Steelers search for answers as disappointing season draws to close
The Steelers have run 1,176 plays during their most disappointing season of this century, and they scored touchdowns on only 33. Do the math; that's less than 3 percent of all their plays.
There have been 14 interceptions, 16 fumbles, 35 sacks. Nearly half — 551 — are passes; 385 are runs. One was an onside kick. On one, Ben Roethlisberger sustained a still-difficult-to-explain injury that may have cost him the best season of his career.
But a mere five plays illustrate why the Steelers' primary incentive Sunday against Cleveland is to avoid their first losing season since 2003 and their sixth loss in seven games.
Call it the year of the coordinator change. The year when the next man up wasn't always the right man. The year that the standard wasn't the standard.
Whatever the reason for the Steelers' steep decline after going 12-4 in three of their previous four seasons, these plays explain why they will enter the new year and the offseason at the same time:
The pick six
In a tone-setting season opener, the Steelers lead the Broncos, 19-14, in the fourth quarter. The Broncos rally to lead, 25-19. Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's best fourth-quarter comeback artists, and he can win it with a late drive. However, Tracy Porter returns an interception 43 yards for a touchdown with 1:58 remaining and the Steelers lose, 31-19. A number of trends are established.
The wide receiver fumble
The Steelers lead the Raiders, 31-21, early in the fourth quarter before Oakland cuts it to 31-28. Operating out of the no-huddle, Roethlisberger hits Antonio Brown for 20 yards to the Raiders' 44. But Brown fumbles, and the Raiders subsequently get a pair of Sebastian Janikowski field goals to win, 34-31.
It is one of five costly fumbles by Steelers wideouts this season.
The blown lead
Just as in Denver and Oakland, the Steelers lead the Titans in the fourth quarter, 23-16. The Titans subsequently tie it, and Shaun Suisham is just short on a 54-yarder in the final minute. Matt Hasselback promptly hits Jared Cook for 20 yards, setting up Rob Bironas' game-winning 40-yard field goal. It's one of five times the Steelers lose fourth-quarter leads.
“We don't make plays at critical times,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “Those last drives, offense or defense, we either stalled on offense or gave up the big play on defense.”
The special teams breakdown
In one of two games the Steelers lose without giving up a touchdown on defense, Jacoby Jones' 63-yard punt return touchdown carries the Ravens to a 13-10 win. The Steelers are currently 28th in punting, 23rd in kickoff coverage, 13th in punt return coverage. (And fourth in fumbles.)
“We need to do it in all phases — offense, defense, special teams — they have to complement each other, and we didn't do that all year,” safety Ryan Clark said.
Roethlisberger and his receivers are looking out of sync at times since the QB returned from his midseason injury. Roethlisberger was critical of the play calling after throwing his game-losing overtime interception Dec. 16 in Dallas. But that wasn't Todd Haley who threw a similar late pick against the Bengals on Sunday that led to the decisive field goal and eliminated the Steelers from the playoffs. Something's not right when so many Roethlisberger throws are going wrong, but at least the Steelers have nine months to fix the problem.
“I don't know if it's typical,” linebacker James Harrison said. “But it's starting to look familiar.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.