Here's the thing: The Steelers have all the talent they need to win a Super Bowl. It's true. They have the franchise quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) who is capable of leading the team to wins whether he has to bring them from behind or having the luxury of playing with a lead.
They have a solid, if understated, group of running backs who represent both the slashing, speed rush of new age football (Rashard Mendenhall) and the raw power of running games of yesteryear (Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman).
Their receiving corps features the heir-apparent to future Hall-of-Famer Hines Ward as the sure-handed possession receiver (Antonio Brown), and one of the fastest men in football (Mike Wallace). Plus, they have a several role-players to complement their Pro Bowl tight end (Heath Miller).
On the defensive side of the ball, they have two former Defensive Players of the Year in James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. And up-and-coming players like Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Will Allen, and Cortez Allen.
So, how did it all go wrong in 2012? In a year that will see no better than an 11-5 team win the division (with the division locked up before the Ravens even played last week), this team should have been able to at least host a playoff game, if not make a serious run at a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Like most things in football, the answer is both complicated and simple.
There are, supposedly, three rules to success in the NFL.
The first is that you must win your home games.
The Steelers have been having a tough time winning in the friendly confines of Heinz Field this year.
Don't get me wrong. Heinz Field was never going to be confused with places like Seattle and Denver for home field advantage, but within their own division, the Baltimore Ravens recently put together a streak of nearly two years without losing at home.
The Steelers are 4-3 at home this year with a game still to be played. And with nothing to play for but pride, there is nothing saying the Steelers will even win this week against the Browns.
The point is, if you want to be regarded as one of the best teams in the NFL, you have to make other teams afraid of playing in your building.
The only team that seems to have trouble winning at Heinz Field is the Steelers.
The second rule of success in the NFL is winning in your division. You have to beat the teams in your division to get a division title.
While the AFC North is not quite as competitive as it was in some past years, having the Ravens, Bengals, and Browns on your schedule is no longer considered easy.
The Ravens have won the division twice in a row. They have also appeared in the playoffs five years running. No other team in football can say that right now.
The Bengals are coming along with a franchise quarterback and an excellent defense.
And the Browns proved earlier in the year that they can do what they have to do to win.
The best the Steelers can hope for this year is to split their division games, and they have looked every bit the part of the inferior team in a couple of their losses in the division.
That is far from good enough.
The Steelers lost games this year to the Raiders, Titans, Browns, and Chargers. The combined record of those four teams is 20-42. If not for a last second field goal against the Eagles (currently 4-11), and an overtime field goal against the Chiefs (2-13), it could be worse. (With the loss to the Chargers, the Steelers became the only AFC North team to have lost to the Chargers. They also were the only AFC North team not to win at least three games against the AFC West)
Good teams don't let bad teams hang around, and the Steelers have done far too much of that this year.
They often seem to play down to the level of their competition, while seemingly being unable to elevate their level of play when facing a good team. The only games they played this year in which they looked truly good were wins over the Giants and the Redskins. In other words, a team that probably will not be in the playoffs (and who recently got steamrolled by that Ravens), and a rookie quarterback.
There is no way that a team that thinks it has a real chance of winning the Super Bowl loses to a collection of teams whose combined winning percentage is under .500.
You can forgive one bad game. Maybe two.
But when the team is, time and again, losing to teams with no hope of making the playoffs, that team is clearly not one of the best.
Oddly enough, the Steelers are seventh in the league in penalties per game through 15 games. I would have thought that would be worse.
However, they are 26th in penalty yards per game.
The discipline of this team has been beyond bad. It has been laughable. How many drives stalled because of penalties? How many points left un-scored due to penalties? How many games lost?
Their last game was a microcosm of the trend this season, with penalties at the worst possible times, negating big plays or digging themselves into deeper holes than they were already in.
Let's have a look at the penalties in the Bengals game and see what effect they had.
- With the Bengals on their own 23, and facing a 3rd-and-13, Brett Keisel fought his way to QB Andy Dalton and took him down for a one yard loss. The problem was the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty Keisel took when he used his knee to do his signature arrow-shot celebration. (To be honest, I didn't know this was a penalty and couldn't believe it when it was called.) The result was a continuation of the drive for another seven plays. Cincy didn't score, but they very well could have.
