Loss to Bengals a Microcosm for a Doomed Steelers Season

Pete MartinContributor IIDecember 27, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 23: Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sits on the end line in the final seconds of their fourth quarter loss against the Cincinnati Bengals during the game at Heinz Field on December 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Sunday’s frustrating loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was a fitting conclusion to a 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers campaign in which things just never went right. The team didn’t have it when the chips were down on Sunday, just like it frequently came up short throughout the entire season.

Even worse, the Steelers continued their troubling trend of beating themselves.  The year’s penultimate game featured the same dumb mistakes, bad decisions and poor play that plagued Pittsburgh throughout the 2012 season.  All the frustrating miscues that have killed the Steelers throughout the year reared their ugly heads to officially eliminate the team from the playoffs.

Dumb penalties? Check.

The team’s propensity to commit boneheaded infractions has been a big problem this year. Entering the game, the Steelers were averaging 58.4 penalty yards per game, the eighth most in the NFL. On one ghastly six-play “drive” against the Eagles in October, the Steelers managed to commit a staggering five penalties, even earning a flag on the inevitable fourth down punt.

The Dallas game two Sundays ago, in which the team wasn’t flagged a single time, gave hope that Pittsburgh had cleaned up its act heading into the season’s home stretch. Unfortunately, that run of mistake-free football proved short-lived, and the Steelers returned to their old ways during the biggest game of the year.

Against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh committed five penalties that cost the team 63 yards. The three penalties from the defense were the most damaging, as they gave the Bengals offense 48 yards of field position and three new first downs. The most inexcusable was a post-sack celebration penalty on Brett Keisel that needlessly allowed Cincinnati to extend its first drive of the game.

Devastating turnovers? How about two?

Turnovers have plagued the team throughout the year, so it came as little surprise that they helped cost the Steelers the game against the Bengals. Coming into Sunday’s tilt, the Steelers had given the ball away 28 times. According to Football Outsiders, interceptions or fumbles had killed 1.6 percent of Pittsburgh’s drives, the sixth worst rate in the NFL.

More problematic than the sheer quantity of Steelers turnovers, however, has been the timing of said giveaways. Pittsburgh has had a disturbing propensity to turn the ball over at crucial points in the fourth quarter of winnable games.

  • Against the Raiders in Week 2, an Antonio Brown fumble with 10:57 left in regulation and Pittsburgh up 31-28 led to an Oakland field goal that tied the game, setting the stage for a Raiders win in the final minute of the game.
  • The Steelers came into the fourth quarter of the Browns game trailing by six and with plenty of time to make up the deficit. Unfortunately, four of their remaining five drives ended with a turnover, and Cleveland escaped with a 20-14 win.
  • A fumble by Isaac Redman with 10:35 left in the fourth quarter against the Chargers gave San Diego the ball on Pittsburgh’s 17-yard line and a chance to widen a 17-point lead. Sure enough, the Chargers scored a touchdown that effectively put the game out of reach.
  • Ben Roethlisberger’s overtime interception against Dallas handed the game to the Cowboys, but the game may never have reached overtime had Brown not fumbled on a fourth-quarter punt return. The Steelers wide receiver coughed the ball up with 10:18 left in regulation and the Steelers holding a seven-point lead. A little more than three minutes later, Dallas scored a touchdown that tied the game.

The Steelers continued their charitable ways against the Bengals. For the second straight week, Roethlisberger handed the game away with a backbreaking interception that set up a winning field goal in the game’s final moments. As in the Dallas game, however, Big Ben’s interception wouldn’t have happened if not for another turnover earlier in the afternoon. In the first quarter, Cincinnati returned an interception for a touchdown that provided more than half the Bengals’ points on the day.

Stubbornly unproductive play-calling? No doubt.

Say what you want about Todd Haley, but the man has plenty of self-confidence. The Steelers offensive coordinator shrugged off Roethlisberger’s recent criticism of his play-calling and stuck with the same clogged-toilet offense that has underwhelmed opponents all year. Pittsburgh's offense has been a disappointment this season, and the problems start with its output on first and second down.

Seven of Pittsburgh’s 13 drives on Sunday (not counting the kneel-down at the end of the first half and the desperation play on the game’s final series) sputtered out after the Steelers ran the ball or threw short passes on the first and second downs of the drive’s final series.

This pattern should seem familiar to Steelers fans, as 43 percent of Pittsburgh’s drives have failed to yield touchdowns after short gains on first and second down during the final series of the drive. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Steelers rank 28th in the league in yards gained per first down and 22nd in yards gained per second down after 15 games.

Unsurprisingly, teams that do well on first down tend to win more. Four of the top five teams in yards per play on first down have either clinched their division or would if the season ended today. 3rd-and-short puts defenses in a tough spot because their opponents can call just about any play in that situation.

Teams like Pittsburgh that struggle on first down do much worse. An offense staring at a 3rd-and-long doesn’t have so many options. Throwing the ball is pretty much the only choice. Thanks to their poor production on first and second down, the Steelers have passed 169 times on third down, eight most in the NFL this year.

Whether Haley is to blame for installing an overly conservative offense that doesn’t fit Pittsburgh’s strengths or the players have done a poor job executing the offensive coordinator's plays is a matter for debate. What isn’t in question, however, are the results.

Failing to put away an inferior team? Yup.

The Steelers have struggled against bad teams all year, losing to the Raiders, Titans, Browns and Chargers—teams with a combined record of 20-40. Pittsburgh has played especially poorly against a dreadful AFC West that has only one team with a winning record. If not for a rather fortunate overtime win against the Chiefs, the Steelers would have gone 0-4 against the conference’s worst division.

Though a playoff team, the Bengals didn’t play like one on Sunday. Against a Pittsburgh run defense that has been surprisingly soft this year, Cincinnati managed only 14 yards on 16 carries. Quarterback Andy Dalton had a terrible day, completing less than 60 percent of his passes and tossing two interceptions. Overall, Cincinnati’s offense didn’t generate a single touchdown on the afternoon.

Despite the Bengals’ best efforts to give the game away through turnovers and poor offensive production, however, the Steelers steadfastly refused to accept the early Christmas gift. Pittsburgh did not capitalize on Cincinnati’s mistakes, missing two field goals and failing to score a single point off of the three Bengals turnovers. Instead, as they have with weaker teams all season, the Steelers let Cincinnati hang around and steal the game at the end.

The Steelers have encountered their fair share of bad luck this year, but good teams find ways to win winnable games and seize the opportunity to put bad teams away. As the Steelers have demonstrated, teams that miss the playoffs frequently squander the chances given to them. Cincinnati left the door open for Pittsburgh, but the team was unable to step through it.

Heading into 2013, the Steelers have a lot of personnel issues to address. But new players won't make a difference if the team continues to make mental mistakes and poor decisions. If Pittsburgh wants to make it back to the playoffs next year, it also needs to make eliminating those miscues a top priority.