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2015 Pittsburgh Steelers not who we thought they were

November 2015 proved to be a pivotal month for the Pittsburgh Steelers as some major team weaknesses increasingly emerged for all to see.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

During those heady days of training camp at St. Vincent College, it was perhaps too easy to forecast that the combination of a high-powered Steelers' offense and some additional help at linebacker would suffice to lead Pittsburgh back to the NFL's Promised Land. While fans and pundits widely predicted the Steelers' defensive backfield would be a liability, Ben Roethlisberger nevertheless was expected to outgun his opposition at every turn. Little did we know back then that a strange series of events would conspire to turn this once-promising season into the train wreck that it's become today.

For those who might view the "train wreck" image as hyperbole, consider strictly the most-obvious facts. As the result of an early-season suspension followed by a season-ending injury, Le'Veon Bell ultimately has not been a factor for Pittsburgh in 2015. Big Ben has either been sidelined or playing at somewhat less than 100 percent since late September. The team's vaunted group of first-round draft picks at linebacker have failed, for the most part, to compensate for glaring weaknesses in the secondary. Ryan Shazier, widely expected to become a key impact player this season, has missed multiple games and legitimate questions have emerged about his ability to withstand the rigors of performing at the professional level.

Adding the injury that wiped out the season for Maurkice Pouncey, it's pretty clear that each of the former "plus factors" which Steelers Nation had counted on has morphed into a hideous shadow of itself at some point in 2015. Essentially, the Steelers have been trying to remain competitive with an ever-shifting cast of characters at key positions. In times such as these, head coaches and their assistants are inclined to gamble in the effort to reignite their team's lost spark. Thus, we've seen Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley increasingly assume the roles of riverboat gamblers as their bread-and-butter options largely have been taken off of the table in 2015. The percentages in such risk-taking being what the are in the NFL, the results we've seen were predictable.

But this doesn't mean, as some suggest, that the team needs wholesale coaching changes. What it does mean is that the painful transition between Pittsburgh's former championship teams and the contending team expected in the future currently is on hold. Unfortunately, the 2015 Steelers haven't yet become the team we thought they were. To be a legitimate contender for another Super Bowl title, the Black-and-Gold clearly must have its franchise quarterback remain on the field for most, if not all, of the regular season. It also needs considerably better talent in the defensive secondary and more production from a high-priced linebacker corps.

Perhaps most of all, the Steelers need more splash players on the gridiron. With his breakout performance in Seattle on Sunday, Markus Wheaton gave us a very good rendition of what this team has been missing. Like their storied namesake, Lombardi trophies are won by players who hate to lose and refuse to be denied. When we think about the greatest moments in Steelers history, we typically recall the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris or Lynn Swann's acrobatic catch in Super Bowl X against the Cowboys. More recently, we think about James Harrison's game-changing pick-6 against Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII or the leaping, toe-tapping TD grab by Santonio Holmes to seal that victory. We think about Hines Ward and the incredible determination with which he played each and every down of his outstanding career. We might also get the indelible, mental image of Jack Lambert hissing at quarterbacks through gaps in his teeth as they called signals.

Like it or not, and with the notable exceptions of their quarterback and the amazing Antonio Brown, the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers appear generally to lack players of this caliber. Even given his stellar talent, Le'Veon Bell cannot be included here because of the previous suspension and injuries which have delayed his progress. In a nutshell, this represents the crux of the matter with the Pittsburgh Steelers. During the past few seasons, it seems that Steelers Nation continually is playing a waiting game. Will Ben or Shazier be able to play on Sunday? Can Boykin be our savior in the secondary? Whatever happened to Shamarko anyway?

Accustomed to success, many of the Steelers Nation faithful already have reached the limits of their patience. They've grown weary of the excuses and the old sop of "wait until next year." This dialogue might be standard fare in places like Atlanta or Detroit, but Pittsburgh expects its team to walk the walk. Fans want to see more players wearing black-and-gold who perform as though it truly suits them. But so far this season, these expectations have mostly been frustrated.

There are basically two options for a team whose season hasn't quite turned out as expected. Option No.1 is to continue beating one's head against the proverbial wall in a vain effort to salvage something from a campaign which now appears rapidly to be going south. The second option is to ignore wins or losses, but to use the reminder of the current season to inform personnel decisions which might bring your team success in the seasons ahead. It's pretty obvious by now that Pittsburgh has a number of players in its starting lineup who don't belong there. It's equally clear that this team needs at least two or three more impact-players on whom they can rely week after week to provide the kind of boost formerly associated with names such as Bettis, Ward and Polamalu.

Injuries and bad luck aside, that's the key element missing from this year's edition of the Steelers. As great a player as No. 7 obviously is, he cannot compensate for a leadership deficit in other key areas. This lack of on-field leadership is essentially what we've seen in five defeats this year at the hands of the Patriots, Ravens, Chiefs, Bengals and Seahawks, each one a game that the Steelers otherwise might have won. "Three bricks shy" might sound like a tired cliche, but it's actually the difference between the guys hoisting the trophy and those who invariably are golfing in Hawaii come February.