As the crowd filtered out of Heinz Field following the loss to the Ravens in the AFC Wild Card round, grumbles could be heard and the frustration of losing a third consecutive playoff game (their first playoff game in 3 seasons) could be felt. It may have been the fact that the team just lost to their bitter rivals, it may have been the frustration of wondering what may have been had LeVeon Bell been able to play or it may have been the crowd just had unrealistic expectations for this team.
Yeah, the Steelers ended up putting together a statistically good season when it comes to wins and losses (11-5 record) and winning the division title but this team always felt like a .500 team that just happened to disguise themselves as a winner.
Truly good teams don’t lose home games to the Buccaneers and Saints (who were shockingly bad) or road games to the lowly Jets. Good teams don’t struggle to beat the Jaguars or Titans or lose to the Browns by 21 points.
The Steelers overachieved this season and everyone should be happy with what they accomplished. They really had no business going as far as they did.
The large part of their success was due to the emergence of a top tier offense, led by the Killer B’s. Big Ben may have had the best year of his career throwing for 4,952 yards, tying him for the league lead, 32 Touchdown passes to only 9 interceptions and a rating of 103.3. He was amazing and proved once again he’s a top quarterback in this league. Antonio Brown led the league with 129 receptions, good for second all time and LeVeon Bell won team MVP honors by leading the AFC in rushing and putting up over 2,000 all purpose yards. Add Martavis Bryant, the very talented rookie wide receiver to the mix of Killer B’s with his 8 TD catches and you’ve got something to build on in the future.
The offensive line certainly improved as the number of times Big Ben was sacked or even was hit went down. Sprinkle in the emergence of second year man Markus Wheaton , 644 receiving yards and old reliable Heath Miller, 761 yards and they proved they could score with anyone.
Yet, in the end, the problems this team had all season, reared their ugly head in the most meaningful game the organization has played in since the 2011 season.
The team lacked depth, proven by the absence of a running attack against the Ravens. When the Steelers famously dropped LeGarret Blount from the roster, they took a huge chance that LeVeon Bell would remain healthy, which he did, until the last game of the season, preventing him from playing vs. Baltimore. Behind Bell sat two rookies with less than 10 career carries between them and a newly signed Ben Tate, with all of 3 days on the Steelers roster. The decision making in regards to personnel has to be addressed, they severely need to add depth all over the roster. Not having a veteran running back behind Bell was a decision that very well could have cost this team from advancing.
It wasn’t just running back, the secondary, which started the year with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen as the starting two guys, ended it with William Gay, Brice McCain and Antwon Blake playing regularly. Kevin Colbert and company failed to draft a corner in last year’s deeply talented pool of cornerbacks and they paid for it. The secondary was one of the worst in the league and certainly one of the worst the Steelers have ever put together. It wasn’t just a lack of depth though, Troy Polamalu just isn’t the same player he once was, nor is Ike Taylor (who barely played this season). Mike Mitchell didn’t bring what he should have for five million dollars a year and the team appeared to play better when Will Allen was starting but refused to sit the Hall of Fame Polamalu to do so.
Yet it wasn’t just the secondary, the front seven didn’t get it done either. The team had 33 sacks, good for 26th in the league and barely put pressure on the quarterback all season long. That issue proved critical in the playoff loss as they only sacked Joe Flacco once and hit him 4 more times. In comparison, the Ravens sacked Big Ben 5 times and hit him 5 more.
That lack of pressure during the game and during the season led to very few turnovers created; something that’s a must for winning football games consistently.
Yet it wasn’t just the defensive problems that showed us this team wasn’t that great, they lacked discipline. How many times throughout the season did they get flagged for a stupid personal foul or unnecessary penalty? Countless. Well they put up another 8 penalties for 114 yards against the Ravens. That’s losing football. In case you’re wondering, the Ravens had 2 penalties for 14 yards. That’s called good coaching and discipline.
Mike Tomlin has preached many times over that the stupid fouls would stop. They slowed down but they reared their ugly head at the worst opportune time. That’s on him and his staff, period. To have Jason Worilds throw a punch or Shamarko Thomas hit a man 3 yards out of bounds is just plain unacceptable. Tomlin didn’t make those guys do it but he clearly didn’t prevent them from doing it either. That was his and the teams problem all season long.
Yet it wasn’t just penalties, it was lack of in game adjustments. How many times did Dick LeBeau fail to adjust his defense when it wasn’t working this season? Too many. With Tomlin at the helm and three of his staff members having head coaching experience, it’s pretty amazing that these guys don’t seem to make any in game adjustments and sometimes game week plans appropriately. They were outcoached in just about every game this season.
Yet, the Steelers won 11 games. They put together a 4-0 December. They swept the Bengals, beat the Colts, beat the Ravens once and won the division.
So those grumbling, angry sounds coming out of Heinz Field need to turn to sounds of acceptance and appreciation for what this team did accomplish. How they did it, I’ll never know but it was one heck of a roller coaster ride getting there.