6 Biggest Culprits for the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2011 Failure
Anytime a team with high expectations fails to make it to a championship, fingers will be pointed by fans and the media. With the Pittsburgh Steelers, the expectation every year is to win another title. That didn't happen in 2011 as the Pittsburgh Steelers were surprisingly ousted by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the playoffs.
But who are the biggest culprits for the failure of the Steelers this season? Where does the blame fall?
Here's a look at the six biggest culprits this season.
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1. Handling of the Ben Roethlisberger injury
2. Motivation and effort in key games
Any failure in the NFL ultimately rests with the head coach. He is the person who makes the big calls, hires the assistants, motivates his team.
I will never call Mike Tomlin a bad football coach. He's been to two Super Bowls in four years and won one of them. That's not bad for a guy who's still on the young side of life. But Tomlin didn't have his best season in 2011.
The Steelers came out flat far too often. They were almost lifeless in a Week 1 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore. They were equally as lackadaisical in the playoff loss in Denver. In between, they were up and down. They routinely came out completely unmotivated against weaker opponents. That's a sin that goes back to the Bill Cowher days, but Tomlin is all about being pumped up. It didn't happen this year.
He also mishandled, at least partially, the injury to Ben Roethlisberger. He shouldn't have been playing against the Browns or in the second half of the game in San Francisco when it was obvious he was ineffective. That cost the Steelers in the playoffs, where Roethlisberger was tentative and often unable to play his game.
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1. His inability to utilize the talent on the offensive side of the ball
2. Red zone woes
Another year, another Bruce Arians disaster. There's something about the guy that makes Pittsburgh hold onto him after each season.
To be clear, the offense wasn't bad in 2011, but it has some serious schematic flaws that contribute to a lot of the team's struggles.
The first major issue is their inability to score regularly in the red zone. The Steelers are particularly bad at point-blank range. Arians likes to ground the ball when the Steelers are close to the goal line. Unfortunately the Steelers don't have the run-blocking offensive line or the running backs to score in those attrition moments.
Another issue is that Arians doesn't allow Ben Roethlisberger to run the no-huddle at his discretion. When the Steelers run the no-huddle, they are devastating on opposing defenses.
Arians also doesn't fully utilize that talent available to him and also struggles to correctly use his running backs in the right situations (Redman at close range, Mendenhall in the middle of the field). He improved there this season, but the consistency is still lacking.
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1. Nearly getting Ben Roethlisberger killed
2. Not resembling an NFL player
Scott was awful. The best move of the year was bringing back Max Starks to play left tackle. His arrival stabilized what, to that point, was the league's worst offensive line and made people wonder aloud why the heck he wasn't on the roster when the season began.
Scott's presence on the roster is just one of many questionable aspects of the season. The fact that he was the starting left tackle for several weeks only underscores the lack of preparation that was possible because of the lockout.
While starting, Scott notably was unable to block anything. His worst two games came against Indianapolis and Houston, where he routinely gave up on blocks immediately after the snap and allowed free release to the quarterback.
Scott should not be on the team next season even as a backup. There are better options almost anywhere. His lack of play cost the team greatly against the Texans and also hurt Roethlisberger, who was banged up before October even began.
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1. The entire game plan against Denver
2. Inability to fix the run defense or create consistent pressure
The Steelers faced a ton of injuries on the defensive side of the ball and played almost an entire season without getting their four starting linebackers on the field at the same time.
Still, there were some problems for LeBeau, who's possibly the greatest defensive coordinator of all time.
LeBeau's unit couldn't create consistent pressure on quarterbacks. That's a product of the injuries. They couldn't stop the run consistently either, a major contributing factor in losses to Baltimore and Houston.
Against the Denver Broncos, LeBeau committed to making Tim Tebow beat the Steelers through the air and believed that it couldn't be done. Unfortunately, after a quarter the Broncos adjusted to the heavy fronts Pittsburgh was employing and uncorked Tebow's left arm. The next thing Pittsburgh knew they were playing catch up.
The adage from a lot of fans I've spoken to is that the defense never played a complete game all season. That's pretty accurate, although they did bail out the offense regularly down the stretch and notably against the Chiefs.
It's hard to blame someone with LeBeau's resume and with the respect he commands (and gets from this writer), but the defense ranked first overall yet couldn't close out opponents in big games.
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1. Lack of coverage consistency
2. Exposed regularly by smart coordinators and quarterbacks
Great game against Cleveland. Pro Bowl selection. That's about where the highlights end.
Polamalu is a great player, perhaps the greatest at his position in this generation (although Ed Reed may disagree with me and would have a good argument). He did not have a great 2011 season.
Polamalu got caught a lot of times out of position. That's a byproduct of his game just as much as sacks are with Ben Roethlisberger, but this year it started to hurt. Polamalu would guess wrong and suddenly a huge chunk of field would be wide open.
Polamalu also proved to be a liability at times in coverage, particularly against top receivers or tight ends. His biggest weakness as a player is man coverage, something he just doesn't seem to have the mindset for because he's so aggressive.
Those holes led to some big plays in big moments.
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1. Ben Roethlisberger
2. LaMarr Woodley
I'm not blaming a player for being hurt. That's just not defensible.
Injuries, however, were a huge culprit this season. The Steelers entered the playoffs as the most-injured of 12 squads. The Texans earned the press because of their quarterback situation, but that's one spot.
The Steelers went to Denver with a severely injured quarterback and without their starting center. They also had a defense that was fielding a less-than-healthy LaMarr Woodley and one that was without Ryan Clark because of illness.
Injuries were a big reason that the Steelers couldn't beat San Francisco. They were a big reason they didn't beat Denver. They played a huge role this year and possibly are the biggest culprit for the team's failure.
Had the Steelers gone through the regular season in a more healthy state, they may have been a much tougher team to beat in the playoffs. Like it or not, the lack of a mobile Ben Roethlisberger cost the team badly when the games got close.