Steelers endure rapid plunge
And not just by the Steelers' defense.
Their 55-31 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, in which the Steelers (2-6) allowed the most points and yards in franchise history, wasn't a one-game anomaly. Rather, it illustrates a dramatic plunge that has seen the Steelers go from one of the NFL's best teams to one of its worst in mere months.
“A lot of men played a lot of good football on a lot of good defenses here‚ and this is not one of them,” safety Ryan Clark said.
It was just about this time a year ago that the Steelers began the most precipitous fall-off in the franchise's 81-season history.
They were 6-3 after winning their fourth in a row, a 16-13 overtime decision Nov. 12 over the then-woeful Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field. Their running game, passing game and defense all were in sync as they appeared ready to reach the postseason for the ninth time in 12 seasons.
At that point, the Steelers were 30-11 (.731) since the start of their 2010 Super Bowl season, the NFL's fifth-best record during that stretch.
But maybe Ben Roethlisberger's chest/shoulder injury in that game was a portent of things to come. He wasn't the same quarterback when he returned three weeks later, and the Steelers lost five of their final seven.
They are 4-11 (.267) since that midseason collapse. They would have to win seven of their final eight just to finish above .500. It's all but certain they will miss the playoffs for the second successive season; that hasn't happened since they sat out three consecutive seasons from 1998-2000.
“We're all angry — and confused,” Roethlisberger said.
Never in their history have the Steelers gone from being so good to being so bad in so short a period.
Since the 1970 NFL merger, they have had only two other comparable stretches; they also dropped 11 of 15 after winning their opener in 1988, and they lost 13 of 17 from 1999-2000.
This fall-off is being most felt by a defense that was the NFL's best statistically last season.
Now, the Steelers are 13th defensively, down from No. 6 only a week ago. The run defense is now the NFL's second worst; last season, it was second best.
“Disgusting,” Brett Keisel said.
Lost amid Tom Brady's four touchdown passes and 432 yards passing were the Patriots' 197 yards rushing, the second successive game the Steelers allowed that many yards. Only once during Dick LeBeau's two stints as defensive coordinator (1995-96 and 2004-present) did the Steelers allow more.
“They've been playing football for a long time, and they have some of the best players that have ever played in the league,” Brady said. “They've been doing it for a long time.”
Maybe that's part of the problem; they've been doing it for so long. The Steelers still have eight starters remaining from their 2008 Super Bowl-winning team, an extraordinarily large number in a league where the player turnover rate is very high.
“It's a proud group over there,” Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. “They've got some proud guys that have been there a long time and play hard. I know they're not happy about it.”
For the Steelers, there hasn't been much to be happy about for a year.