Pittsburgh Steelers 2011: A Look Back at the Season's 10 Biggest Storylines
Fans in the Steel City expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to play for the Lombardi Trophy every season. Sadly, a ninth Super Bowl appearance was not the finishing headline to the Black and Gold's 2011.
While coming up short does not fully negate the pride derived from another winning campaign, the team has established a level of expectation that Steelers Country doesn't shy away from:
Super Bowl or bust. In 2011, the ultimate goal wasn't achieved. A loss in Denver stunned Pittsburgh, though many debate whether the Steelers were physically capable, considering their many injuries, of winning another Lamar Hunt Trophy.
Yet, despite the disappointment of a heartbreaking playoff loss, a second-place finish in the AFC North, and an early offseason, the Black and Gold can still take pride in fighting back against adversity and achieving progress in key areas.
Talents emerged, Pro Bowlers further cemented their Hall of Fame credentials, and the team added its 30th winning campaign in the last 39 seasons (since 1972).
Even though the ending wasn't satisfactory for a community filled with high expectations fostered by previous successes, another great year of tradition was added to the legacy of the NFL's greatest team. It was a season that will be remembered fondly by those wise enough to remember the better moments.
These were the top 10 storylines that Steelers fans have enjoyed—or endured—since that fateful start in Baltimore on September 11, 2011.
Honorable Mention: The Secondary Had a Great Season, Except When It Mattered
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Neither man finished with a slew of interceptions, but both showcased the same skill at their craft that make them so invaluable to the league's top-ranked defense.
While it wasn't a story that hit headlines, the wisest of Black and Gold fans recognized early that Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor were not getting nearly enough credit for career years.
Ike Taylor was a blanket of a cornerback, silencing great receivers. Meanwhile, while Polamalu was being hammered by his critics for his lack of turnover production, he was violently disrupting offensive backfields (timing the snap), breaking up passes in the end zone and continuing his hybrid abilities from a corner, safety, or linebacker assignment.
So, why was Troy's play especially scrutinized by critics?
Simply put, too many people really on stats sheets to examine player productivity. On offense, this almost works (as somebody has to pick up the yardage), but defense is measured differently. The nature of defense in the game of football is truly marked by the ability of each man on the unit, playing together as a single body.
As a whole, the secondary gave up fewer yards than any other pass defense in the NFL.
Additionally, quarterbacks only averaged 5.6 yards per pass attempt against the Pittsburgh secondary. No other group of defensive backs held opposing passers to less than six yards per throw.
Our defensive backfield had an outstanding season, despite not securing the interceptions that most fans use as a litmus test. Part of that can be blamed on the Steelers' lack of pressure in many games over the course of the season.
Two games will cause the secondary's achievements in 2011 to be mostly overlooked, if not forgotten, against the Ravens and the Broncos.
Fans were quick to cry "foul" after losing to Tim Tebow and crew in Denver, but the lack of safety support was a flawed philosophy against the Broncos. The Denver quarterback was given anywhere from four to six seconds per snap to find his target, and any NFL receiver will win the battle in that amount of time. Further, Tebow was not asked to throw into tight windows over the course of many plays, something he had struggled with all season.
I digress. We all remember the flawed defensive strategy. Those blaming the loss on the defensive backs need to look no further than Dick LeBeau.
How rare is it that that we say that in Pittsburgh?
The one moment in 2011 that will haunt the legacy of the defense, unable to get pressure and blowing coverage, was against Baltimore at Heinz Field. Joe Flacco, like Ben Roethlisberger in Baltimore (2008), drove the Ravens 92 yards on Sunday Night Football. Trailing 20-16, Flacco hit Torrey Smith for a deep touchdown behind cornerback Willie Gay.
The Ravens won the game.
As fans tend to do, the season for the Steelers' secondary will be remembered more for the stain than the rest of it.
No. 10: A Pair of Unlikely Heroes
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Maintaining an alarming trend, the Steelers were struggling at Arrowhead Stadium.
Early in the contest, after a series of turnovers by Tyler Palko, the Steelers took the lead. It appeared an easy victory was in the cards.
Sometimes, the deck has a joker. And, in the final seconds, it appeared the joke would be on the Steelers. Tyler Palko hit Dwayne Bowe on 4th-and-7, giving the Chiefs a first down with 1:20 remaining, trailing 13-9.
