Upon Further Review

Should there be an epitaph for the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers, it will be "The Parable of the 4th Quarter."

The subjects are two scions of the AFC North, their respective venues separated by an interstate stretch of Ohio River. From the "Steel City" are the storied Steelers, laden with the glories of a half-dozen Super Bowl championships, and a history rich with the tales of the Rooneys of Pittsburgh' s North Side. Down river are the Cincinnati Bengals, victimized by the twin scourges of strife and frugality, wandering aimlessly in the NFL desert for 40 years. Descendants of the legendary Paul Brown, the Bengals' ownership shared the Queen City's Stage of Eccentricity with Marge Schott of the baseball Reds.

Each franchise inherited a quartet of 4th quarter possessions for this 40th year of the home-and-home rivalry. The mighty Steelers squandered their four tries, and produced a cumulative yield of but a single first down. They failed to protect an 11-point with their pair of 4th quarter possessions in September, and on Sunday weren't able to gain an advantage, quickly dispatched to the sideline without moving the sticks on either 4th quarter foray. The lowly Bengals, for their part, invested their inheritance wisely, tilled their soil diligently, and parlayed all four possessions into points, a pair of touchdowns in the September harvest resulting in a stirring come-from-behind victory, and two field goals in mid-November, establishing the final margin after the Steelers had tied the contest.

The '09 Steelers are nothing if not consistent in their ongoing struggles, haunted by recurring nightmares on a weekly basis. This season of 4th quarter mishaps may well come down to the pair of final frames against the Who Deys from Cincinnati. There would be no ‘08 vintage comeback victory on the final possession of Sunday's game, when the Steelers took the ball at their 33-yard line, just under two minutes remaining, and needing a touchdown to win. Four consecutive Ben Roethlisberger passes fell harmlessly incomplete, and the Steelers were vanquished.

The sidebar to this script would be the specter of Jeff Reed shanking two field goal attempts in the season's initial fourth quarter meltdown against the Chicago Bears in the Windy City, and then, in yesterday's Heinz Field loss, seemingly making a beeline for the sideline, crossing paths with Bengal Bernard Scott as the Cincinnati rookie took a Reed kickoff back for the game's lone touchdown. Consistency struck again, as for the 7th consecutive week the Steelers' opponent scored on a return, tying the 1986 Steelers, they of the 6-10 record, for the dubious distinction of surrendering three kickoff returns for touchdowns in a single season. And the '09 campaign has nearly half a season remaining. Who knows what Skippy saw on the sideline as he feebly approached Mr. Scott? Was it a uniformed Pittsburgh Police officer? Perhaps a Sheetz paper towel dispenser? Or simply an ice-cold Ahrn?

Lost quietly among the wreckage of these lengthy TD returns is the Steelers defense not having surrendered a touchdown for 10 consecutive quarters. Yesterday, however, it was a stop that was needed in the 4th quarter once the Steelers had knotted the score, but it was at this very instant that the black & gold defenders allowed a 3rd down conversion for the first time since early in the 2nd quarter, and subsequently permitted the final margin of victory.

In the only Heinz Field loss without a Steeler touchdown since the '02 Houston Tommy Maddox Debacle, what of the four Steeler possessions from the red zone? Set up with respective first downs on the 15, five, eight and 11-yard lines, the Steelers' offense, in four consecutive 3-play failures, yielded two sacks, were flagged for holding on a run play, ran twice for a total of minus one yard, and completed two passes in eight attempts, for a total of eight yards. The total offensive output for the twelve plays was minus 19 yards. Note that the only touchdowns scored in the '02 contest were via three defensive returns, the Steelers outgaining the expansion Texans, 422 yards to 47. The Steelers have twice been victorious at Heinz, sans touchdowns; the 3-0 Monday Night Quagmire vs. Miami in '07 and the 11-10 '08 oddity vs. San Diego.

With Thanksgiving just ahead, wither control of the AFC North? The Bengals have the lead, control the tiebreakers, and have an advantageous schedule to match. The Steelers must gain two games in the seven remaining, and they and the Bengals match cakewalks with games against Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. The Bengals face a fourth creampuff in the Detroit Lions, whereas the Steelers remaining home game against an NFC foe is the considerably stronger Green Bay Packers. While the Bengals' three remaining games consist of road trips to Minnesota, San Diego, and the New York Jets, the Steelers travel to Baltimore and Miami, and face the Ravens in a home tilt at the friendly (until yesterday) environs of Heinz Field.

Note once more that for the third season in the past five the Steelers returned home to face the Bengals following a Monday Nighter on the road. The Steelers have lost all three of these contests. Does this pattern hold true against other opponents? The Steelers won a Monday night contest at San Diego earlier in the '05 season, only to lose Maddox Debacle II in overtime to Jacksonville at Heinz six days later. And in '08, the Steelers dismantled the Redskins in our nation's capital on Election Night Eve, only to drop the following Sunday's contest against the Colts at Heinz Field. It seems as though the NFL schedule maker has once again done no favors for the Steelers.

Looking for a historical silver lining? After losing at home to the Bengals in '05, the Steelers not only had to sweep their remaining four games, but required a pair of losses each by the Chargers and Chiefs in order to clinch a playoff spot. Those Steelers never looked back.

For more by Dave Villiotti, check out We're From the Town with the Great Football Team: A Pittsburgh Steelers Manifestoas well as We Cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘70s, available at both www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com

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