A 16-game NFL regular season is a long slog. A seeming lifetime of drama, excitement, frustration, injury, speculation, intrigue, pain, joy, disappointment and (hopefully) victory packed into a mere four months.
And plays. Above all else, every season features lots and lots of plays.
Very few team sports (baseball, cricket and golf are the only ones that come to mind) are as discrete as football. Action is never continuous as it is in soccer, rugby, hockey or basketball. Instead, it is parceled into little six-second increments between the snapping of the ball and the referee’s whistle. A burst of activity, then a pause.
Those self-contained units become the building blocks around which entire games and seasons are constructed. Like atoms in a molecule, like cells in a body, plays snap together to form drives. Drives pile up to become a game. Sixteen games run together to become a season.
Our entire understanding and enjoyment of the game centers around this one indivisible unit of football. We can never talk about a drive or a game without coming back to the plays that made it what it was. Either a team strung together enough good plays to score or it didn’t. Either it made enough plays to win or it didn’t.
At the same time, their discreteness gives football plays a sense of importance that is not always justified. Sometimes a play means a season. Sometimes it means nothing. Sometimes it tells you everything you need to know about a team. Sometimes it is just an aberration.
The trick for fans and analysts is sorting through the inevitable detritus that accumulates over the course of a season and figuring out which ones really matter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were on the field for 2417 offensive, defensive and special teams snaps during the 2012 season. There were touchdowns, field goals, interceptions, fumbles, long runs, short passes, incompletions, kickoffs and punts.
Lots of those plays were little more than white noise. A few really mattered. A handful told us what we needed to know about this team, where they were heading and what we should expect from them.
The following is a compilation of one play from each of the 2012 Steelers games that offered insight into the recently concluded season.
The Steelers got yet another look at the back of Demaryius Thomas's jersey.
As a sports fan, nothing is worse than that moment when a sense of doom starts worming its cold way into your heart. When you feel like you’ve watched this movie before, and you know it doesn’t end well.
Pittsburgh fans got a taste of that feeling during the first game of the 2012 season.
The Steelers’ 2011 season ended with defensive backs Ike Taylor and Ryan Mundy futilely chasing Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas as the latter sped to a shocking 80-yard touchdown in overtime of the Broncos-Steelers Wild Card playoff game.
Watching Thomas rip through the secondary again in the first game of the 2012 campaign gave Steelers fans a bad case of déjà vu and a sinking feeling that the season was not going to go well.
Trailing 13-7 in the third quarter, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning hit Thomas on a short second-down pass from his own 29-yard line. The wideout then blazed through the Steelers' secondary, causing millions of Pittsburgh fans to shriek in frustration as their team’s defensive backs grasped nothing more than air for the second time in as many games.
The Steelers’ inability to bring down Thomas exposed some shockingly poor tackling, a weakness that reared its ugly head repeatedly during the rest of the season.
The Steelers declined to accept Jeremy Kerley's generous gift.
Good teams put bad teams away early and decisively. They rip out their opponents’ hearts and leave no room for lucky fourth-quarter comebacks. The Steelers showed early on that they lacked that killer instinct.
Up 20-10 in the third quarter against the lowly Jets, the Steelers stalled on their own 13-yard line and punted away. Returner Jeremy Kerley failed to field the kick cleanly, though, coughing it up to Pittsburgh on New York’s 42-yard line.
Fumbles on kickoffs or punts are strokes of incredible good fortune in the NFL. In a matter of seconds, they can swing the score by as much as 14 points or move a team from deep in its own end to scoring position.
Gifted a golden opportunity to bury a team that turned out to be the most entertainingly dysfunctional wreck in the league in 2012, however, the Steelers did nothing. Pittsburgh promptly ran for a short gain, threw two incompletions, took a delay of game penalty and punted the ball back to the Jets again.
Pittsburgh’s failure to step on New York’s throat foreshadowed a season’s worth of struggles against the worst teams in the league.
Instead of racking up wins against the NFL’s dregs, the Steelers went 4-4 against clubs that went on to have losing records. They dropped winnable games to Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Diego. Triumphing in even two of those might have put Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Antonio Brown's joy was short-lived.
Elite teams also don’t kill themselves with dumb mental mistakes. They force other teams to beat them, rather than doing it themselves. The Steelers kept losing to bad teams in 2012 partly because they made the job a lot easier for their opponents.