With 38 seconds left on the clock and K.C. continuing to drive, Palko's pass went over the head of a lackadaisical Bowe. Keenan Lewis came down with the interception, ending a scary night for the Steel City.
Lewis's big moment was not the first unexpected clutch turnover for a cornerback. In a year of redemption, Willie Gay came up with a huge effort at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 10.
After leading 14-0 early, the Steelers were in danger of overtime despite one of their better efforts away from Heinz Field. Leading 24-17, the defense was allowing the Bengals to drive into enemy territory for the second time in the fourth quarter.
One week earlier, the Ravens drove 92 yards to sweep their season series with Pittsburgh. The Steelers, in a three-way race for first place in the division, could not afford a loss to the Bengals.
Then, Willie Gay intercepted Andy Dalton, allowing a collective sigh of relief across Steelers Country. Gay was a widely criticized corner in recent seasons, and he was the corner covering Torrey Smith on the Ravens' winning touchdown the previous week.
After seven days of scorn and scrutiny, Gay made a huge impact. While fans debate if 2011 was a season of redemption or the classic case of "a blind squirrel finding a nut," "Big Play" will certainly remember his impact against Cincy.
As it turns out, those ascribing credit to the "blind squirrel" theory have to give the woodland creature two nuts. After all, Gay made another huge interception against a division rival weeks later.
Ben Roethlisberger was hobbling on a broken ankle, and fans at Heinz Field feared the Steelers would drop out of the AFC North race. The Browns, who had been dominated in the first half, were driving toward a touchdown.
Trailing 7-3 with 3:11 remaining, a concussed Colt McCoy threw to the left corner of the end zone on 3rd-and-goal. Willie Gay intercepted the pass, and the Steelers won 14-3.
No. 9: Wallace Chases History, Then Stalls Completely
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For a while, it appeared that Mike Wallace was on his way to NFL history.
Dominating consistently to start the season, each 100-yard game gave further credence to the threat of Jerry Rice's record NFL season. Rice had 1,848 receiving yards in 1995.
Furthermore, after the receiver boasted his goal of 2,000 yards in the offseason, it appeared Yancy Thigpen's team record of 1,398 yards receiving was destined to be eclipsed.
With every touchdown bomb, downfield reception and huge statistical showing, the Steel City prepared to celebrate the finest season for a Black and Gold receiver.
It never happened.
Not only did Wallace not achieve either benchmark, but the dangerous receiver failed to match his production in 2010. Though he had a dozen more catches, his average decreased by five yards per reception, and he came nearly fifty yards short of his previous season's total.
In his final eight games, he had 60 receiving yards only three times, and he failed to hit the 50-yard benchmark in another three contests.
Defenses began to double team Wallace, as his explosive ability downfield was noticed by secondaries who refused to allow the big play. However, as Antonio Brown began to emerge, this should have opened up chances for No. 17.
Another possible explanation for Wallace's production dip came late in the season. With an injured ankle, Ben Roethlisberger was unable to throw downfield accurately. On at least a few occasions, Wallace was open for huge gains, only to be missed by the quarterback.
In an inglorious ending to fit the second half of his season, a potential 52-yard reception was called back on Wallace in the Wild Card Playoffs. The football, a perfectly thrown pass from Big Ben, slipped through his arms and hit the ground, adding to the team's struggles in the season-ending second quarter.
No. 8: Sapp Yaps About the "Old, Slow" Steelers Defense
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According to Warren Sapp, the Steelers defense was "old and tired." This assessment came following Pittsburgh's blowout loss in Baltimore.
Actually, excuse me! He called them "old and slow." Another way to describe it would have been "Warren Sapp in Silver n' Black."
While the defense struggled in September, culminating in a 17-10 loss at Houston in which Arian Foster ran for over 150 yards, the unit overcame a slew of injuries and showcased the same pride that elevated it among the best run stuffing crews over the last decade.
After struggling through chop blocks, gap control issues and an overall tough start, the Steelers stymied backs in the final dozen weeks of 2011. Well, every back not named Steven Jackson, that is....
Casey Hampton missed time, Chris Hoke fell to injury and Aaron Smith further demonstrated that his career was over with another injured reserve spot.
Nevertheless, the Steelers rebounded.
The team surrendered over four yards per carry for the first time in practically forever, but the Black and Gold defense held stout. Despite offensive anemia over the final weeks, including complete ineptitude on the road, the team still won on the strength of the improving defense.