- On 2nd-and-10 from their own 31, Jonathan Dwyer rumbled for 12 yards. The problem was that Heath Miller was called for holding, negating a big play. The Steelers would still drive the field and get into field goal range. But then they missed the field goal. (Obviously, I'm not saying Miller's penalty caused the missed field goal. The point is that the penalty negated a very good play.)
- 3rd-and-3 from their own nine, and Max Starks is called for false start. This pushes the Steelers out of a "managable" third down situation, forcing the Steelers to have to throw the ball. Two plays later, the Steelers punted and the Bengals took over in Steelers' territory.
- Ryan Clark delivered a nice stop on Benjarvus Green-Ellis for no gain on 3rd-and-1 from Cincy's 29. Casey Hampton was called for being offside and the drive continued.
These are representative of the bungling we have seen from the Steelers all year; an inability to get out of their own way.
I wrote at the time that the Raiders didn't beat the Steelers; that they beat themselves, and I was blasted for not giving credit where it was due. I'm afraid I stand by my words after watching the Steelers implode over the past seven weeks.
Most of the time this year, the Steelers beat themselves, and their lack of discipline was part of that.
If you thought 2011 was bad for the Steelers and turnovers, wait until you read this.
In 2011, the Steelers were tied for 27th in the league for turnover margin per game at -0.8. They had 1.8 giveaways per game against .09 takeaways per game.
In 2012, the Steelers are once again tied for 27th with a -0.9 turnover per game margin. They have given the ball away at a rate of 2.0 times per game this year and gotten only 1.1 takeaways per game.
And they still have to play the team that turned them over eight times a scant five weeks ago.
This team might be ranked as the best defense in the NFL in opponent yardage allowed, but they are not producing turnovers at a rate consistent with the best teams in the NFL. Of the teams in the bottom half of turnovers created, only four teams have winning records. (Two of those four have guys who are among the discussion for MVP: Minnesota with Adrian Peterson, and Indianapolis with Andrew Luck)
While the defense has played well, but has not been able to turn the ball over, the offense has been simply giving the ball away all year. And the trend seems to have gotten worse in the last third of the year.
Since the first Cleveland game, the Steelers have given the ball away 18 times. That's a horrid 3.6 giveaways per game! They have committed 30 turnovers all season, 60% of those have occurred in the last five games.
A strong case can be made that much of the Steelers' trouble comes from the little problem of ball security.
It might sound obvious, but the Steelers didn't score enough points this year. Let me try to explain why it isn't as simple as that.
The Steelers had the number two ranked offense in terms of time of possession and third down conversions. For a while, during their four-game winning streak, they were unstoppable on third down; the best in the NFL.
But they are only 15th in the NFL in red zone scoring attempts with 3.1 per game, and only scoring a touchdown from the red zone 1.6 times per game (17th in the league).
When we look at simple points per game, the Steelers score 20.8, good for 22nd in the league. Want to know how bad that is? Wait for it. No team ranked 19th or worse in points per game has a winning record.
In the modern game, where scoring points is easier than ever, the Steelers are just not doing it.
The Steelers are the number one defense in opponent yards per game, opponent offensive plays per game, and opponent first downs per game. They are sixth in opponent third down conversions per game, and seventh in opponent third down conversion percentage per game.
In other words, this defense is pretty good, right?
I've already mentioned they are 27th in turnovers created, but beyond that, they are only 10th in opponent points per game and an abysmal T26 in opponent yards per point. (Yards per point is a measure of how many yards an opponent has to gain for the points they score. The Steelers have 13.5 opponent yards per point.
Compare that to Baltimore with 16.9; Chicago with 18.3; or Atlanta, who is tops in this stat with 19.8. In other words, Atlanta's opponents have to gain 6.3 yards more for every point they've scored than Steelers' opponents.)
That being said, this last stat must be taken in context. If your offense is giving the other team the ball (like the Steelers' offense has, a lot), the opponent doesn't have to accumulate a lot of yardage to score.
So, while the defense played very well this year, except for the lack of turnovers, they were consistently put into bad spots by an offense that has given the ball away twice a game all year.