Against the Raiders in Week 3, Steelers wideout Antonio Brown fielded a second-quarter Shane Lechler punt and ran it back 72 yards for a touchdown. For a moment, it looked like Pittsburgh was going to go up 21-7 against an Oakland team that didn’t look capable of a comeback.
A blizzard of yellow flags, however, nipped the celebration in the bud.
A holding call against Pittsburgh wiped out what would have been the team’s only return touchdown in 2012. Just to make sure that the refs took the points off the board, David Johnson chipped in a second penalty on the return for an illegal block.
Gifted another shot, the Raiders clawed their way back into the game and eventually kicked a field goal to win it in the fourth quarter.
Unsurprisingly, costly penalties ended up being a problem all year. Pittsburgh averaged an embarrassing 58.6 penalty yards per game, the ninth-most in the NFL. Also unsurprisingly (given the Oakland game), these mental errors were a particular problem on special teams. Thanks to a variety of holding and illegal block calls, the Steelers lost 150 kickoff return yards and 232 punt return yards over the course of the season.
For one game, Rashard Mendenhall was his old self.
Sometimes a play is a window into what a player could become. It can offer a brief hopeful glimpse of potential realized, of promise delivered.
Other times, a play shows what a player once was. It can give a somber reminder that good things rarely come to a happy end in the hard world of pro football.
The Steelers’ first option at running looked good in his first game back, going for 68 yards on 13 carries and adding another 33 yards on three catches. More importantly, he scored Pittsburgh’s only touchdown of the day on a 13-yard scamper after hauling in a Ben Roethlisberger pass.
Unfortunately, that proved to be the highlight of Mendenhall’s season. He only ran for 114 more yards on 38 carries during the rest of the campaign. The five games in which he played after his good start against the Eagles were marred by injury, poor play and discontent.
Mendenhall reinjured himself in the following game, missed the next four contests, got benched after fumbling twice in four carries in the first Cleveland game, got deactivated for the next week against San Diego and was suspended for the Dallas tilt after no-showing at the Chargers game.
This downward spiral soured his relationship with the Steelers coaching staff and with Pittsburgh fans. And it is more than likely to lead to his exit during the offseason.
Shaun Suisham's miss led to Rob Bironas's make.
Even though it is the players who are ultimately responsible for making (or not making) plays on the field, they are always bound by the choices of the coaching staff between downs. Behind every good or bad play, there is a coach on the sidelines who is partly (if not entirely) to praise or to blame.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, head coach Mike Tomlin had a rare off year in his otherwise successful NFL career. Every team’s season has some questionable coaching decisions, but Tomlin showed a disturbing tendency to repeat his mistakes later in the year. One key error that was later ignored occurred in the Titans game in Week 6.
Kicker Shaun Suisham had an excellent year, nailing 28 of 31 field goal attempts during the course of the season.
Accuracy, however, should never be confused with power.
Suisham has never made a field goal from beyond 52 yards in his career, so it seemed an odd decision by Tomlin to ask him to try a 54-yarder with 54 seconds left in a game tied at 23. Pinning Tennessee deep in their own end and playing for overtime seemed a better bet, given that no one will ever dub Suisham “Legatron.”
Unsurprisingly, the Steelers kicker came up short. And gifted a short field, the Titans promptly marched into Pittsburgh territory and kicked the game-winning field goal from 40 yards out.
Suisham’s missed kick might have been just another tough play in a season full of disappointment had Pittsburgh’s coaching staff not compounded its errors later in the year.
With the score knotted at 10 against the Bengals in Week 16, Tomlin and company trotted their kicker out with 1:51 remaining for a 53-yard attempt in the difficult winds of Heinz Field. Once again, Suisham didn’t have enough leg for the kick. Given another chance at life, Cincinnati also ended up kicking a game-winner two drives later.
Heath Miller was a beast against the Bengals and throughout the season.
In the modern NFL, “playmaker” is the highest compliment that can be bestowed on a player by his peers. Because each six-second increment can matter so much to the overall outcome, developing a reputation as someone who can make things happen in those short spans can lead to an All-Pro season and a Hall-of-Fame career.
No Steeler earned the playmaker title in 2012 as much as Heath Miller.
The tight end had an excellent season, hauling in 71 passes for 816 yards in 15 games. He led the team in receptions and finished the year fourth among NFL tight ends in catches and receiving yards. Fittingly, Miller was named the team’s MVP and was one of only two Steelers Pro Bowl selections in 2012.
More important than his stats, though, was Miller’s ability to come up with a big catch when the team needed it most. Nothing embodied that more than the two-point conversion the tight end scored against the Bengals in Week 7 to tie the game at 14 just before halftime. The catch followed Miller’s nine-yard touchdown grab and put the Steelers back in a game they were on their way to losing.
