This week, with the whole world seemingly convinced that the Steelers are a sinking ship, I’ve been thinking about seasons in which the team started in one direction (bad or good), and wound up somewhere very different.
In so many of those years, the only thing we remember is the end result, as though the results were inevitable and obvious all year long. The 1972 Immaculate Reception Steelers feel like the beginning of a dynasty, but four games into the season, they were 2-2 and looked a lot like the previous season’s 6-8 squad. The 1995 Super Bowl team feels like a disappointment because they came so close to winning a Lombardi, but they were 3-4 heading into week 8, and were not even leading their division.
The point of this exercise has been not simply to tamp down on some of the fires we’re all lighting to torch the 2021 season (though that’s probably not a bad thing). Instead, I’m also looking for possible keys that history says would help this team right the ship.
Now for part 3: the Steelers from 2007 to the present, under Coach T, Mike Tomlin.
Remembered for: Not really remembered, except maybe for being the last gasps of Steelers defensive dominance.
Opening Record: 2-6, with an 0-4 start.
Low point: Blowout loss to New England, 55-31 in week 8
Turnaround Streak: 6-2 (with both losses coming by literal inches)
High Point: Probably 38-31 win over Green Bay in first Packers game since Super Bowl loss; that or the season finale 20-7 win over Cleveland that guaranteed Steelers would finish .500
How did it turn around: Rushing.
Rookie Le’Veon Bell, who missed the first three weeks with an injury, made the running game a legitimate threat, which gave the defense a rest. (That’s my theory anyway.) Team rushing yards improved by 23 yards per game in second half of season, while defense improved against the rush by 32 yards per game.
Turnover margin also changed dramatically: minus-11 in first half of the season; plus-7 in second half. I credit the running game for this too, at least to a point. Bell wasn’t a fumbler, and he was both a good pass blocker and a valuable check-down guy in the passing game, so he certainly helped the offense settle down. But perhaps more importantly, when the Steelers controlled the ball with a legit rushing attack, their aging defense had time to rest, so they could come out sprinting more often, leading to better play on that side as well.
(It’s probably also worth noting that the locker room never fell apart, even at 0-4. Leadership is hard to quantify, but easy to recognize. This was a team with good leadership.)
Remembered for: High flying offense, birth of Killer B’s
Opening Record: 3-3
Turnaround Record: 8-2
High Point: Two week stretch that launched the turnaround, in which Big Ben threw six touchdowns in shootout win over Andrew Luck’s Colts and then six more in blowout of Ravens.
How did it turn around: Manpower leveled up on both sides.
Rookie Martavis Bryant earned his way onto the field, and the passing game immediately clicked up a huge notch. Bryant was a legit big-play threat, and he freed up rising star Antonio Brown on the other side, also allowing the Steelers to get the most out of the AFC’s rushing leader (and Steelers yards from scrimmage record setter) Le’Veon Bell.
Meanwhile, James Harrison came out of retirement midseason, which made the defense a lot more dangerous and unpredictable, particularly in pass rush (as opponents struggled to keep up with the powerhouse offense).
Remembered for: Vontaze Burfict’s dirty play sandbagging the team in the playoffs
Opening Record: 4-4
Low point: Opening season loss to New England, where the Steelers outplayed the Pats by almost any measure (despite the suspensions of LeVeon Bell and Martavis Bryant). Josh Scobee’s missed kicks probably cost the team in this one, as well as the other possible low point, the 23-20 loss to Baltimore in week 4 (Michael Vick’s first start).
Turnaround Streak: 7-2 (counting playoff win)
High Point: Beating eventual champion Broncos in brilliant 17 point comeback — a perfect microcosm of the season.
How did it turn around: Leadership.
Mike Tomlin famously demanded that no one blink, and then showed what he meant. He took serious risks even when the team was shaky (remember Le’Veon Bell’s direct snap walk-off touchdown against the Chargers?), and frequently went for 2-pt PATs or 4th and short, even early in games. Eventually the guys started believing, and the result was probably the best team of this mini-era.
