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Steelers in search of identity

| Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, 7:52 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a fourth-quarter interception against the Bengals on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at Heinz Field. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

In a season that got off on the wrong foot in Denver, the Steelers were haunted throughout by an assortment of ills — injuries, untimely turnovers and uncharacteristic distractions.

The wounded list was long: safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor.

The turnovers too many: Roethlisberger's back-breaking picks against Dallas and Cincinnati — losses that banished the Steelers from the postseason for the second time during the Mike Tomlin era.

The distractions significantly impacted the team's psyche: Alameda Ta'amu's suspension for drunk driving and Rashard Mendenhall's suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.

Yet, perhaps the most telling mark on this sometimes-inconsistent team is its lack of an identity — except for a defense that consistently plugged every hole until the dam broke at Heinz Field because of another game-changing interception by Roethlisberger.

“They're not coming together for us ,and I'm not going to try to make excuses in that regard,” Tomlin said during his Monday news conference. “We just collectively have not made the necessary plays at critical moments to win enough of these close football games to not be having this discussion.”

Jerricho Cotchery, a veteran wide receiver, diligently searched for the right words to describe the Steelers. Or, at least, explain their apparent identity crisis.

“We wanted to come out and establish the run against Cincinnati,” he said. “In key situations, like third down, we couldn't capitalize.

“Eventually, we had to flip the ball to give the defense some breathing room. We just didn't have anything going on. Once we get a first down, we stalled. It's been that way pretty much the whole year with inconsistent play.

“Once you establish an identity, say you're a passing team, but once we had Ben go down (with shoulder and rib injuries), we had to go back to establishing a run. I really can't put a finger on it.

“Once you pop a big run on first down, then someone runs through the gap and we're back to third and long. We feel like we get something going, then something negative happens. We're behind the sticks.”

The Steelers haven't resembled the team that went 12-4 the previous two seasons. Those teams often were defined by an innate ability to overcome adversity.

“When we were 12-4, we didn't blow people out,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We found a way to make a play in the fourth quarter. The story all this year: We found a way — offensively, defensively, special teams — not to make a play.”

And when the defense conjured up a command performance, a seemingly stage-fright offense squandered its line with so much at stake.

Even the league's top-ranked defense couldn't stand up to the mountainous adversity it faced during a three-game losing skid. It was put into the unenviable position of having to defend a short field over and over again.

Ultimately, but especially down the stretch, that's how the Steelers' identity evolved. The offense kept pushing the defense to the brink. Finally, the season slipped away.

“We have a good, quality team here,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “But at the end of the day, you are what your record says you are.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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