Leonard Pope scores a rare 1st quarter Steelers touchdown.
Momentum in sports is a slippery concept. Because it is so intangible by nature, proving it exists is nearly impossible. NFL plays may be connected by some indefinable collective belief, or their success may be just as likely or unlikely regardless of the results of previous plays.
Whether one believes in it or not, however, it is clear that the Steelers generated very little momentum at the beginning of their 2012 games.
Fullback Leonard Pope’s touchdown against the Redskins was one of only three touchdowns the Steelers scored on their opening drives this past season. Unsurprisingly, Pittsburgh entered the second quarter of a game with the lead only four times in 2012.
Momentum may be a difficult thing to quantify, but playing with a lead has demonstrable effects on the game plan a team’s defense can employ. Knowing the opposing quarterback has to throw the ball allows defensive coordinators to dial up blitzes and can force easy turnovers. Conversely, playing catch-up puts a team’s offense at the mercy of a defense that knows it has to throw to win.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, scoring too few touchdowns like Pope’s left them scrambling to get into games late a lot in 2012.
Isaac Redman made Steelers fans forget about Mendenhall for a night.
Because there are so many plays spread across a four-month regular season, a few here and there can mislead fans into thinking that that a trend is emerging when it isn’t. There are spectacular plays in even the most disappointing campaign and embarrassing moments in runs to a Super Bowl championship.
Because we care so much about what every play tells us about the bigger picture, we tend to read too much into small samples. We believe things mean something even when they don’t.
With that in mind, Steelers fans can be forgiven for thinking that the team’s running game had finally found its footing against the Giants in Week 9. Prior to the tilt with the Bengals two weeks before, Pittsburgh’s rushing attack had been a disappointment.
The team’s running backs managed only 387 yards in five games, putting up a pathetic 3.05 yards per carry.
In the next three games, however, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer combined to reinvigorate the Steelers’ moribund ground game. Against Cincinnati, Washington and New York, the two backs helped generate 5.18 yards per attempt and more than 100 yards rushing per game. More importantly, Pittsburgh went on a three-game winning streak and looked to be turning around a season that had been up and down to that point.
Dwyer carried the load in the first two contests, but the Giants game belonged to Redman. The erstwhile third-down option looked every bit the feature back as he exploded for 147 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers’ victory over the defending Super Bowl champions.
Arguably his most crucial carry of the day came in the game’s waning moments.
With the Giants down by four, out of timeouts and needing a stop before the two-minute warning, Redman blasted through the line on his way to a 28-yard gain that sealed the win for the Steelers. A win Pittsburgh fans hoped would spur a run to the playoffs and (hopefully) the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, the game in New York proved a high point for both the running game and the team. The Steelers’ rushing attack ground to a halt in the remaining eight games, producing only 3.56 yards per carry and topping 100 yards only once.
Pittsburgh’s running backs recorded more fumbles (five) than touchdowns (four) during the team’s stretch run. And the club stumbled to a 3-5 finish that left it out of the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Big Ben's injury during the Chiefs game sank the Steelers' season.
The drop-off in the Steelers’ rushing production wasn’t the only thing that caused their season to spiral out of control. One play in the Chiefs game arguably caused more damage to Pittsburgh’s 2012 campaign than all of the other 2416 combined.
With the score tied at 10 at the beginning of the second half, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston broke through Roethlisberger’s protection and thumped the Steelers quarterback to the ground. In the process, Houston sprained Big Ben’s throwing shoulder and dislocated his rib.
Even for a man who has played through a frightening list of injuries, these proved too much to keep Roethlisberger on the field.
Backup Byron Leftwich replaced Roethlisberger and generated only three more points against a dismal Chiefs team (the final field goal came directly after Lawrence Timmons’s interception in overtime).
The 38-year-old Charlie Batch filled in for Leftwich in the next two games and managed to toss four interceptions. Though he played a key role in a surprising road victory over the Ravens in Week 13, Batch also steered the team to a disappointing defeat against the Browns.
The struggles of Pittsburgh’s backup quarterbacks no doubt played a role in Roethlisberger’s decision to come back against the Chargers in Week 14. Big Ben later admitted that he came back too soon, and his performance on the field indicated as much.
Prior to his injury, Roethlisberger completed 66 percent of his passes and tossed 16 touchdowns against only four interceptions. After returning, Big Ben completed only 56 percent of throws and had four more picks in just four games.
