Midseason report: How the Steelers got to 2-6
How the mighty have fallen.
The Steelers (2-6) enter the second half of what could be a franchise-shaking season when they play the Bills (3-6) on Sunday at Heinz Field. In a relative heartbeat, one of the elite teams in professional sports — not just the NFL — has transformed from a powerhouse to a near pushover, its once-signature defense coming off the worst performance in franchise history.
After going 30-11 in the previous 2½ seasons, the Steelers are 4-11 since last November. The never-get-it-right Raiders own the same record, and only the Buccaneers (2-13) and Jaguars (1-14) are worse.
No longer do the Steelers run in the company of the Patriots, Broncos and 49ers. Instead, they're scrounging for wins with the likes of Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.
“Honestly, it's tough,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “We can't look at the big picture (like usual). ‘What's everybody's record? Are we in the playoffs?' It's just (try to get) one win this week.”
So how did a franchise that did it right for so long, with only the occasional anomaly, suddenly find itself in the running for a top-10 draft pick? Unable to stop not only the Tom Bradys and Adrian Petersons of the NFL world but also the Matt Cassels?
The free fall seemingly occurred overnight, but it began long before winning became as inconsistent as Roethlisberger's pass blocking.
Sign a quarterback to a $100 million contract, let the cap issues ensue. The Steelers are no different. All those years of winning — three 12-4 records in a four-season span from 2008-11 — meant they paid a price for winning. All good teams do.
The difference is how many top-tier players got paid for that winning.
Peyton Manning counts $17.5 million against the cap, but only one other Broncos player counts $10 million and only two more are above $3.5 million. Drew Brees sets back the Saints' cap by $17.4 million, but no other player is above $6.7 million, and only one more is above even $5 million.
Adjustments will be made, but at the moment, seven Steelers are due a cap hit of more than $8.47 million next year, with five at $10.4 million or above. When so few make so much, it means there is precious little money available for even affordable free agents, the kind that can make a major difference (see Wes Welker, Broncos). And contracts must be renegotiated constantly, as was necessary to free up enough space to sign the April draft class.
“The system may have caught them for a while, and they may have to regroup and reload,” said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. “You can't keep everybody, and you're drafting late every year.”
Perhaps no NFL team is more reliant upon the draft than the Steelers, especially since their cap situation doesn't allow them to bring in much outside help. And from 2003-07, their first-rounders were home runs or triples: Troy Polamalu, Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons.
Since then, their early-round picks include a six-pack of apparent misses: Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis and Tony Hills all in a row in 2008, Ziggy Hood in 2009, Jason Worilds (instead of Sean Lee) in 2010, Curtis Brown in 2011 and Landry Jones in 2012. Passing up Lee for Worilds might someday rank with taking Gary Glick rather than Earl Morrall in 1956, Bob Ferguson rather than Lance Alworth in 1962.
Writing off a player (Jones) who has yet to take an NFL snap is premature, but with so many glaring needs, why did the Steelers potentially squander a relatively high pick in April on a player who doesn't figure to play for years, if at all?
The Steelers pushed Bruce Arians and his effective pass-reliant offense into an early retirement that lasted only days in 2012, and all he did was become the NFL Coach of the Year that same year as the Colts' interim coach.
Not the assistant coach of the year. the coach of the year.
The Steelers offense — and it certainly isn't all Todd Haley's fault — hasn't been the same since. But the move raises this question: Why, when so much is done to make life comfortable for Roethlisberger (four early-round picks devoted to offensive linemen in three years), was the one person who made it all work taken away?
The answer: For a better running game. The problem: The running game has never been this bad for a two-season stretch since the 1930s. Talk about a misdirection offense.
Didn't the Steelers learn their lesson in the early 1980s, when they allowed too many of their 1970s-era stars to hang around a season or two too long?
Recently, James Farrior and Hines Ward lost starting jobs during final seasons in which they made a lot of money but didn't make a lot of impact; Aaron Smith and Willie Colon spent their final three seasons mostly on the injured list. It all went against the timeworn rule that it's always better to say goodbye a year early rather than a year late.
Maybe Farrior and Ward stayed around because of what Polamalu said is missing: leadership.
Smith and Farrior, he said, were invaluable because of the way they ran the locker room. The Steelers appear to be missing such leaders now.
“James Farrior was a great leader here for a long time, so was Hines, Jerome (Bettis), so was Joey (Porter),” Polamalu said. “You just look for someone who will step up, that someone respects, and some of that is really natural. I'm not a natural leader, I'm not vocal at all.”
Insult to injuries
The Steelers were 6-3 a year ago. But Roethlisberger badly injured a shoulder against the Chiefs, and the Steelers haven't been the same since.
Roethlisberger, Miller, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor and Polamalu have had significant injuries in the last year.
That's a lot of star power to lose for a team that's averaging nearly a touchdown per game less than last season. Especially when offenses finally seem to be catching up to the Steelers' league-altering defense.
A season ago, the Steelers were second against the run. Now they're second from the bottom. Chicago and New England scored 40 points or more against them. Minnesota ran wild against them. So did Terrelle Pryor.
“The bottom line is we have to keep the score where our guys have a chance to win it,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “We clearly didn't do that.”
That defense has given up 629 yards more after eight games than a year ago, or nearly 80 yards per game — the equivalent of a length-of-the-field drive.
While the Steelers are up against the cap, it's not because their payroll is straining. They are one of the leanest franchises in pro sports. The Cowboys, for example, list more than twice as many nonplayer employees as the Steelers.
Certainly the Steelers get a bang for their buck. Omar Khan, the football business expert and cap specialist, also handles matters such as booking travel to London.
The Steelers also have one of the smaller scouting and player personnel evaluation staffs. And no one is in charge of football analytics, an increasingly important tool that helps teams assess, for example, how much longer a potential free agent can play at a high level. The Patriots employ a football research director in charge of analyzing such data.
The Bengals for years ran the leanest front office in pro sports and paid the price for it. Sometimes, keeping up with the Patriots and Packers requires changes.
Especially when the times are as bad as they are now.