... accepting a half-dozen game-winning drives on their final possession, including Super Bowl XLIII, with the understanding that their would be an equal amount of gut-wrenching defeats the following season, each loss more excruciating than the week before, building to a December crescendo. The losses would have the common thread of fourth quarter collapses, defeat in the final seconds to the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Oakland Raiders, to Matt Cassel and Bruce Gradkowski.
When Head Coach Mike Tomlin vowed to "Unleash Hell" after last week's loss, he kept it a secret that he would unleash one helluva boneheaded decision. Perhaps Tomlin will find a GPS in his Christmas stocking, as he evidently lost his way on Sunday, forgetting that he was in Heinz Field when sending Jeff Reed out to attempt a 53-yard field goal, several yards longer than had everbeen kicked in the North Side Sandbox. Adding to Tomlin's disorientation was the lack of a compass that points North as he allowed the 3rd quarter to expire in the process, meaning that Reed's attempt was made even more onerous by kicking toward the stadium's open South End. The call was comparable to Tomlin's most curious call to date, that being the two-point conversion try from the 12-yard line in the '07 Playoffs. In that instance, the coach was not to be dissuaded by a holding call after deciding to go for the deuce. This time, a 3rd down sack knocking his team out of reasonable kicking range wasn't going to change his mind. Last time, the Tomlin platitude was "We play to win, baby." This time, Tomlin said, "We felt good about Jeff being able to hit that, based on his pregame performance and his history." Gee, Coach, what about Reed's history are we missing?:
* All four of his field goals from beyond 50 yards have been notat Heinz Field
* His longest successful Heinz Field attempt was 50 yards, never repeated, but kicked almost four years to the day, against a Bruce Gradkowski-led Tampa Bay Bucs team.
Was that the history to which Coach Tomlin referred?
Once Tomlin left the door ajar, the Oakland Raiders rushed through. In a season full of 4th quarter Steeler meltdowns, this one was unparalleled. For this one quarter, the ghosts of Raiders past came to life. The Pittsburgh boy, Gradkowski, was Ken (Snake) Stabler, and the Raiders' receiving corps, dormant throughout the afternoon, were Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch. Thanks to the sieve-like Steelers secondary, the Raidahs drove for three 4th quarter touchdowns, twice answering the Steelers come-from-behind scores. It was "round up the usual suspects" once again. Ike (Swaggin' can't Jump) Taylor was the prime culprit, while his partner on the other corner, William Gay, appeared to be having a bad audition for the Ice Capades until he was knocked silly by teammate Ryan Mundy on the Raiders' game-winning drive. Mundy continued to exact a physical toll, this time on the Raiders, but unfortunately it was after the whistle, and was responsible for setting the Silver & Black up on the Steelers' 11-yard line at game's end. Tyrone Carter, beaten for the first Raiders touchdown, and Joe Burnett, dropping what would have been a game-ending interception, deserve mention as well. Troy Polamalu, Get Well Soon.
Perhaps the Steelers were doomed by Saturday's Pitt-Cincinnati contest, as the Steelers, like their Heinz Field co-tenants, scored too quickly at the end, and then ceded the lead with scant seconds remaining. And apropos for this year, Ben Roethlisberger's final Hail Mary heave into the end zone clanged off the hands of Limas Sweed, as the Steelers were vanquished once again. To be fair, it would've been one helluva catch by #14, in his team's offensive lineup for only the final two plays.
It's not merely that this Steelers team has lost their six games by a total of 21 points, but rather just how these games have slipped away. In ceding five 4th quarter leads, and failing to protect a freshly-knotted 4th quarter tie score in the remaining loss, they've not only dropped a pair by overtime field goals, but lost on a field goal with 15 seconds remaining, and via respective scoring passes with 14 and 10 seconds left.
And what of this legendary defense, the one that compares statistically with that of last season's Super Bowl Champion? In four of the Steelers' six losses, against Chicago, the home-and-home with Cincinnati, and Sunday's debacle at Heinz, the defense took the field nine times in the 4th quarter. They surrendered nine scoring drives, six touchdowns and three field goals. In each of the past three losses, the Steelers held the lead mid to late 4th quarter, with the opponent backed up to its own 10-yard line. In every instance, the Black & Gold allowed their foe to get off of mat and drive for a tying or winning score.
The Steelers remain plagued by other ongoing foibles as well:
* No Knockout Punch: While completing all 10 second-half passes prior to the desperate Final Heave (that's the pass, not Steeler Nation's response), Ben Roethlisberger threw yet another red zone interception with the Steelers on the verge of extending their lead to two scores going into the half. The same thing happened in the Arrowhead Abomination two weeks ago.
* Ill-Timed Sacks: In Chicago, the sack came right before the first Reed miss. In Cincinnati, the lone sack relinquished came on 3rd & 6, with the Steelers protecting a five-point lead in the game's final six minutes. Yesterday, the only sack of No. 7 knocked the Steelers out of field goal range (in everyone's estimation with the exception of the head coach), while trying to build on a four-point lead.
This season is fast becoming more reminiscent of 1998 than 2005. With a 7-4 mark going into the Thanksgiving Day Coin Flip Nightmare in Detroit, the Steelers lost their final five games. At least this squad has a quarter of a season remaining. Should they win out, and hope has not been abandoned in some quarters, the Steelers could still sneak into the final playoff spot, should help come from the kindness of strangers, or the opponents of the Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. The Steelers new BFF? The Indianapolis Colts, facing these teams, in order, over the next three weeks. In any event, the Pittsburgh Steelers are down to their last at-bat.
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