The offense hit another gear when Ben Roethlisberger came back from midseason injury and led the league in passing yards per game. Chris Boswell shored up the terrible early-season kicking game. DeAngelo Williams nearly hit 1,000 yards in relief of injured/suspended Bell. Bryant and Brown looked like the best young receiving duo in football — with Brown threatening multiple single-season NFL receiving records, and generating buzz about whether a WR could win league MVP. The defense meanwhile got stronger and stronger as season wore on, with Ryan Shazier and Cam Heyward emerging as legit stars.
These guys were a terrific team, and would’ve been a legit title contender if it hadn’t had to go through dirty play in Cincinnati three times...
Remembered for: Getting blasted by Patriots in AFC Title Game
Opening Record: 4-5
Low point: 4-game losing streak mid-season, culminating in loss to Cowboys where they had no answer for Zeke Elliott, who scored two touchdowns in final 1:55.
Turnaround Streak: 9-0 (before loss in AFCC)
High Point: Playoff wins against Miami and K.C.
How did it turn around: D refocused and hit a new gear; offense recommitted to the run.
After the Cowboys loss, the D held a player-only meeting and resolved to turn the season around — then delivered. They were the best D in football for last two months. During their first nine games, they gave up 381 yards per game; in the second nine contests, they only yielded 287. That’s a drop of nearly 95 yards (48 passing, 47 rushing). Good god.
Meanwhile, the offense centered around Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers rushed for rushed for 90 yards per game in the opening stretch; then 144 in the back nine. That’s a 60% rise (highlighted by Bell setting the Steelers single game rushing record in wk. 14 against Buffalo, then setting the team playoff rushing record in the Wild Card round, then breaking it the very next week in the Divisional game).
In the end, the offense scored 7.1 points more per game; defense allowed 11.7 points less. They simply became a different team mid-year.
Remembered for: Big Ben’s 5000 yard passing season and Le’Veon Bell’s full-season holdout.
Opening Record: 7-2-1
High point: Blowout over Carolina on national TV, followed by revenge win over Jags (after previous year’s playoff loss)
Closing Streak: 1-4 (before winning season finale)
Low Point: Heartbreaking loss to Saints in the season’s final loss (complete with two suspect DPI penalties on Joe Haden and an ill-timed JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble) which probably cost the team the playoffs.
How did it turn around: Execution and bad luck.
An absurd sequence of bad breaks and dumb mistakes sunk this team. There were inexplicable fumbles at terrible times (re: Denver game, where Ben threw for 462 yards, but the Steelers only scored 17). There were badly timed penalties that may or may not be legit (remember the Chargers’ huge comeback? Plus there’s that Saints game). Chris Boswell fell into his only career slump. And while Ben Roethlisberger seemed to throw bangers at will, the team couldn’t figure out how to run with any consistency (finishing 31st on the ground despite James Conner’s Pro Bowl nod).
Defensively, this team was allergic to takeaways too, snagging only eight interceptions all season long and finishing 29th overall in takeaways. That certainly didn’t help.
That said, this team was never bad. Their one win in the last five weeks came against eventual champion New England, and they followed it up by outplaying the Saints (#1 seed in NFC) the next week. They just couldn’t close the deal.
Remembered for: Mason Rudolph & Duck Hodges; Steelers suddenly becoming a great defense again; Mike Tomlin’s heroic coaching performance.
Opening Record: 1-4
Low point: Losing to powerful Ravens team in overtime where they absolutely flummoxed eventual MVP Lamar Jackson. It’s a low point because the Steelers deserved to win this one, but fell to 1-4 instead.
Closing Streak: 7-1 (before fading down the stretch)
High point: Almost any win counts here — they all felt like miracles. I’ll say the revenge win over Cleveland, two weeks after the Browns had gone headhunting on national TV, concussing Diontae Johnson so hard blood ran from his ear, before Myles Garrett tried to brain Mason Rudolph with his own helmet. The rematch win in week 13 was fun to watch.
