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Steelers and their fans face a painful reality

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It's the start of another bitter winter in Pittsburgh, and the reality is setting in among Steelers' fans; this year has been a bust.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Thanksgiving might be over, but the Pittsburgh Steelers continue stuffing themselves with generous helpings of their own shortcomings. Too frequently, these inadequacies conspire to produce outcomes like Sunday's 35-32 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. The situation now has reached the point where even some of the more absurd suggestions for remaking this team (and we've heard them all) might sound semi-plausible. Ben Roethlisberger has been demoted in many fans' reckoning to the status of a second-rate, NFL quarterback. The Steelers' coaching staff is widely thought to deserve summary banishment in a great cleansing that supposedly would remove all vestiges of the organization as it now exists. The fine house that Art and Dan Rooney once built now sits condemned, and the remedy suggested is to raze the entire structure and rebuild from ground zero.

But if we stop to consider what actually happened to the Black-and-Gold so far this season, we might yet spare them from our torches and hangman's ropes. Let's be honest, Steelers Nation. At the beginning of this season, how many among us seriously believed this Steelers team was a serious contender for the big prize? Now that we've arrived at roughly the same point where many predicted we'd be sitting as December begins, the dark recriminations expressed recently in several game threads seem rather extreme to say the least.

Steelers ring Bell for 204 yards vs. Titans.

But if you've ever been in a car wreck, especially one in which you nearly bought the proverbial ranch, there's a certain Twilight Zone period when it's difficult to come to grips with the reality of what you've just experienced. This seemed to be the case for many in Steelers Nation on Sunday, when the Black-and-Gold turned a perfectly fine opportunity to keep pace in the playoff hunt into another sober reminder that this team isn't yet close to being ready for championship competition. Like a car crash where everything seems to happen in slow-motion, we could see this one coming beforehand, but there was nothing we could do to prevent it.

Since we're powerless to alter what has become an all-too-familiar scenario these days, the angry mob descends upon those deemed responsible for failing to turn a patchwork group of old and young Steelers into an NFL powerhouse. Having allowed ourselves to be tempted by the shimmering mirage of a playoff-run, blaming the Steelers' organization is far easier than accepting the more-troubling reality. But in the wake of Sunday's devastating loss to New Orleans, a defeat which most certainly will haunt the Steelers as this season plays out, reality finds the Black-and-Gold as a team simply not good enough to compete at the high level required for success in January football, let alone in February.

The Steelers' inability to maintain anything resembling a groove during the course of their 12-game schedule has a number of causes. Some of them are obvious, even to those of us whose knowledge of the Xs-and-Os is pretty limited. One of the more widely-discussed factors has been the Steelers' relatively slow development of young players, which too often has resulted in promising performers moving on to help other NFL teams instead of the Steelers. This helps to explain why timeworn veterans such as James Harrison, Ike Taylor and (until recently) Brett Keisel are still wearing Steeler uniforms. On the other hand, when your team is struggling, it's natural to focus on the players that got away as further evidence of a general decline. "You see," scolds my grumpy pal, "if only we'd kept (fill in a name) on the practice squad, he'd be starting for us now."

Dovetailing with the player-development issue is the fact that some key players previously believed to have completed their formative periods were exposed as not quite what the doctor ordered. On defense, this trend probably started with the 2009 Draft when Ziggy Hood (remember him?) was chosen as the Steelers' No. 1 pick. Five seasons and 11.5 sacks later, the Ziggy experiment had run its course and he was shipped off to Jacksonville where he has compiled exactly one sack in 12 games this season. Cortez Allen and Jason Worilds appear to be this season's candidates for Underwhelming Players of the Year.

A look at Dan McCullers from before the season.

Despite the better-than-expected play of Keisel and Harrison this season, there never was any long-term objective in bringing these guys back to Pittsburgh for their swan songs. By rights, some of the players currently manning key positions in Dick LeBeau's defense ought to be cooling their heels on the bench, or perhaps playing strictly on special teams - that is, if Mike Tomlin had the luxury of any viable alternatives.

While Sunday's loss certainly can't be laid entirely at the feet of the defense, we can't deny the fact that this group still is a hybrid comprising over-the-hill veterans, plus a bunch of young players who wouldn't be starters for other NFL teams. These days, it's essentially a JV squad out there. So realistically, how far did we expect these guys to carry us? Drew Brees might actually have done the Steelers a favor by puncturing the silly notion that this defense somehow might gather itself when facing a crucial matchup against a top-flight NFL quarterback.

