The 2012 campaign has been a roller coaster ride for Tomlin and the Steelers, but there is hope for the future.
Though a good portion of the NFL would gladly trade places with Pittsburgh, the Steelers' 2012 campaign has fallen short of what prognosticators predicted and what fans hoped for. A 7-5 record and uncertain playoff prospects after 12 games certainly seem disappointing when compared to last year's 12-4 finish.
Forget disappointing, Pittsburgh’s season has been maddening. The team’s week-to-week performance has been erratic and inconsistent, leaving fans wondering whether the Steelers are a good team that has had some bad luck/poor games or a mediocre team that has overachieved on occasion.
With the season more than half over, it seems unlikely that this team will iron out its problems, play well consistently on both sides of the ball and reach the Super Bowl.
It’s not impossible, of course. The Giants showed last year that a team that pulls together at the right time can make an unexpected run in the playoffs. As fans, that’s certainly the hope that we’re guarding in our hearts. But we’d be lying if we said that beating the Texans or Patriots on the road in January seemed realistic.
Steelers fans can take comfort, though, that there is cause for optimism looking toward 2013.
For starters, a lot of what has gone wrong this year can be chalked up to luck, which tends to balance out over time.
More importantly, there are some bright spots and pleasant surprises that give hope for the future. Here’s a list of key positive takeaways from the 2012 season.
Star safety Troy Polamalu has spent more time on the sidelines than on the field this year.
The Steelers have had a lot of injuries to key players, just like they did last year. But that doesn’t mean the team also will lose key players for significant stretches next year.
For the second straight season, their offensive line has fallen apart from day one. Seemingly every time one starter returned to the field, another went down. A healthy line this year could have jump-started Pittsburgh’s anemic ground game and relieved pressure on backup quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch during the past three games.
Speaking of the Steelers’ less-than-impressive second- and third-string quarterbacks, the aging duo were only on the field at all because starter Ben Roethlisberger went down with shoulder and rib injuries against Kansas City in Week 10.
Unfortunately, Big Ben has been joined on the sidelines by a list of teammates that could double as a Pro Bowl roster. Antonio Brown, James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall, Troy Polamalu, Isaac Redman and LaMarr Woodley all have missed multiple games this year due to various maladies.
This is the second straight year in which injuries have sidelined key players for extended periods of time. Last year, the Steelers lost Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert, Casey Hampton, Harrison, Brett Keisel, Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky, Bryant McFadden, Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Aaron Smith and Woodley for more than one game each.
The good news is that rashes of injuries like this rarely continue year after year. Sure, every team loses players to injury over the course of the season. Sure, some individual players are more susceptible to getting hurt. Sure, some training staffs are better than others at getting players back on the field.
But in the end, simple luck has a lot to do with how “healthy” a team is. Severe injuries, particularly those not resulting from poor conditioning, often depend on a sort of butterfly effect rippling through the course of a play.
If a receiver plants his foot a quarter-inch to the right, he blows out his ACL. A quarter-inch to the left, he falls safely to the ground. Was there anything that made that receiver more or less inherently healthy? And this can be the difference between the playoffs and a high first-round draft pick.
As with anything determined by chance, the number of games missed by key players tends to balance out over time. That’s not to say that Pittsburgh is guaranteed to be extraordinarily healthy next year. But the 2013 Steelers probably won’t be this banged up at key positions.
Without Big Ben, the Steelers offense has struggled to produce.
Speaking of the Steelers’ Pro Bowl quarterback, he remains among the NFL’s best quarterbacks. And having an elite player at the most critical position on the field is a luxury most of the league doesn’t have.
It seems silly that we even need to say that a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback still ranks among the game’s best. But with young quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford on the rise, analysts don’t seem to mention Big Ben’s name on lists of elite quarterbacks as much as they did a couple of years ago. So it’s worth making his case again.
By most statistical measures, Big Ben is at worst a top-10 quarterback. Football Outsiders has him ninth this season in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which measures a players total value compared to a replacement-level player after adjusting for the opponents played. He ranks behind Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Stafford, Tony Romo, Ryan and Matt Schaub.
Statistics are useful in evaluating players, but only when put in the proper context. Another, simpler way to determine where Big Ben fits on that list is simply to ask which of the quarterbacks mentioned above the Steelers would trade him for. And by that measure, he’s no worse than fifth in the league.
Brady, Manning, Brees and Rodgers are clearly superior passers with a better ability to put opposing defenses on the wrong foot. They are also consistently excellent, have posted extended runs success and have won championships. As of right now, they are better than Roethlisberger.
However, all but Rodgers are older than the Steelers’ quarterback, and long-term value is an important consideration. How many more quality years can a team expect from Brady or Manning? If Big Ben stays healthy, Pittsburgh easily could get another five good seasons from him.
At the same time, the present matters. Stafford, Ryan and Schaub are younger than Roethlisberger, and their long-term value is almost certainly higher than Big Ben’s. They also have four career playoff games and zero combined playoff wins. It seems a risky proposition to exchange a proven winner with a bit more mileage for an unproven commodity.
