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Pittsburgh Steelers fall short of fans’ lofty expectations

After finishing their season with a 9-1 record in their last 10 games, the Pittsburgh Steelers remain a young, talented team on the rise and a top NFL contender—no matter what their fans might think.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After the Steelers lost a tough game at Heinz Field to the Dallas Cowboys back on November 13, their 4-5 record suggested this was a team which very well might finish below .500 for the season and out of the playoff picture. At that time, few expected the Steelers to win every remaining game on their schedule—plus two playoff games—and advance to the AFC Championship Game. In fact, a fairly large segment of the fan base had written them off entirely and many were already looking forward to the 2017 NFL Draft. But by keeping their cool under pressure and gradually improving their overall play, the Steelers slugged their way to nine consecutive wins. In the process, and just in time for the holidays, Steelers Nation was presented the wonderful gift of being able to dream yet again of capturing a seventh league championship.

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s 36-17 drubbing in Foxborough at the hands of the hated Patriots, the temptation apparently was too great for many fans to cast stones in the direction of Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Keith Butler or anyone else associated (even remotely) with the Steelers’ brain trust. Instead of being gratified about the opportunity to enjoy this largely successful season, one which might never have been, we heard many of the same tired insults as during the season. Surely, if the Steelers had failed to capture another Lombardi trophy to add to their collection, then we needed to identify some convenient scapegoats for the sheer humiliation of canceling our Super Bowl parties.

But if we’re honest, even the most diehard members of Steelers Nation realized full well during the week leading up to this game that it would take nothing less than a herculean effort for the Black-and-Gold to defeat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium—especially with a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance. Realistically, was there ever any time during the past five months when you believed this young and relatively inexperienced Steelers team actually was a credible match for the Patriots, the top-seeded AFC team that notched a 14-2 regular-season record?

If your answer to this question is “yes,” then you’re probably even more disappointed than I was by the bum’s rush Pittsburgh got from New England on Sunday. While it’s considered bad form—as well as bad luck—to cast doubt on your favorite team’s chances in a game of this magnitude, I can’t say that I was too surprised by the course of events that unfolded in Foxborough. But rather than sizing up certain players or other members of the Steelers’ organization for hangman’s nooses, perhaps we ought to be thanking Head Coach Mike Tomlin and company for giving us a far more upbeat experience this season than we expected as recently as two months ago.

While the game film you’ll be seeing here at BTSC will break down the individual lapses which led to New England’s blowout win, it’s also possible to make a few subjective judgments about this game that sent the Steelers packing. First and foremost, as fine a quarterback as Ben Roethlisberger might be, he alone cannot compensate for what obviously is a shortage of reliable, experienced receivers. The Patriots knew very well that, besides Antonio Brown, the Steelers actually had nobody who could strike fear into their secondary. So, for the most part, the Pats’ defense made Brown a non-factor in the game—and the results were all too predictable: a dropped TD pass by Cobi Hamilton; another potential TD pass dropped by Sammie Coates; a crucial fumble by Eli Rogers that handed the Pats a short field and more points on the scoreboard. Even though—late in the season—Rogers seemed to be making a strong bid to become heir apparent as the No. 2 wide receiver, the Steelers continued to platoon all of their receivers not named Brown. This platooning underscored the fact that, at least in the coaches’ minds, none of them had clearly emerged as the favorite. As a result, none of them ever developed the level of confidence and coordination with Big Ben that’s essential when you’re trying to reach a Super Bowl.

Some fans apparently are ready to give up on these receivers, but it seems more likely that these youngsters are still learning their craft and are not quite ready for prime-time. But you might ask, “Then how does New England not miss a beat despite losing their all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski halfway through the season?” The difference is that Tom Brady plays quarterback for the Patriots and their offense isn’t nearly as dependent on deep passing as the Steelers’ offense.

But given the way that Roethlisberger likes to play the game, his performance depends greatly on the ability of at least three receivers to get open on a fairly regular basis. But in this game, as in a number of previous games when the offense sputtered, there simply were too many times when Ben’s preferred receiver was blanketed and he had to dump the ball off to check-down guys. Despite the fact that Eli Rogers and Jesse James had 12 catches and 114 yards between them, none of their receptions was of the scoring variety you must have in matchups of this magnitude. In retrospect, even if James had been able to punch that ball across the goal line on the challenged TD call, those 3-5 additional points certainly weren’t going to help Pittsburgh to win this particular game. New England receivers Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman far outstripped those efforts, combining for a total of 17 catches, 298 yards and three TDs.

Also, regarding Le’Veon Bell’s untimely injury, the idea that having No. 26 in the game somehow might have altered the outcome probably is little more than wishful-thinking. The Pats were doing a good job of controlling Bell during his brief stint in action and, even if he had played the entire game and rushed for his typical 100+ yards, it’s doubtful the Steelers would have been able to hang with the Pats on the scoreboard.

But the good news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers remain a mostly-young and evolving team. While they obviously were still a few bricks shy this season, there’s no reason why the addition of some key players in the upcoming NFL Draft—plus the return of Cam Heyward or possibly Martavis Bryant—might not catapult this team to an even higher level of performance next season. And when you think about it, it’s somewhat unrealistic to believe that a team having so many question marks as recently as Thanksgiving 2016 would somehow rise up at the end of the season and defeat the NFL’s premier quarterbacks (whether Brady or Matt Ryan)—both of whom are playing the best football of their careers. It’s just too easy to be a homer (small “h” that is) and ignore or forget that most of the players in our secondary still are only cutting their teeth in the NFL.

So when pondering our great and recently-dashed expectations, hopefully we’ll remember that we have a lot to be grateful for as we close out another Steelers’ football season. Provided that the organization succeeds in keeping its core group of players together on both sides of the ball during the off-season, while adding a few new pieces via the draft or free agency, it’s quite likely that the next time we face off against an NFL power like New England, we’ll have better weapons and a more realistic chance to return to the big dance.

As the 36-17 final score emphasizes, Tomlin and company still have work to do. But on the other hand, the Pittsburgh Steelers organization has nothing at all to be ashamed about. They salvaged what once looked like a mediocre season and now they’re moving into the off-season as a team undeniably on the upswing. That’s why we in Steelers Nation should never allow our disappointment to destroy our optimism about the future of this outstanding and storied franchise.