While they proved Sapp wrong to a degree, one cannot be foolhardy enough to completely overlook Warren's assessment.
In truth, the Steelers' defensive roster is aging. It is uncertain whether veterans such as James Farrior or Casey Hampton will return, among others.
Yet, Pittsburgh has always been a wonderful factory for defense. That includes replenishing the roster and parting ways with players at what can only be described as "the lower descent of their peak," just before their production completely disappears.
With that in mind, the offseason promises a great deal of change along the defensive front.
No. 7: Big Ben Outduels Boston Brady
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Question: when is one game an entire storyline?
Answer: when the opponent has beaten you soundly in six of seven meetings with one player particularly responsible for the domination.
In the Steel City, the formula had been simple: Brady=Bane.
To steal a line from a certain famous Red Sox pitcher, "I guess I just have to tip my hat to Mr. Brady and call him my..."
In 2011, instead of being Tom's dinner plate, Ben Roethlisberger decided to stick a fork in the Brady/Belichick mystique and give the Patriots a dose of their own medicine.
On a day of domination over New England's defense, Ben Roethlisberger methodically guided the Steelers downfield through the air. Big Ben completed 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns.
The opportunistic Brady also had two scores, but he barely held the ball. In fact, the Patriots quarterback didn't even eclipse 200 yards.
In a game that finished closer than the actual on-field action, largely due to a Roethlisberger interception in the second quarter, the Steelers won 25-17.
The final play saw Tom Brady stripped of the football. In a way, it was as if to say to the haunter of so many Steelers fans' dreams, "our ball this time, b****!"
No. 6: The Team MVP Emerges
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Most fans can almost put an "x" on the time during the season that Antonio Brown relinquished his status as a backup receiver and became, arguably, the team's best all-around weapon.
In the first half in Arizona, Big Ben continuously attempted to connect with Antonio Brown, but the duo seemed to lack chemistry. Then, in the second half, Brown suddenly showed flashes of the talent that dominated the preseason and converted 3rd-and-19 against the Ravens in January 2010.
From that point forward, Brown was a marker-moving machine, dominating opponents at the sticks and making key receptions that drove the Steelers toward a 12-4 record. Like Santonio Holmes before him, Brown infused life in the offense when it stalled.
Who can forget his thunderous catch in the final minutes against the Browns at Heinz Field, securing a 14-3 victory?
Or his countless conversions on 3rd-and-long distance?
Also, like Santonio, the rocket receiver is a wonderful special teams weapon. He scored on a punt return touchdown against the Bengals. In 2010, his reverse kickoff return for a touchdown in Tennessee helped carry the Steelers to a 19-11 win.
With over 2,000 all-purpose yards, Antonio Brown exceeded the wildest expectations of his enthusiasts, including myself.
He deserved to be named the Most Valuable Player for the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.
No. 5: Red Zone Offense
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For all of their talent, the Steelers finished 21st in total scoring in the NFL with 20.5 points per game.
For that statistic alone, Bruce Arians deserved to lose his job. Most fans are thankful that he stepped down. In his five years as offensive coordinator, the team finished no higher than 14th in red-zone touchdown percentage, despite having personnel to finish the job inside the 20-yard line.
Heath Miller, anyone?
The red zone was a huge source of frustration for the team and fans in 2011. From turnovers to penalties to bad plays, there always seemed to be a new hindrance that prevented the unit from scoring touchdowns.
The debate raged over the radio waves. Was it the players or the coaches? Was it the offensive philosophy or a lack of execution?
The only thing fans and analysts could agree on was the anemic conversion rate in what should be referred to as the "gold zone."
Yet, calling it the "red zone" was fitting, as Pittsburgh's touchdown percentage was simply alarming.
No. 4: The Harrison/McCoy Collision
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Ahead 7-3, the Steelers needed to stop the Cleveland Browns as they drove toward the end zone. Losing to the rival Browns at Heinz Field wasn't an option.
James Harrison approached Colt McCoy as he ran toward the left sideline, a quarterback potentially ready to become a running back in the open field. Earlier in the game, McCoy nearly scored the game's opening touchdown on a similar type of play, making his legs a viable threat.
Rightfully, Harrison hit McCoy as hard as he could. Wrongfully, he led with his helmet.
A severe helmet-to-helmet collision sent a firecracker sound echoing through the stadium. Colt McCoy's bell was certainly rung, putting it mildly.
