Remember when the 2016 season started? There was a level of hope and optimism that hadn’t been seen in quite some time. Sure, most Steelers fans believe every year is their year, but this season, even the most jaded and realistic fans acknowledged the Steelers were a legitimate contender to be in Houston in February 2017. After all, last season, the Steelers made the playoffs despite seeing Ben Roethlisberger miss four games, seeing Michael Vick and Landry Jones take starting snaps (and go 2-2 in those games), saw Le’Veon Bell only play five games, and saw Antonio Brown miss a playoff game in Denver…and the team was still a Fitzgerald Toussaint 4th quarter fumble away from playing in the AFC championship game. Steeler Nation had every reason to be optimistic and confident going into 2016. Even the pundits at ESPN, SI.com, and other sites held the Steelers in high esteem. And then the 2016 season began.
Oh how the mighty have fallen.
The Steelers started out 4-1 and have now preceded to lose four games in a row. They now stand at 4-5. When Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott burst through the sieve called the Steelers’ defensive line on Sunday for the dagger-twisting touchdown to win the game 35-30, the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers then added a new opponent to their itinerary: history.
It is bad enough the Steelers are currently fighting against all concepts of disciplined football, competent coaching, and sound decisions during the course of the game. Now the Steelers are fighting against their past history. The Steelers, as a franchise, have never made the playoffs when they had a four game losing skid. Four times they had three game losing skids and found ways to make the playoffs, the last time being that magical 2005 season, which seems like a lifetime ago (only Roethlisberger, James Harrison, and Greg Warren remain from that magical team).
Sure, the AFC North is looking like the worst division in the league, even worse than the typically comical AFC South. The Steelers could win the shaky division and make the playoffs for the third consecutive season, something the Steelers have not done ever under the embattled head coach Mike Tomlin. But is that even possible at this juncture? Can the Steelers actually fix their problems?
Right now, the answer to that question is no.
For one, the Steelers lack talent on the defensive side of the ball. This Steelers team only has one person who can consistently make crucial stops and force turnovers: Ryan Shazier. However, Shazier is more renowned for being injured and thus unreliable. The Steelers have solid defensive linemen in Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but are they legitimate Pro Bowlers? No, they are dependable starters and nothing else. There is no consistent pressure from the edge. 38-year-old Harrison still remains with the team not because he can still help the Steelers but because Jarvis Jones is not the pass rushing demon that the team envisioned him to be when he was drafted in 2013. Things have gotten so bad that many within the Steeler Nation are looking with hopeful glares at second year OLB Bud Dupree, who is likely coming back within the next two weeks but haven’t shown any signs of being a game changer from the edge, something the Steelers have lacked in quite some time.
The second reason why the answer is no is because of coaching. Carnell Lake might have been one of the best Steelers of the 1990s but he has not transferred his knowledge successfully to the secondary as anticipated. Despite being handed the first two draft picks from 2016, Lake’s group has looked even worse this season than they did in 2015. While the 2015 group lacked talent, this current bunch looks lost and is in the worst place for every athlete: no confidence. Rookie Sean Davis has been more of a hindrance than asset thus far with no signs of it changing anytime soon. Artie Burns flashes the athletic ability that made him the first round selection this past spring but also shows no awareness on the playing field. Yet the coaching staff will continue to put these young men out there because they are the future of this defense. In the meantime, the future is killing the present. Chances are, Lake will likely be let go by the end of the season but the damage he has done might take years to fix, especially if the psyche of Davis and Burns continues to get battered like the rest of the Steelers defense has been in the last two seasons.
The third reason why the answer is no is because of terrible in-game decisions and sensible game planning. Last season, Keith Butler took over for Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator. Butler worked resourcefully with the pieces provided. The Steelers had 48 sacks last season. However, this year, the Steelers’ front not getting consistent pressure on the quarterback and constantly getting outmuscled by opposing offensive lines has been a glaring issue. Through nine games, there are no real signs of any positive changes coming forward in regards to game planning and in-game decisions. Butler will continue to rely on conservative concepts, often using 3 to 4 man rushes and ask his secondary to play loose zone coverage. This concept would be fine if the Steelers had dynamic pass rushers who could hurry the passer on a consistent basis and if the secondary had strong tacklers who made stops after short gains. The problem is that the Steelers lack both of these and the team has been burned by the big play on a consistent basis, from the Darren Sproles dump off that went for 73 yards in Philadelphia, the Jay Ajayi 62 yard touchdown run in Miami, the Rob Gronkowski 36 yard deep shot against New England, the 95 yard catch and run by Mike Wallace in Baltimore, and yesterday’s game that saw Ezekiel Elliott catch a screen pass for 83 yard touchdown run and the Dez Bryant 50 yard deep shot. The Steelers’ defensive concept is to play underneath and prevent the big play. It is not working but Butler continues to use these concepts and it has burned the Steelers’ chances in 2016.
Last but not least, history is the reason why this team will likely not turn things around. The Steelers have made the playoffs on four occasions when they had a 3 game losing streak. That was done in 1973, 1976, 1983, and 2005. That 1973 team jumped out to a 8-1 start before their 3 game losing skid. The 1976 team started 1-4 but finished 10-4 behind perhaps the greatest defense of all time. The 1983 team was a shell of the dynasty but they started 9-2 before losing 3 in a row and ultimately finishing 10-6. The 2005 team, my personal favorite team of all time, started out 7-2 before injuries temporarily derailed them to a 3 game losing skid that led to a 7-5 record and refocusing of the players and coaching staff led to 8 consecutive wins, including the Super Bowl victory over Seattle. This current bunch of Steelers have now lost 4 in a row and history has shown that teams that lose 4 in a row don’t make the playoffs very often. Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, only seven teams (out of total of 168 playoff teams) have made the playoffs despite going through a skid of four or more consecutive losses: 2015 Kansas City Chiefs, the 2014 Carolina Panthers, 2011 New York Giants, 2006 New York Giants, 2004 Green Bay Packers, 2002 New York Jets, and 2002 Oakland Raiders, with the Raiders and the 2011 Giants being the only teams to make it to the Super Bowl.
All of those teams mentioned had talent enough to get to the playoffs and get hot at the right time. Time will tell if the Steelers will be the 8th team to join this club or if history defeats them like everyone else has in 2016.