5 Reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers Can Turn Their Season Around

Mike Batista@Steel_TweetsContributor ISeptember 27, 2012

September 23, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stands on the sideline during action against the Oakland Raiders in the third quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Steelers 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE
Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Steelers fans can't help but wonder if this is going to be 2006 and 2009 all over again after the Steelers' 34-31 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

The Raiders always seem to be one of the Steelers' antagonists during seasons in which they miss the playoffs.

The Steelers lost to a 2-14 Raiders team in Oakland on the way to finishing 8-8 in 2006.

The Steelers lost at home to a 5-11 Raiders squad while going 9-7 and missing the playoffs in 2009.

That motif continued on Sunday, when the Steelers blew a 10-point lead and lost to the previously winless Raiders on a last-second field goal to drop to 1-2.

The Steelers also started 1-2 in 2006 and 2009. That doesn't seem to bode well for the 2012 Steelers.

The 2006 and 2009 teams were coming off Super Bowl championships. A Super Bowl hangover has been used as the blanket excuse for the demise of those teams.

But, was it really a Super Bowl hangover? Perhaps, something bigger is at work here.

The Steelers haven't made the playoffs for three straight years, since they went every year from 1992-1997. 

After reaching the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, the Steelers sank to 6-10 in 2003. The Steelers didn't reach the Super Bowl in 2002, so there obviously was no Super Bowl hangover. It had more to do with the fact that they needed a franchise quarterback, and they got him when they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Roethlisberger has taken the Steelers to three Super Bowls, winning two of them. However, he has yet to lead the Steelers to three straight playoff appearances.

Neither has Mike Tomlin. While Tomlin has matched Bill Cowher's Super Bowl resume with two appearances and one win, Cowher took the Steelers to the playoffs in his first six seasons.

Since then, the Steelers seem to suffer from a "Third-Year Syndrome" that keeps them out of the playoffs every third year.

Here's why they can buck that trend this season:


Troy Polamalu and (maybe) James Harrison

Troy Polamalu, who has missed the last two games with a strained calf, practiced for the second day in a row Wednesday, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He's on target to return for the Steelers' next game Oct. 7, against the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field.

The Steelers are 7-8 in games Polamalu has missed since 2009. They need him back if they want to make the playoffs.

James Harrison practiced on Tuesday, but his surgically repaired knee did not react well, and he left the Steelers' facility Wednesday without practicing, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

At least, there's no game for Harrison to miss this week. He'll likely rest his knee another week and give it another go in practice next week.

If Harrison is out for a prolonged period of time, that would be a major hurdle in the Steelers' quest for a third straight playoff appearance.

At least, their record without Harrison (5-3) is better than their record without Polamalu.



The Steelers have forced just three turnovers in the first three games, and one of them has come on special teams.

This continues a disturbing trend that began last season, when the Steelers recorded a league-low 15 takeaways, despite going 12-4. They were one of just five teams all time to have 15 takeaways or fewer in a 16-game season, according to Pro Football Reference.

Polamalu has 29 career interceptions and eight career forced fumbles. Even if Harrison doesn't return, Polamalu should help the Steelers pick up the pace on takeaways.

And if he doesn't? Well, the Steelers have the law of averages on their side.

The Steelers are on course for 16 takeaways in 2012, just one more than last season. No team has ever gone two straight seasons with 16 or fewer takeaways, according to Pro Football Reference.

Sure, the Steelers are getting a little long in the tooth on defense, but there's still too much talent there for such historic futility in forcing turnovers.

At some point this season, the turnovers are going to come in bunches and tilt a couple of games in the Steelers' favor.

As sports blogging pioneer Bill Simmons would say, "I keep telling myself this."


Replacement officials

Another reason the Steelers can recover from their 1-2 start is that the replacement officials are gone.

Before getting alarmed at the Steelers' loss to an inferior opponent Sunday in Oakland, remember the Raiders had a lot of help from the officials.

The Monday-night fiasco in Seattle took the attention away from the scabs who worked Sunday's Steelers-Raiders game.

Neither of the Raiders' first two touchdowns should have happened.

Darrius Heyward-Bey clearly held Ike Taylor on Darren McFadden's 64-yard touchdown run, which tied the game 7-7 in the first quarter (both screen shots courtesy of NFL Game Rewind).

In the second quarter, three Raiders offensive players moved at the same time on 4th-and-2 from the Steelers' 6-yard line. Instead of an illegal motion penalty on the Raiders, the Steelers were called offside when they jumped to point out the Raiders' movement.

On the next play, Carson Palmer tied the game with a touchdown pass to Heyward-Bey.

Neither of those Raiders penalties were called, but eight penalties were called on the Steelers before one was called on the Raiders. It's doubtful the Raiders were that much more disciplined than the Steelers.

The Steelers might be 1-2, but Sunday's loss is more indicative of how bad the replacement officials were than any Steelers' weakness.


Rashard Mendenhall

Rashard Mendenhall isn't exactly an elite NFL running back.

However, at this point, the Steelers will take his four yards per carry over what they've been getting from Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.

The Steelers are 30th in the NFL with 65 rushing yards per game, according to NFL.com, and tied for last with 2.6 yards per carry.

Their 195 rushing yards is their lowest after three games since 1950, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

As frustrating as Mendenhall can be when he tries to get too fancy breaking to the outside, he has an 1,100-yard season and a 1,200-yard season under his belt.

Mendenhall has recovered from his torn ACL Jan. 1, and figures to return against the Eagles.

The Steelers offense really hasn't been the problem this season. Their passing attack, which is sixth in the NFL, could be even more potent with Mendenhall diverting the attention of opposing defenses.



Does any AFC team really scare anyone?

Houston is the only 3-0 team in the conference, and the Texans aren't on the Steelers' schedule.

Supposed conference powers New England and Denver are in the same boat with the Steelers at 1-2. 

The Ravens and Bengals are tied for the AFC North lead at 2-1, but both of those teams look beatable.

The last two times the Steelers started 1-2, one of those losses came within the division—not so this year. The Steelers don't play those pivotal division games until they go to Cincinnati Oct. 21.

Hopefully, Harrison will be back by then.