second-half surge. They finished on a 3-0 run, with two of those wins coming against playoff teams (Cincinnati and Green Bay), and only missed the playoffs because referees missed an illegal formation penalty which gave San Diego a win (and the last Wild Card slot) in the season’s final game. People had begun to refer to the Steelers as “the team no one wants to face in the playoffs,” despite their 8-8 record.
But they nearly didn’t need the help. In Week 13, against the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers nearly pulled off one of the greatest final-plays in NFL history. Trailing 34-28, with 0:02 left in the game and 80 yards from pay dirt, the Steelers ran a Stanford-Band-style cross-field lateral in which six different players touched the ball (Ben Roethlisberger twice). Eventually Antonio Brown wound up with a clear lane up the left sideline, and (as only a punt returner can) wove through the handful of Dolphin defenders for the tying touchdown. Watch the play — it’s absolutely stunning. Right up until he steps on the chalk at the 13 yard line, ending the game. The salt-in-the-wound on this play is that Brown wasn’t forced out — no one was anywhere near him. He just lost sight of the sideline.
My guess at the result:
If Brown scores, the Steelers hit the playoffs on a 7-1 run, having gone 9-3 since their winless first quarter. In fact, the week before Miami, they’d mounted a late comeback against Baltimore as well, only to see Emmanuel Sanders drop the tying two-point conversion in the final seconds. That is, they were two inches (literally) from finishing on a 10-2 run, with an eight game winning streak.
If they’d have won either contest, they’d have taken the sixth seed. The playoffs would have been a road trip through Cincinnati and Denver (featuring Peyton Manning), for a chance to play Seattle in the Super Bowl. Hmm, sixth seed, on the road, Cinncinnati, Denver, Manning, and Seattle? I’ve heard that story before. Last time, it ended with the Steelers hoisting the Lombardi. That’s probably what happens again.
4 – What if LaGarrette Blount doesn’t pout his way off the team in 2014?
Blount was originally signed as a bruising backup to LeVeon Bell, and actually logged a 100 yard game in Week 3. But his carries tailed off over the season. In Week 11, while Bell carried 33 times for 204 yards against the Tennessee Titans, Blount got no touches. Angry, he left the field before the game even ended. A dust-up with Joey Porter followed, along with reports that some teammates had grown tired of Blount’s attitude. Mike Tomlin released him the next day.
Bell (who led the AFC in rushing and scrimmage yards that year) hyperextended his knee a few weeks later and had to sit out the Wild Card game against Baltimore. Without Blount, Bell’s top backups were UDFA rookie Josh Harris and former Texan Ben Tate (just signed off the street). In the fourth quarter of the Wild Card game, Tate let a check-down pass bounce off his hands and right into Terrell Suggs’ breadbasket. The Ravens capitalized in one play, turning an eight point lead into 15 with only 7:56 to go.
Meanwhile, Blount signed with the New England Patriots, who leaned on his rushing through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl.
My guess at the result:
With Blount in the backfield, the Ravens would have had to respect the Steelers’ rushing game in the Wild Card round, opening up the passing lanes for Ben Roethlisberger and the high-flying Steelers aerial game. Roethlisberger had thrown for six touchdowns against Baltimore in Week 9. There’s no reason to think he would have been shut down in the playoffs if there was a rushing attack for Baltimore to respect.
With Blount still on the team, I think the Steelers beat the Ravens, then get Bell back later in the playoffs for a fully loaded ‘killer B’s’ team. Meanwhile, the eventual champion Patriots struggle in the postseason without his running. That opens the door for the Steelers to meet the Seahawks in Glendale for a rematch of Super Bowl XL.
Does Pittsburgh win again? Sure, why not.
5 – What if Vontaze Burfict missed the 2015 season?
Vontaze Burfict was the worst human in football through his whole career (which I hope is over). This has been well documented, so I’m not going to list all the cheap, dirty, borderline criminal acts this garbage-person perpetrated over the years. But just regarding the 2015 Steelers, he ended Le’Veon Bell’s year mid-season (then celebrated it), and of course, cheap-shotted both Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown in the AFC Wild Card game in Cincinnati. That’s all three Killer-B’s. And the playoff hits (driving his knee into Roethlisberger’s shoulder, then trying to decapitate Brown) were so egregious I’m amazed he was allowed back into the league.
The Steelers offense was damned near unstoppable that year when it was up and healthy. And the defense, always scrappy, was starting to play like a legit unit. A touchstone for how good this team could be was their 17-point comeback against the eventual champion Broncos just three weeks prior. The 2015 Steelers were the real thing.
Or they were until Burfict single-handedly ruined their season with dirty play.
My guess at the result:
This is one of the most underrated Steelers teams I know of. They nearly beat the Broncos in Denver in the AFC Divisional playoffs the next week with Roethlisberger at half-speed, Bell in jeans, and Brown not even making the trip. They’d have cruised through the AFC if they had a full roster.
Thinking long-term, who knows whether Antonio Brown would have ever spiraled out of control without the severe head trauma of that playoff game? But even if we just focus on 2015, I say this team wins the Super Bowl if Burfict had been kicked out of the league like he should have been.
Please come back tomorrow and check the final five painful ‘moments that could have been’ from the 2010s. The first part of this list spanned the 2010 through 2015 seasons. If you have other ‘what if’s’ from those seasons, please share them in the comments. But don’t get ahead of yourselves as there will be more to come from the rest of the decade.