Even measuring Roethlisberger this way doesn’t adequately capture his value to the team. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for what we can see with our eyes. Fan confidence is not something that can be quantified, but Steelers fans know how much they have when Big Ben is on the field. More importantly, they know how little they've had when he's been on the sidelines this year.
CB Keenan Lewis has excelled in his first year as a starter.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers pass defense is as tough as ever.
It ranks first in the NFL in both yards allowed in the air and yards per attempt. In a league full of pass-first offenses, it is very hard to throw against Pittsburgh. And there’s reason to believe the defense will be just as good against the pass in 2013.
Though the Steelers traditionally have been known for their rampaging linebackers and aggressive blitz packages, their success against the pass this year has been the result of strong play from their secondary.
Pittsburgh’s defensive backs have been excellent in coverage, protecting a front seven that has been uncharacteristically weak. The Steelers rank a dismal 24th in the league in sacks but still have the top pass defense.
When the defense has gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as it did against Joe Flacco last Sunday, it has often been the result of delays caused by lockdown coverage down the field.
Strong play from proven vets Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor was expected coming into the season, but Keenan Lewis has been a pleasant surprise at cornerback.
After winning the spot opened up by William Gay’s departure to Arizona in the offseason, Lewis was thought to be the weak link in the Steelers’ defensive backfield. Opposing teams went after him repeatedly. By Week 12, he was the most targeted corner in the league. However, he has performed admirably in the face of this pressure and gives confidence that the Steelers will be equally stout against the pass next year.
Lawrence Timmons's game-saving interception against the Chiefs was a rare takeaway.
Though Pittsburgh has been excellent in stopping the pass and above average against the run, the team’s ability to generate turnovers has been less than stellar and may be costing the Steelers games. Fortunately, like injuries, turnovers are often the result of luck and not purely skill.
For a team with a top-ranked defense, the Steelers have forced a surprisingly low number of interceptions and fumbles. Through 12 games, Pittsburgh has taken the ball away a mere 12 times, good (or bad) enough for 28th in the NFL.
Sadly—and again like the injuries—this is now a two-year trend. Despite again finishing the 2011 season as the top-ranked overall defense in terms of points scored and yards allowed, the Steelers finished dead last in takeaways, picking off only 11 passes and recovering four fumbles.
Some teams excel at forcing turnovers. The Bears in particular have shown a sustained ability to pick off passes and knock balls loose over the past few years.
But luck also plays a role. The 2010 Steelers led the league in points allowed and also generated 38 turnovers—good for third in the league—with largely the same personnel on defense as this year's team. And Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl that year.
Again, there is no guarantee that Pittsburgh will force more than 30 turnovers next year. But an elite defense remaining at the bottom of the table for a third straight year is unlikely.
The Ravens were fortunate to squeak past a mediocre Cowboys team.
As much as Pittsburgh has struggled this season, the rest of the AFC North hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire. And no rival looks poised to have a great 2013.
The Ravens, who appeared to wrest control of the division away from the Steelers last year, look like paper tigers in 2012.
Despite a 9-3 record and an almost-certain AFC North title, Baltimore is the shakiest division leader in the conference. Six of the team’s wins have come by seven points or less, and a couple could have easily gone the other team’s way. Teams that get this lucky don’t tend to stay so fortunate in the long run.
If Baltimore’s reign at the top of the division is short-lived, it may be the fault of its vaunted defense. The famous Ravens defense has been barely above average in 2012, ranking near the bottom of the league in several statistical categories. Its star players on that side of the ball are getting older and slower. Unless Baltimore reloads in the offseason, the team will probably struggle to stop opponents next year.
The Bengals appear to be on the rise, nipping at the Steelers’ heels for the last AFC wild-card spot. Cincinnati certainly has young talent on offense, with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green emerging as a potential high-powered aerial connection.
We’ve been here before, though. Every couple of years in the recent past, the Bengals have put together a good season and made the playoffs. Sandwiched between those seasons, though, are seasons at or below .500. Until the Bengals show that they can win consistently year after year, they are not a threat to Pittsburgh and Baltimore’s dominance in the AFC North.
The Browns? Well, what more can be said about Cleveland’s struggles? Two winning seasons since the city reacquired an NFL franchise are not cause for concern in Pittsburgh. At 4-8 through 12 games this year, the Browns seem doomed to live in the AFC North basement for the foreseeable future.
The Steelers have shown up to play against quality opponents like the Ravens.
Though the Steelers have been terrible against subpar competition, they’ve raised their game against the league’s best.
They beat the Ravens and Giants on the road in what are arguably the team’s two best performances of the year. More importantly, both victories came at a time when losses would have sent Pittsburgh into a tailspin.
The team has performed admirably when the chips are down, and how it responds down the home stretch will say a lot about the Steelers’ ability to play well under adverse circumstances. If the Black and Gold can rise to the occasion and close out the season well, fans should feel good about the team's prospects heading into 2013.