How did it turn around: Steadiness from the top; massive turnaround on D.
I have no idea how Mike Tomlin didn’t lose the locker room in this season, but he did something brilliant behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, a surprise trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick, after the awful opening two weeks, allowed the defense to take gigantic leap forward. Eventually they led the league in sacks and takeaways, and sported three All-Pros and four Pro Bowlers (and probably two snubbed in Dupree and Nelson).
Less reported: the ground game on both sides picked up dramatically. The Steelers averaged 43 more rushing yards per game on offense during the 7-1 streak, while the defense gave up 40 yards less. That’s an 83 yard flip when the team was winning.
Remembered for: Wretched playoff loss to Browns in wild card game.
Opening Record: 11-0
High point: Sweep of Ravens after multiple postponements to reach 11-0; beating succession of playoff teams in Tennessee, Cleveland, and Baltimore over consecutive weeks mid-season (again, featuring postponements that weren’t their fault).
Closing Streak: 1-5 (counting playoff loss)
Low point: Wretched playoff loss to Browns in wild card game
How did it turn around: Injuries, poor offensive scheming, exhaustion.
Injuries—especially Bud Dupree’s—did serious damage to the defense, which had started on a blistering pace, then slumped down the stretch. In particular, they bottomed out on takeaways, with 23 during the 11-0 opening; and only four(!) during the 1-5 finish.
Meanwhile, the offense devolved from a fairly balanced squad to a one-dimensional, uncreative short passing game who simply couldn’t run. The Steelers rushed for 99 yards per game in opening streak; 52 yards in the closing. (Ben Roethlisberger leading the league in passing attempts just months after major elbow surgery really should never have happened.)
Exhaustion of playing without a legit bye week played a big role in both of these elements, I suspect—certainly in the defensive slip.
What did we learn:
No matter what era we’re talking about, the biggest factors that contributed to the turnarounds (for good or bad) are turnovers and running. Stability and patience (i.e. coaching) also seems to matter a lot too — especially knowing how and when to stay the course, and the ability to not lose the locker room. Amazing how that stuff stays so consistent.
How are those areas playing out in 2021?
Well coaching leadership is in good hands. (And anyone who is already chomping at the bit to argue this one, I’d refer you to 2013 and 2019 above. Few coaches in history have been so successful at turning broken teams into playoff contenders. This may just be Tomlin’s first losing season, ever, but it won’t be because the wrong guy is in charge.)
Turnovers and rushing, on the other hand, are not looking quite as hot.
The Steelers offense has committed five turnovers in four games, which is not terrible, but puts them in the lower half the league. Defensively, though, this team has only managed to take the ball away three times all year, with just one interception, putting them on pace for a whopping four for the season. (Current NFL leader, Trevon Diggs already has five.) The Steelers were first or second in the NFL in both INTs and overall takeaways the last two years. So if we’re looking for a culprit for why they can’t seem to get a foothold in games this season, this is a good place to start.
As for rushing, the Steelers are currently dead last in attempts; dead last in yards; and 31st (i.e. second-last) in yards per carry. That’s horrendous. They also happen to sit at #2 in passing attempts, so it’s not like they aren’t running enough plays.
If I’m being honest, Najee Harris has looked a little better each week, and maybe some of that is that they’re learning how to block for him. That could lead to a later-season surge. But for right now, the team appears to have no faith in the rushing game, and little reason to believe.
What will this all translate to through the rest of the season?
Hard to know right now. But it’s useful to notice that a single change could reset the whole gauge.
If Harris and his line suddenly catch fire, like in Franco did in 1972 (where the rookie began the year averaging less than 20 yards per game, then suddenly broke through, with nearly 1,000 yards in just the last ten weeks), that would certainly make a difference.
Similarly, if the defense settled down and started playing like they have the past couple of seasons (something we know they’re capable of), and were suddenly good for three or four takeaways in most games, that would certainly change the makeup of these contests too.
Keep your eye on those elements. I’m not in the predictions game, but I’m all for keeping fingers crossed. Go Steelers.