The AFC playoff teams are set, and the Steelers will spend January on their couches watching other teams compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Sunday's loss to Cincinnati sealed the Steelers' fate.
If we're being honest, we all knew the Steelers didn't deserve to be there. The team just isn't good enough to compete for a title. But why not? Well, first, let's think about the positives:
-Troy Polamalu came back. And not in the sense that he was on the field for the game; he was back. He was in on tackles, defending passes, and even made his trademark time-the-snap-count-and-get-to-the-QB-before-the-ball-does play.
-The front seven of the defense actualy got some pressure on Andy Dalton. Not all the time, because Dick LeBeau more than once decided to only rush three linemen, which is never going to work, but a lot of blitzes in big moments were effective.
-Lawrence Timmons made plays. He was blitzing, covering, tackling, and doing everything you need your stud middle linebacker to do. Really solid game from Timmons.
-If Timmons had a good game, Cortez Allen had a great game. He was breaking up passes and even hauled in two interceptions. A performance like Sunday's gives us all some hope for the future of the defensive backfield.
-The defense only gave up six points as they completely shut down the Bengals' running game and got back to forcing turnovers. Incredible performance the past few weeks by a unit that was supposedly washed up and useless.
The bad news after the jump.
What do all the positives have in common? They had nothing to do with the offense, which was absolutely putrid all day. Much has been made of the alleged feud between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley. A great portion of that story is media-driven, but it isn't without merit. It's no secret that the offense was great when Ben and Bruce Arians were buddy-buddy and doing whatever they wanted. But to look at the offense and simply conclude that Todd Haley is a bad coach and should be fired is ignorant. It takes a team to win a game, and it certainly takes a team to lose a game.
As with any offense, the place to start talking is the offensive line. Dealing with injuries to Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, and Willie Colon, the line was just incapable of moving defenders and opening running lanes. That isn't to say that those three players would have magically turned everything around, but the inexperience on the right of the line really hurt the offense. David DeCastro, especially, had a terrible game. It's a young line though, and with the high draft pedigree of DeCastro, Pouncey, Gilbert, and Adams, one has to think this is a group that will get better together.
Without an offensive line, it's hard to run the football. Unfortunately, the extremely predictable Steelers offense stuck with Jonathan Dwyer, often on inexplicably slow-developing delayed handoffs. Dwyer (and Redman, for that matter) is a complementary back. It's great to have a big power guy to [ideally] convert 3rd and 4th & short. If your play call on 1st & 10 is "power back up the middle" then you're going to see a whole lot of 2nd & 8s, and that doesn't make a good running game. The Steelers need a dependable running back who can take the bulk of the carries and actually augment the offense. Sadly, the coaches seem to hate Rashard Mendenhall and refuse to let him play the role his talent warrants. Assuming Rashard walks, the Steelers have to make it a priority to get a feature back in the offseason.
The "Young Money" wide receivers have proven largely ineffective, particularly the big-money man himself, Mike Wallace. With his future in Pittsburgh in doubt and playing for a new contract, Wallace spent most of the season not catching passes thrown to him. Antonio Brown hasn't been making explosive plays like he did in 2011, and a lot of that can probably be attributed to his ankle injury last month. Emmanuel Sanders had a decent year; making the plays you like from your 3rd receiver, but inexplicably fumbling or disappearing for stretches of games. Heath Miller had a great year of catching anything thrown near him and falling forward for first downs. Unfortunately his season was [probably] ended prematurely when he suffered a knee injury late in Sunday's game.
Lastly, Ben Roethlisberger. His season started with perhaps the most reliable and efficient play of his career. The Kansas City Chiefs changed the script when they put him out for a few weeks with a bizarre shoulder/rib injury. Once he left, the offense got bad. They didn't get better when he returned. All the pieces were there to pick up where they left off, but for whatever reason, they simply never clicked again. It's hard to look at the offense from the early season and the personnel that couldn't figure anything out in the past few weeks, because little has changed. If I had to guess about what plagued the Steelers, I would guess it was an intangible kind of thing.
I don't know exactly what went wrong. Neither do you. None of us do.
Let's hope Kevin Colbert does.
(Next week is technically a real game against the Browns, but it isn't going to matter so that's a preseason game by our standards)