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Scrutinizing the Steelers' shutoff switch

One troubling aspect of the 2014 Steelers, like some previous editions, is their tendency to play the game for extended periods either in the “On” or “Off” mode.

Justin K. Aller

Most Steelers fans feel pretty confident in their familiarity with this team's personnel, whether on the field or in the front office. Indeed, some degree of certainty about "known qualities" forms the very foundation of analysis for every sports pundit under the sun. But what are we to do when a team trots out onto the gridiron and displays the kind of schizophrenic character we witnessed during the Steelers' narrow, last-second win over the Browns on Sunday? How does anyone work with that profile?

As someone who's old enough to be a dad to many BTSC regulars, I can assure you this team isn't your father's Steelers (maybe your grandpa's). During the Steelers' championship years, and especially during the celebrated reign of Emperor Chuck Noll, it was extremely rare to see the team apparently equipped with an On/Off switch. That switch obviously was "On" during the first half of Sunday's game, when the Steelers built a commanding 27-3 advantage. But someone shut off the switch at halftime, and the team managed only three more points in the second half which came at the very end when Shaun Suisham booted his game-winning field goal.

If this were the first time Steelers fans ever had seen this act, we might simply dismiss it as an anomaly and move on. But during the past few years, these extended lapses have become common enough to raise some concerns as to the true identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This level of concern is far less, of course, with reference to the offense than the defense. Nevertheless, neither unit demonstrated any particular competence during what seemed like an interminable second half of football. What to think when your entire team shuts down for 30 minutes in the very first game that counts?

Last season, when the Steelers played New England, we recall that, just after the Black-and-Gold had shown some offensive firepower to come roaring back, the TV camera panned to the Pats sideline where Coach Bill Belichick was huddling with his entire defensive unit. I'm no lip-reader but I'm pretty sure there was little doubt in any of those players' minds exactly what Belichick expected at that point and, not surprisingly, the Pats largely stifled the Steelers offense from that stage forward, as the Pats went on to an easy win.

I'm certainly no fan of Belichick, but I'll give him credit for being one of the better NFL coaches in terms of making mid-game adjustments (with or without the aid of espionage). Similarly, while licking their wounds, Browns fans should take some comfort in the apparently excellent halftime adjustments made by head coach Mike Pettine and his staff. We might excuse Pettine for his lack of familiarity during the first half with a revamped Steelers' defense and its many new faces. But it didn't take too long for the Browns to find gaping holes in this 2014 version of the "Steel Curtain."

As a result, during the entire second half, the Browns OL administered the most ferocious beating we've seen doled out to a Steelers' defense in quite some time.  To say the Steelers D appeared to be in utter disarray is an understatement. On play after play, Brian Hoyer and company simply rubbed our noses in the dirt and, most embarrassingly, right in front of the noisy home crowd at Heinz Field.

Everyone knows that football, like other sports, is a game of ebb-and-flow where momentum can play a significant role. But usually these spurts of momentum occur periodically throughout the game. It's just weird when a team shuts down for an entire quarter, or even a half, as the Steelers did on Sunday. And it's difficult to escape the impression that this troubling tendency has more to do with preseason conditioning and coaching than it does with the players on the field. Even as Coach Pettine demonstrated the ability to make effective mid-course corrections, the Steelers entire coaching staff appeared to go to sleep at the switch at halftime on Sunday, and that switch clearly was in the "off" position.

Being unable to recognize the guys playing in the black-and-gold uniforms after about 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon, I found myself growing disoriented and craving distilled spirits, which normally is my demeanor in the wake of a Steeler defeat. So I thought it might help to get the sage perspectives of our BTSC crowd on the following questions:

1)      To what do you attribute the Steelers' apparent lack of consistency as a team in recent years?

2)      Do you think poor preparation (i.e. conditioning or coaching) is either mainly, or at least partially, to blame for the Steelers' Jekyll & Hyde character?

3)      What do you think should be done to correct this syndrome?