Steelers limp into postseason

The Steelers regular season finale was a flop. Players and coaches would have you believe it's no big deal, but Ryan Wilson ain't so confident.

The final game of the regular season doesn't mean anything. The Pittsburgh Steelers had wrapped up the division a week earlier, thanks to the Cleveland Browns throwing up on themselves in Cincinnati. Against Baltimore, Pittsburgh rested starters who were recovering from various knicks and bruises. Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger all got well deserved days off, and midway through the third quarter, head coach Mike Tomlin made the transition to the second-teamers. The Steelers lost a meaningless get-together with the Ravens, and the fact that nobody showed up mentally for the game shouldn't be a concern. And don't worry that the defense suddenly forgot how to tackle; it'll all be fixed by Saturday night. I'm sure such thoughts keep Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew up at night ... right before they lull themselves to sleep with visions of running through six or seven arm tackles on the way to another 40-yard gain. For as much as I want to believe the season finale doesn't mean anything, well, I have a hard time buying it. As do Musa Smith and some dude named Cory Ross. Such games don't matter when the division champions -- even when resting starters, don't care, are mentally moving on to the playoffs, are thinking about New Year's plans, et cetera -- blow the doors off a team that is in the middle of a nine-game losing streak. Didn't happen. Almost did, thanks to a field full of backups including an inspired offensive line. (Anybody find it ironic that the second-team o-line held up pretty well? Somehow seems fitting.) But apparently the first team couldn't be bothered with such responsibility. So, yeah, it does matter. A lot.

Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe the Steelers, particularly the defense, can just flip a switch and it'll be just like 2005. Maybe. But somebody on staff better call an electrician, because the switch has been broken for a month now. Tomlin's in a bind. He knows there's a problem -- he's probably known for months now -- but there's not much he can do about it 18 weeks into the season. Injuries and mediocre football have conspired against him. All you can do at this point is pray the duct tape holds.

To be fair, coaching isn't some magic elixir that makes average football teams great. Talent helps. Don't forget, the infallible New England Patriots' defense routinely got treaded in the running game two years ago. Apparently, Monty Beisel wasn't the run-stopping force we all thought he was. The point: the Patriots were undermanned that season, and their 10-6 record confirmed as much. Sound familiar? None of this, of course, numbs the feelings of frustration brought on by watching inept special teams, or all the missed tackles, or even Sean Mahan. But as a wise man who now sports new choppers once said, "It is what it is."

The Steelers are at a crossroads in their 2007 season. How the team responds against the Jaguars on Saturday night, and what happens in free agency and the draft, could set the course for this franchise for the next three or four seasons. The Patriots rebounded to win 12 games last year with just a few tweaks (and the wide receivers were still among the most dreadful bunch in the league). And after wheeling and dealing last off-season, we're all witnessing history (God, it pains me to even think these words, much less type them). That's not to suggest the Steelers are a quick fix away from a perfect season, but this team isn't on the brink of going all '07 Ravens on us either.

But the "How do we patch up the Steelers?" conversation is one for the future. For now, the question is "How do we patch up the Steelers for the postseason?" Evidently, that involves a 5-8, 145-pound Olympic skier. Things are so desperate that Pittsburgh signed Jeremy Bloom. I know, they were interested in him in 2006, but he spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve and all of 2007 at home. I don't begrudge the team for adding him to the practice squad. After all, if Willie Reid wasn't so busy sabotaging his career, he might actually not fumble a kickoff return one of these days. I'm pretty sure Bloom doesn't automatically guarantee the Steelers a ticket to Arizona, but if he can catch -- and let's be honest, that's all fans want from a returner at this point; we're easy like that -- he's worth keeping around. Sadly, Reid's career could be over, and he spent so little time on the field, the bench is still warm. I'm an unabashed Reid fan; during training camps '06 and '07 I was impressed with his hands, his poise, and his ability to run after the catch. On Sunday, he looked like the bastard child of Ricardo Colclough and Yamon Figurs. Bloom only reinforces what the front office thinks of Reid's future which will invariably lead to inane discussions on the Steelers' latest draft bust. If nothing else, Reid crossing the threshold from prospect to dud will hopefully give the "Hey, now Alonzo Jackson, he was a bust!" talk a much deserved rest.

Whatever Reid's fate, he's not keeping Pittsburgh's coaches up at night. It's the sudden decision of the defense to go "tackling optional" the last month of the season. Clark Haggans pithily put it in perspective when talking about what happened against a Ravens team that gave up on the season sometime in October:

"Their front was just moving the ball. It doesn't matter who's in the game," linebacker Clark Haggans said of the Ravens' nondescript running back tandem of Musa Smith and Cory Ross, who combined for two touchdowns. "You could have somebody's grandma in the game, and if you ain't in the gap, as long as she can run the ball, she's gonna hit the open gaps. When 11 guys ain't all on the same page, that's what happens."

I applaud Clark Haggans for his frankness, but Steelers defenders "ain't been in the gap" for the last quarter of the season now. You can't diminish the losses of Aaron Smith and Ryan Clark, and yes, Troy Polamalu has been in and out with injuries, but if it's about gap responsibility, then it has just as much to do with the above-the-neck stuff as the physical part of the game. And for Pittsburgh, right now their getting their asses kicked mentally, while also managing to get out-muscled. Nice two-fer, that. I have no idea what the Steelers can do in six days to remedy a problem that has been festering for some time now. I suppose this is how Bengals' fans feel when watching their defense. Pittsburgh might have to sell out to stop Taylor and Jones-Drew, but David Garrard isn't a stiff. And if Anthony Smith is playing his special brand of centerfield, you have to like the Jaguars' chances.

I don't want to be down on this team, particularly given all they've accomplished in 2007, and what with it being the new year and all. So let's end this on a positive note: during Jerome Bettis' Sunday night gig on NBC, he cautioned Cris Collinsworth and Tiki Barber against underestimating Dick LeBeau. "LeBeau has been a defensive coordinator for a lot of years in this league. He understands what he needs to do to stop the Jacksonville Jaguars. He understands the first game, they ran up and down the field, but I promise you this: you're going to see a different Steelers team in the playoffs. You will."

I hope you're right, Bussie.

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