The quarterback blacked out and fell to the turf unconscious, before getting up to get checked by medical personnel.
After confirming everything was fine with his right hand, McCoy went back into the ballgame.
(....with his right hand...)
Everybody knew Harrison would get fined. Many debated if he would be suspended, considering the fast nature of the game against the severity of the violation and collision.
As expected, the Steelers linebacker received the harshest penalty, serving a suspension as the team traveled to San Francisco for a key game.
Yet, no concussion evaluation was conducted on Colt McCoy, a violation far more egregious! Instead, the team sent their scattered quarterback right back onto the field, no SCAT2 Concussion Test administered.
Had McCoy sustained another violent collision, who knows how far-reaching the ramifications (and damage) may have been?
Afterwards, the Browns staff all had excuses, and each seemed disingenuous. Still, I'll bet you can guess what sanctions the Browns received for their clear mishandling of a serious medical issue.
No. 3: Injuries Wreak Havoc Again
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As it concerned team health, the consensus opinion amongst fans entering 2011 was "it can't be worse than 2010."
Like hockey fans in Pittsburgh will tell you, "oh, yes it can be!"
Ward, Hampton, Smith, Hoke, Pouncey, Colon, Polamalu, Moore, Legursky, Sanders, Brown, etc.
Honestly, just check the list of Steelers on the injury report in Week 14 by clicking on this link. It's amazing that the Steelers found the success they did.
With so many physical setbacks, the team was not able to overcome the obstacle of their own well-being as they did in 2010. Understandably, it all added up to be simply too much.
Too much strain was put on a team that is, undeniably, "veteran." Many would argue that the Steelers didn't have the strength to go further even if they had defeated the Broncos.
Above any beyond all of the names already listed, one key injury was all the difference in 2011, setting itself apart from all of the others (later on the list).
No. 2: The Baltimore Ravens Sweep the Season Series
With two critical wins over Pittsburgh, the Ravens swept their rivals and won the AFC North Division Championship.
After blowing a 21-7 lead and losing in the divisional playoffs to the Steelers in January 2010, Baltimore exacted a commanding vengeance on Pittsburgh.
Kickoff weekend was highlighted by a Steelers-Ravens rematch, but the actual game turned into a blowout early in the third quarter.
Baltimore went ahead 27-7 after a Pittsburgh turnover, deciding to go for a two point conversion on a fake extra point attempt. After the Ravens got done with rubbing salt in the wound, every Steelers fan thought the same thing:
"We'll see you in Pittsburgh."
Trailing 16-6, the Pittsburgh offense finally gained some momentum, charging for two touchdowns to take a 20-16 lead late in the game. Afterwards, the Ravens were held to a three and out offensively, but the Steelers were unable to run out the clock.
After a fine effort by the special teams pinned Flacco and the Ravens at the 2-yard line, the quarterback taught Steelers fans what it felt like to be a fan in Baltimore in December 2008.
Or, for that matter, a Steelers fan in 2010. Flacco had also rallied the Ravens at Heinz Field to a last minute 17-14 win last year.
As if scripted by fate, Flacco led his team on a 92-yard game-winning drive. The Steelers won the division three years earlier in Baltimore when Ben Roethlisberger led a similar charge, winning 13-9.
A deep pass to Torrey Smith, who got behind corner William Gay, saw the speedy receiver lay out for a diving catch in the back corner of the end zone. A stunned crowd at Heinz Field felt the sting of defeat, and it seemed inevitable that the outcome would ultimately determine the AFC North, one way or another.
No. 1: Big Ben's Ankle
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No story was ultimately bigger in 2011 than Ben Roethlisberger's ankle. Beyond the obvious implications, including the health of the franchise quarterback and the team's ability to win games, came the biggest debate of the year in the Steel City:
How do you handle the starting quarterback situation?
In my opinion, the team completely fell short of handling this scenario with any bit of common sense or foresight?
While bye weeks in the NFL are important (translated: the team needed to win all three of its remaining games), the Steelers featured a capable backup in Charlie Batch and needed a healthy Roethlisberger much more than a high seeding in the AFC.
After all, minus his mobility, Roethlisberger's game is handicapped more than most fans fully realize. It's the most important contributor to his enormous yards per attempt, a statistic largely associated with winning that the Steelers tend to lead in most seasons.
In his starts, the team failed to score points while Ben's ankle worsened, not getting the rest it would desperately need in the playoffs.