What's actually surprising is the utter lack of consistency on offense, despite some noteworthy individual performances by Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The unit led by Ben Roethlisberger continues to exhibit a trait which hasn't changed much during a period dating back at least as far as the dawn of the Bruce Arians era in Pittsburgh. Quite simply, the Steelers continue to leave far too many points on the field and, in the process, have been unable to kick their habit of giving lesser competitors far too many opportunities to pick themselves back up off of the mat. This also relates to Pittsburgh's seeming inability to get off to a fast start by capitalizing on early scoring opportunities. We saw this sluggishness once again on Sunday, with the Steelers dominating the early time of possession, but failing to convert their advantages into any substantial lead on the scoreboard.

With good reason, opposing teams believe that, as long as they keep the game close, the Steelers won't be able to seal the deal when the fourth quarter rolls around. So it happened on Sunday that Drew Brees bided his time patiently throughout a largely ineffective first quarter, only to come roaring back when the Steelers' offense failed to take the initiative. This is the same pattern we've seen repeated many times and regardless of our opponent's relative capabilities. In fact, this is the very trait that ultimately turned Super Bowl 43, a game which the Steelers had dominated for nearly three quarters, into a narrow, cardiac affair at the end which might have gone either way.

But neither Sunday's defeat at Heinz Field, nor any of the other disappointments Steelers Nation has suffered in 2014, should dim our optimism about the future. Most of us knew basically what we were getting with this team as far back as the preseason. But there's still some solid evidence that the Steelers are on the right track personnel-wise, even though we obviously haven't seen the kind of seamless, year-to-year transition that typifies a team like the Patriots, for example.

When examining Sunday's wreckage, we should also keep in mind that top draft-picks Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones, who had been counted on to shoulder key parts of the overall load, have remained on the sidelines during a substantial portion of this season. Rarely at any stage of the current campaign have we had what might be considered a full complement of defensive talent on the field, whether you're speaking about veterans or youngsters.

That being said, what's perhaps most troubling is the absence of any palpable urgency on a team that desperately needs wins at this stage of the season, and especially wins at home. Going into the bye-week, the idea was that an extra week of rest would give the Steelers a golden opportunity to regroup, help them to get some key players healthy and come back stronger in front of their home crowd.

But as we've seen previously during this season, such wishful thinking can be seductive and it sets us up for some mighty big letdowns. It's particularly galling that, once again, the Black-and-Gold played a large segment of their most recent loss with a level of flatness normally associated with Opening Day, rather than their twelfth game of the regular season. And this nagging preparedness issue reflects what seems to be an alarming and widespread absence of mental toughness. Add to this the fact that No. 7 played perhaps the worst game of his entire pro career (final stats be damned), and it should be clear that the Steelers remain a team strapped with weighty issues that won't be solved merely by moving a few players around.

Ultimately, of course, it's the job of the front office and coaches to ensure that the best players find their way onto the gridiron. But unfortunately, the 2014 season has been a campaign that forces the Steelers to field the only players they've got available. Essentially, they're attempting to make player evaluations in the heat of regular-season games that normally would be worked out during the preseason. The results of this approach have been less than desirable and, in his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin spoke about a lack of cohesion and cited the failure of his team's three phases to support each other. Quite clearly, then, some pretty significant aspects are amiss with the Steelers today, and you'll find no better evidence than by reviewing any of the team's five losing performances this season.

It might help suffering fans just a bit, though, to see some stronger evidence that those in charge of the Steelers' enterprise are taking ownership of this situation and are not attempting to soft-pedal what fans can see before their own eyes. The Rooneys are far too wise and reasonable to launch a house-cleaning purge simply because fans are upset, or even because some thorny issues persist in the wake of two successive 8-8 seasons. But there's something else that legitimately frustrates fans and which might translate to more-dramatic changes during the upcoming off-season. It's a Steelers' team culture that seems somewhat oblivious to the strong and distinctly un-Steeler-like odor of complacency emanating from the Pittsburgh locker-room these days.

It's a difficult enough task just to improve your team's overall talent level year to year. But even more difficult is instilling a winning attitude into a new generation of Steelers, many of whom lack the confidence that comes from having won a conference or league championship. The loss to New Orleans underscores the fact that much hard work remains before the Steelers can begin to avoid the type of debacle we've seen only too frequently during this up-and-down season.

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