Late turnover costs Steelers stinging loss vs. Bengals
The Steelers are home for the holidays — and a whole lot longer. A team that came up short all season is settling in for a long, cold and playoff-less winter.
It doesn't feel right, much like a season filled with close losses, multiple injuries, constant lineup shuffling, worst-possible-time mistakes and an overall lack of cohesion never did. The Steelers just weren't the Steelers, and now they're just like 20 other NFL teams — going nowhere in January.
During a season in which the only consistent factor was their inconsistency, the Steelers (7-8) accomplished Sunday what they rarely did by forcing turnovers, making big plays on defense and dictating the tempo. Not that it mattered.
Their 13-10 loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field sent Cincinnati (9-6) to the AFC playoffs for the second consecutive season — that hadn't happened in 30 years — and assured the Steelers of missing the postseason for only the third time in a dozen seasons. They'll play the Browns (5-10) on Sunday in the type of meaningless end-of-the-season game Cleveland always plays but the Steelers seldom do.
“We're used to winning these games at the end and pulling it off,” a disbelieving Brett Keisel said in a quiet locker room following the Steelers' fifth loss in six games. “It wasn't meant to be.”
What made this loss tough to take was it didn't have to be.
With 24 seconds remaining and the Steelers needing almost 40 yards to get into Shaun Suisham field-goal range — he already had missed a 24-yarder — Ben Roethlisberger gambled by throwing downfield. Reggie Nelson intercepted it.
Roethlisberger already had thrown an interception that Leon Hall returned 17 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. The week before, he threw a pick on the second play of overtime that led to a 24-21 loss in Dallas.
“We should be in the playoffs if it wasn't for me,” he said.
There was plenty of blame to go around after Andy Dalton completed a gutsy 21-yard sideline throw to A.J. Green that set up Josh Brown's winning 43-yard field goal with four seconds left. The only other Bengals points came off an interception and an earlier 41-yard field goal.
A disgusted James Harrison wasn't blaming just the players, either, only a week after Roethlisberger criticized offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play calling.
“We've got to do a better job as players of playing the game, individually and collectively,” Harrison said. “And we have to do a better job as coaches, coaching the game and putting our players in positions to make plays.”
He wouldn't elaborate.
“Like I said, we have to do a better job as players of playing and a better job by the coaches of coaching,” Harrison said.
A few minutes before Harrison spoke, coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert, chairman Dan Rooney and team president Art Rooney II huddled privately. The somber look on their faces told the tale of a season in which the Steelers haven't resembled the team that went 12-4 in three of the previous four seasons.
They haven't been the same team from week to week, as a dozen starters have missed multiple games to injury, including all of their big names. When the offense has played well, the defense hasn't and vice versa.
“There are just some things, obviously, that we're lacking,” Troy Polamalu said.
The defense that couldn't hold fourth-quarter leads in losses to the Broncos, Raiders, Titans and Cowboys was mostly superlative. Cornerback Cortez Allen had two interceptions and forced a fumble, and the Bengals — a running machine of late — amassed only 14 yards on the ground.
But the Steelers' offense was 2 for 14 on third downs and didn't score off the Allen-created turnovers. The only big play was a 60-yard Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown touchdown pass with 1:09 left before halftime.
“We were never on the same page the whole year,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “When you have the potential on the team that we had, the talent, but you don't make it happen, it's frustrating. It just never came together the whole time. It just wasn't our year, man.”
It all makes for an unusual end-of-season's greeting for the Steelers: Wait till next year.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.