Cindy-Lou Who has been called to the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, as the NFL Grinch is about to steal a playoff berth from the Pittsburgh Steelers. A veritable sure playoff entry after their Rocky Mountain Beatdown of the Denver Broncos a fortnight ago, the defending champions have lost their fifth straight game, this time to the third tomato can that they've faced within a twenty-five day period.
This Steeler loss had none of the signature items of the previous three defeats. There was no 90-yard drive in the fourth quarter's waning minutes to erase a Steeler lead. There were no ill-timed interceptions. On this night, in fact, the Steelers, for the first time this year, held the opposition scoreless for the entire second half. On a night, however, where the Browns quarterback completed less than one-third of his throws, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was sacked the first two times he dropped back to pass, was dropped on six more occasions, and aside from a late first half drive where the Steelers ran out of time, they were unable to even make a red zone appearance.
Thus, it's a virtual certainty, that for the third straight time, the Steelers will follow a championship season with a failure to make the playoffs. This fate has not befallen any other team more than once, but then, most teams haven't had near the amount of opportunity. The Clevelanders, for example, haven't had a follow-up season to a championship, in any sport, in 45 years. Similar to the 1980 season, where they sat at 4-1, the Steelers held a record of 6-2 before beginning their swoon. Both teams lost a slew of close games. Whereas the current edition lost fourth quarter leads in five of their seven losses, the '80 edition lost three games by a total of four points to their Ohio neighbors, all on Matt Bahr kicks gone awry. Both teams were lit up at home by Oakland Raiders passing combos. And both the 1980 and 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers faced their Waterloo on a Thursday night in December where they failed to pierce the end zone, losing to the Houston Oilers, 6-0, nearly 30 years ago, and dropping a 13-6 decision on the shores of Lake Erie last week.
The hotly contested turning point of this lost season (there were several worthy candidates) came with less than eight minutes remaining at Arrowhead Stadium, with the Steelers holding a 24-17 lead, and the lowly Chiefs facing 3rd & 9 from their own 10-yard line. Yes, the Steelers allowed returns for touchdowns in eight consecutive games, yet a five-game winning streak fell within those eight games. Connecting the dots, the Chiefs threw for 30 yards on that play, 47 on the next, tied the game, and won in overtime following a Roethlisberger concussion. Sans No. 7, the Steelers lost in overtime the following week to the Ravens, then suffered a pair of improbable losses to the dregs of the NFL. It's certainly not a stretch to suggest that had the Steelers defense been able to make a stop on that infamous 3rd & 9, the Black and Gold would now be sitting at 10 wins, 3 losses. Following the Denver Monday Nighter, no self-respecting bookmaker would have taken action on the Steelers being any worse than 9-4 at this juncture.
More Steelers symmetry? Without a miracle, the Steelers close this decade as they closed the '90s, with six playoff appearances. Whereas the '90s had bookend double seasons of non-playoff years, with a thick sandwich of a half-dozen playoff years in the middle, this decade contained three sets of consecutive playoff appearances, with a thin slice of non-playoff years on either end of the decade, and a non-playoff year in between each pair of playoff runs. The major difference of course in the decades was adding another pair of Lombardi trophies to the Steelers' trophy case during this decade.
Going forward, seemingly every Western Pennsylvania citizen, as well as all patrons of Steeler bars nationwide, has an opinion on curing this team's ills. Some advocate a replacement of Coach Mike Tomlin, suggesting that last year's Super Bowl was more aberration than earned, with suggestions ranging from an offensive wunderkind the ilk of a Mike Martz or Sam Wyche, to a resurrection of Bill Cowher, to a disciplinarian in the mold of, umm, Margaret Thatcher. Tomlin's problem seems to be that his unfailing gift of gab, when not paired with victories, comes across as hollow words. His talk of "taking full responsibility," "unleashing hell," and then promising change and delivering none, only fuel the perception that his primary calling card is an exceedingly well-developed line of, well, baloney.
Failing a change at the top, a purge of the team's assistant coaches tops the Christmas list of most Steeler fans, a Bruce Arians replacement being far and away the most popular, but fans are opining for the replacement of legendary defensive guru Dick LeBeau as well. This writer has always been puzzled that arguably the finest offensive mind of the Cowher staff, quarterback coach Mark Whipple, was the only coach not retained by the incoming regime.
When one factors in the eight sacks surrendered in The Mistake by the Lake, the Steelers called nearly two passes for every run, this on a night with sub-zero wind chill against the NFL's worst run defense. It was reminiscent of the 2003 debacle in the Meadowlands where Tommy Maddox threw 38 times in a blizzard, and the Steelers were shut out.
As was the case with the '80 Steelers, the Steelers' defense has aged. Seven current starters and the nickel back will be over 30 next season, as will Tyrone Carter whose skill set appears to consist of being demonstrative after mildly successful plays. He's demonstrated this year a diminished ability to cover, to tackle, and to block without holding on special teams. .
Sadly, instead of talking playoffs and seeding, the holiday fare of Steeler Nation is now premature draft talk and who to blame for the collapse of last year's Super Bowl Champion.
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