The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season officially ended on Sunday night in Denver when Demaryius Thomas took a crossing route 80 yards for a touchdown on the first play of overtime. The battered Steelers, playing with 9 starters either out or slowed by injury, made just enough mistakes and the Broncos made just enough plays for it to be Denver traveling to New England and the Steelers traveling home. A look back at what went wrong on Sunday and a first look at what will transpire in the early stages of the offseason:
1. The Steelers dared Tebow to beat them – and he did. Tim Tebow came into the game struggling badly, possessing the lowest completion percentage of any NFL QB in 11 years and having turned it over 8 times in the preceding 3 weeks. The Steelers headed into Denver loaded up against the run, daring Tebow to throw it to beat them…and to the surprise of most, he did just that. Some of the statistics are staggering:
- The Steelers had allowed 2 plays of 40+ yards the entire season – Denver had 4 such plays on Sunday.
- The Steelers had allowed 48 points in their last 6 games combined – Denver had 29 on Sunday.
- The Broncos hadn’t scored a TD in 6 quarters coming into the game – Denver scored 3 against the #1 defense in the NFL.
- The Steelers allowed a league low 5.2 yards per reception this season – Denver averaged 31.0 on Sunday.
You could do this all day, and it still won’t make what happened on Sunday make any more sense. The Steelers played 8, and at times 9, defenders in the box all day, leaving Ike Taylor in man-to-man coverage most of the day. Taylor was simply torched all day by Thomas, playing his worst game in memory at the worst possible time. You’ll never convince me that Tim Tebow is a legitimate NFL QB, but for at least one Sunday in Denver, he was the best player on the field.
2. The injuries simply became too much. The Steelers entered Sunday’s game already missing a number of key players - RB Rashard Mendenhall, C Maurkice Pouncey, S Ryan Clark, T Willie Colon, DE Aaron Smith, and P Daniel Sepulveda all missed the game (and in many cases, much of the season) with injury, and QB Ben Roethlisberger, LB LaMarr Woodley, and S Troy Polamalu were all slowed by injuries. As if that wasn’t enough, during the course of Sunday’s game, NT Casey Hampton, DE Brett Keisel, C Doug Legursky, G Chris Kemeoatu, and T Max Starks all went down with injuries. Part of this unbelievable rash of injuries is due to bad luck, part is due to the nature of professional football, and part is due to the Steelers having an aging defense. Had the Steelers won and gone to New England on Sunday, both lines of scrimmage would have re-defined the word “patchwork,” and getting younger and healthier this offseason will be key.
3. The clock management issues have gotten out of control. On numerous occasions this year, the Steelers displayed horrific clock management at the ends of halves and games, mis-using time-outs, letting time run down needlessly, and generally wetting themselves rather than scoring points. This issue bit the Steelers BADLY on Sunday, with the Steelers botching two-minute drives both before halftime and at the end of regulation, failures that ultimately cost them a win. My disdain for Bruce Arians and his disjointed, bizarre play-calling and underachieving offenses has been stated time and again, and he and Ben Roethlisberger are the two primary culprits in the charade that is the two-minute offense. There’s no evidence that Arians will be replaced, so we can only hope they get their act together sooner rather than later in the waning minutes of these games.
4. So, who may not be back next season? In the wake of their run to the Super Bowl last season, the Steelers largely got the band back together during the abbreviated offseason, keeping the team almost entirely intact from the team that lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. This offseason, however, figures to be far different. The Steelers are currently about $25 million over the salary cap and are looking to free up cash to sign Mike Wallace to a long-term deal. In addition, the team needs to get younger on defense and turn the page from several guys who’ve been a part of 2 or 3 Super Bowl teams. A look at some players who may not be Steelers in 2012:
- Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke – Both are coming off major injuries and are nearly certain to retire.
- Hines Ward – The Steelers face a delicate situation with Ward, who has stated that he intends to return next season. Ward slipped to 5th on the WR depth chart by the end of the season and no longer has the ability to get open against man coverage. Ward, who is set to make $4 million in 2012, would cost the Steelers $3 million in dead space against the cap if he doesn’t retire and is cut, but it’s hard to imagine him coming back next season.
- Casey Hampton – Hampton has declined a good bit and suffered an ACL injury in Denver. He’s probably more likely to be back than not, especially given the departures of Smith and Hoke, but his health, weight, and contract are all issues.
- James Farrior – Farrior is now 37 and has clearly lost a step, although he is still effective against the run and a leader on defense. I expect Farrior to return for one more season.
- Rashard Mendenhall – Mendenhall had a nightmarish year, starting with his comments about Osama bin Laden, followed by a subpar season with only 928 yards rushing, and completed by tearing his ACL in Week 17 in Cleveland. Isaac Redman replaced Mendenhall in Denver and gained 121 yards. Mendenhall has one season left on his initial contract, and I would anticipate he’ll complete it, but he could be a salary cap casualty if the team thinks Redman can be a #1 back.
- Max Starks – Signed after Week 4, Starks was inconsistent and struggled against speed rushers all season. With the expected return of Willie Colon, I don’t expect Starks back next year.
- Mewelde Moore – Moore probably would have lost his job in the preseason if training camp sensation Baron Batch hadn’t blown out his ACL in a drill. Moore isn’t likely to return.
- Bryant McFadden, Arnaz Battle, Will Allen, and Larry Foote - All are almost certainly gone.
A disappointing end to a disappointing season, a season that went off the rails on a Sunday night when Joe Freaking Flacco drove the Ravens 92 yards to win a game in Pittsburgh, a loss that doomed them to the 5-seed and prevented the Steelers from obtaining a bye and home field in the playoffs. This will be an interesting offseason, and we’ll keep you posted on all of the moves that shape the 2012 Steelers.