With the 2021 Steelers floundering over the season’s first month, I thought it might be useful to track the ways the team has flipped the script on a season. It’s happened more often than you might think.
When a team catches fire late in the year, it’s easy to forget how disheartening the opening stretch had been. Similarly, when a team collapses late in the year, too many of us only remember the frustration, forgetting how strong they’d been.
I’m not here only to walk down memory lane, though, or remind us all that we’ve seen this movie before — and it doesn’t necessarily end in disaster. Instead, I also want to try to see if there’s anything we can learn about what it takes to change the game.
Part 1 (The Chuck Noll Years) is posted HERE.
Here’s part 2: the Steelers from 1992 to 2006, under the Chin, Bill Cowher.
Remembered for: Super Bowl appearance and loss to Dallas
Opening Record: 3-4
Low Point: Weeks 6 and 7, where the Steelers lost to the expansion Jaguars (in their second ever franchise win), then got blasted by Jeff Blake’s Bengals 27-3 at Three Rivers.
Turnaround Streak: 10-1 (before Super Bowl loss)
High Point: Wild Card victory over four-time AFC champion Bills 40-21 (or possibly 49-31 revenge win over Bengals in week 12). I could say the AFC title win over the Colts, but that was way closer than expected, and made me nervous for the Super Bowl (for good reason, it seems now).
How it turned around: Turnovers appear to be the key again.
During the opening streak, the team was minus-8 in that department, then plus-9 during the 10-1 closing run. The Super Bowl told the same story: minus-3 in turnovers, and a loss. Almost no other statistical categories saw a meaningful change, at all.
Remembered for: The Thanksgiving debacle at Detroit, where Jerome Bettis lost the overtime coin toss, despite making the right call.
Opening Record: 7-4
High Point: Probably the 27-20 win over two-time defending NFC Champion Packers (who the Steelers would have played in Super Bowl if they’d have won 1997 AFCC).
Turnaround Streak: 0-5
Low Point: Thanksgiving. This loss was the first of the 0-5 streak, which led to the first of three straight non-playoff years. Seems like they just never got over it...
How did it turn around: Total offensive collapse.
Steelers scored only two offensive touchdowns in the final five games of this season. Two defensive touchdowns make the team appear “really bad” instead of “absolutely awful,” but that’s an illusion. The one-time Super Bowl favorites averaged 11 points per game during this slide, and saw their offensive output drop by 45 yards per game over the season’s last month-and-change. Notably, they also committed twice as many turnovers in the final five games, averaging 1.5 giveaways/game in the first 11 weeks, then 3.0 in the final five.
It’s not clear what caused this, but the Steelers offense simply hit a wall for over a month that season.
Remembered for: Nothing, really. Just a down year.
Opening Record: 5-3
High Point: Three game winning streak from weeks 6 to 8, in which the defense gave up only one touchdown.
Turnaround Streak: 1-7
Low Point: Five game losing streak in which they lost to all five of AFC Central opponents in succession (including the next-generation Cleveland Browns, who recorded their second victory, ever, at Three Rivers... Hmm, I feel like I just wrote something very similar a couple entries ago. Weird).
How did it turn around: Total defensive collapse.
This is a confusing time. In 1998, the team started strong, then the offense fell off a cliff. Now, in 1999, the team starts strong, but it’s the defense’s turn.
Over the second half of 1999, the Steelers defense gave up nearly 100 yards per game more than they did in the first half. That’s 41 ypg rushing and 57 yards passing. But it’s also 13.0 more points per game allowed — nearly double the first eight weeks.
It’s not clear what caused this. There aren’t any important injuries I can tell, and while the offense committed a lot more turnovers in the second half of the season, that can’t explain this shutdown. They seem to have just fallen apart.
Remembered for: Not really remembered, though it probably should be — this was a good defense.
Opening Record: 0-3
Low Point: Zero passing touchdowns in first three weeks; only four total TDs.
Turnaround Streak: 9-4
High Point: Beating eventual champion Ravens 9-6 at midseason – final game Baltimore lost in 2000. Also midseason 4-0 streak that featured two shutouts, and only 9 points given up (2.25 ppg). This team went 21 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.
How did it turn around: Quarterback change, with ripple effects on scheme and performance.
Kordell Stewart was reinserted at QB over Kent Graham, and the offense immediately became more rushing-focused — amassing 54 fewer passing yards per game, but 44 more rushing yards over the season’s final 13 weeks. The defense also became truly great (as noted above). Controlling the clock by rushing more may have helped the defense, but I suspect the hard-nosed attitude helped too. Those intangibles can be hard to track, but I think defenses feed of that stuff sometimes.
One more note on that D: over final 13 games, the passing defense improved by almost 100 yards per game. Wow.
Remembered for: Super Bowl XL title, becoming first #6 seed to win it all
Opening Record: 7-5
Low Point: 3-game losing streak midseason, which essentially handed the division to Cincinnati.
Turnaround Streak: 8-0
High Point: All three playoff wins, and Super Bowl game. (The Steelers are still the only team to beat the 1-2-3 seeds in AFC and 1-2 seeds in NFC during one streak.) Probably the Divisional upset of the Colts was the high point, but pick your poison; they were all high points.
How did it turn around: Focus.
The team stopped looking too far ahead. Bill Cowher supposedly shut down every discussion about future games, playoffs, etc., and laser-focused the team on one game, series, play at a time. This team had been 15-1 the previous season. It was more of a great team that had hit a skid, and then remembered who it was, rather than a team that turned a corner and became something new.
Okay, stay tuned. The last 15 years (also known as “the Mike Tomlin era”) are next. And we’ll see what we can learn from all this.