Embattled Steelers Primed for Late-Season Success
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The past doesn't lie, and few teams and fan bases in sports know that better than the Steelers and their fans.Using the past as a portal to future predictions, fans try to base early assumptions on teams based on what they've watched that season and similar seasons in the past.
An educated Steelers fan could easily use the past to tab this current Steelers season as a forgone failure. While this season has flashed similarities of past seasons that were deemed as failures, there are still reasons to believe that this Pittsburgh team is still poised to do something special.
Sub-par seasons for the Steelers over the past two decades has become about as rare as finding Pittsburgh natives that don't like a Primanti Brothers sandwich. The Steelers have had only three losing seasons dating back to former coach Bill Cowher's first season with the Black and Gold back in 1992, with only one losing season (a 6-10 record in 2003) this century and none since the team drafted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
But in a city that calls itself the "City of Championships", success is not measured with winning seasons or even division championships. Success in this city is defined by winning the Super Bowl.
Given the city's lofty expectations, the 2012 Steelers (6-5, 1-2 in the AFC North) have been an underwhelming disappointment after 11 games. They lost to the Raiders for the third time in the last seven seasons, with the other two losses coming in Pittsburgh's only two non-playoff seasons during the Roethlisberger era (2006 and 2009). Their most recent defeat came at the hands of the Browns, who last defeated Pittsburgh in 2009, the last season in which the Steelers did not qualify for the post season. A loss to the Ravens this Sunday would mark the team's first three-game losing streak since, you guessed it, 2009, when Pittsburgh started the season 6-7 before rallying to finish 9-7.
While this season is starting to mirror ugly seasons of the past, an optimist could point to some of the Steelers most successful seasons to draw hope for this year's team. Injuries and inconsistent play threatened to dismantle the '95 Steelers before the team won eight of their final nine regular season games en route to Super Bowl XXX. Injuries to Roethlisberger and an under performing defense led to three straight losses in 2005 before Pittsburgh rode a possessed defense to a Super Bowl championship. In mid-season home losses to the Colts and Giants in 2008, Roethlisberger threw seven combined interceptions while Peyton and Eli Manning led their teams to a pair of come-from-behind wins against a record-setting Steelers defensive unit. Pittsburgh responded with dramatic wins at home against the Cowboys and at Baltimore en route to division and Super Bowl championships.
I alluded to the Steelers two most recent Super Bowl championship teams to illustrate that great Steelers teams of the past have overcome many of the same obstacles that this team is currently going through. I'm not saying that this year's team will find a way to win it all despite all of the tribulations, but I am pointing out that is has been done-by many of the players on the current roster-before.
Roethlisberger was off to the best start of his career (he was on pace to exceed his season best touchdown total set in 2007) before suffering multiple injuries a few weeks back against the Chiefs. History has shown that Roethlisberger can lead Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl even when he's not at full strength (he missed multiple regular season games in 2005 and 2008 to do injuries). Pittsburgh doesn't need Big Ben to throw for 300 yards and three scores in order to win; they just need him to be mobile enough to make some plays out of the pocket while keeping defenses honest.
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley's passing plays include shorter drops for Roetlhisberger, which should help Big Ben's chances of staying healthy for the team's stretch run as long as the Steelers' offensive line (which is getting stronger with Maurkice Pouncey returning from his own injuries) holds up. A healthy Rashard Mendenhall (if he can hold on to the football) and Antonio Brown will only improve the Steelers' lethargic offense in the coming weeks. The reliable hands of tight end Heath Miller may pay huge dividends for a Steelers team that has (rightfully) been criticized for not using their talented tight end enough in the past.
Any Pittsburgh fan who has watched the Steelers over the last 10 years knows it's not the same without Troy Polamalu, who has watched most of this season's games from the sidelines after suffering an injury in early September. The perennial All-Pro's return to the field should be a big boost for a defense that is looking to force more turnovers. Inspired play of late by veteran Brett Keisel and the emergence of fellow linemen Jason Worilds, cornerback Keenan Lewis and free safety Ryan Clark, should all continue to be bright spots for the defense. Brown's return to the Steelers' special teams return unit will also help Pittsburgh improve their starting field position after struggling to gain ground throughout their loss in Cleveland this past Sunday.
While the intangibles are there for a successful end to this season, where is the X-factor that could springboard this team to win the seventh Lombardi Trophy. In 2005, Pittsburgh was fueled to win a ring for Jerome "The Bus" Bettis in his hometown of Detoit (the site of Super Bowl XL). In 2008, second year coach Mike Tomlin was trying to win his first Super Bowl ring as a head coach, the defense was out to earn a place in immortality, and Roethlisberger wanted to prove that he could deliver on the game's biggest stage after struggling statistically in Super Bowl XL (he did indeed, leading the Steelers on their game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLIII).
This year's team? I see them motivated by the fact that they are being heavily doubted by both the outside world and their fans. They are underdogs for the first time since late in the 2005 season, and we all know how that ended. Maybe all the losses and injuries and turnovers and blown leads thus far was just the fire the Steelers needed to fuel up for another Super Bowl run.Maybe for the Steelers to reach seventh heaven, they needed to go through a little hell on the way there.
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