Running Dwyer straight up the middle failed to fool the Ravens.
The Steelers’ play-calling was an issue in 2012, with Roethlisberger publicly questioning offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s choices after a loss to the Cowboys in Week 15. Cases can be made for and against Haley’s plan, which mixed runs with short passes, but it’s hard to ignore the team’s disturbing tendency to go vanilla at particularly crucial moments.
Down 10-7 to the Ravens just after halftime, the Steelers crossed midfield for the first time in more than a quarter thanks to a long pass interference penalty against Baltimore. Instead of pressing the advantage, though, Pittsburgh called two runs by Dwyer straight into the teeth of the Ravens defense. Both carries netted a yard.
The poor production on first and second downs put Leftwich in a 3rd-and-long scenario that was not good for a backup with limited skills. Forced to throw down the field, Leftwich tossed an interception that killed a promising drive.
Uncreative play-calling hurt the Steelers throughout the season, as it continually put the offense in 3rd-and-long situations like the one Leftwich faced. The team ranked 29th in the NFL in yards gained on first down and 22nd in yards generated on second down.
Steelers fans shared Charlie Batch's frustration with his lousy play against the Browns.
Certainly some of the vanilla offensive schemes were meant to hide the deficiencies of Pittsburgh’s decrepit backup quarterbacks. And at no point were those weaknesses more glaring than against the Browns in Cleveland.
Batch turned in a horrendous performance against the Steelers’ AFC North rival, completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes and tossing three interceptions.
But as bad as his overall performance was, there was a single play that sufficed to make Steelers fans painfully aware of just what they were missing without Big Ben behind center.
With Pittsburgh clinging to a one-point lead in the third quarter, speedy receiver Mike Wallace got behind Browns safety T.J. Ward on a deep route. It was the moment Pittsburgh had been waiting for; one that only comes a couple of times a game.
A pass that hit him in stride would have meant an easy six points, a queasy Cleveland crowd and most probably, a Steelers win.
Unfortunately, Batch didn’t have the arm for it.
Instead of landing safely in Wallace’s hands, the ball fell short, clanging off the back of Ward’s head. On the next play, the Steelers backup tossed an interception. The Browns took advantage of the short field and scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Keenan Lewis and the Steelers' secondary shut down the Ravens.
Batch rebounded the following week with a gritty, dramatic drive to set up a game-winning field goal against the hated Ravens in Baltimore.
The inevitable postgame gushing about the backup quarterback’s heart, however, obscured a fantastic performance by the Steelers defense that shut the Ravens down from the middle of the third quarter through the end of the game.
Pittsburgh’s pass defense was particularly tough. Its secondary locked down the Ravens’ receivers, limiting would-be elite quarterback Joe Flacco to 188 yards passing, a 47 percent completion rate, one touchdown and an interception. The pass rush, dormant for much of the year, pressured Flacco repeatedly and sacked him three times on the afternoon.
The Steelers defense saved the best for last, though. After Pittsburgh tied the game at 20 midway through the fourth quarter, Flacco and Baltimore got the ball back and moved the ball to their own 32-yard line. The Steelers forced two incomplete passes, setting up a crucial 3rd-and-10.
The defense came up big again, as Flacco’s pass to tight end Dennis Pitta dropped to the turf incomplete. The Ravens punted away, setting up Batch’s game-winning drive.
It should have come as no surprise that the Steelers’ pass defense came up big. Thomas’s touchdown in Week 1 aside, Pittsburgh’s pass defense was the stoutest in the NFL for nearly the entire season, leading the league in total yards allowed.
Despite getting little help from a relatively weak pass rush, the Steelers’ secondary did a great job shutting down opposing teams’ aerial attacks. After a somewhat rocky start, cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis put together great seasons. The latter finished the year second in the NFL in passes defended.
This play went horribly wrong just a few moments later.
A team doesn’t go from 12-4 and a playoff berth one year to 8-8 and a January spent at home the next through poor play alone. It also takes a healthy dose of bad luck. And the Steelers had plenty of that during the 2012 season.
From the Denver game until Pittsburgh was officially eliminated from playoff contention, there was a looming sense that things just weren’t ever going to go the team’s way.
And at no point was that more pervasive than it was during the San Diego contest.
After the Chargers scored to go up 20-3 in the third quarter, Roethlisberger got the ball back on his own 8-yard line after a Pittsburgh penalty wiped out a nice kickoff return by Chris Rainey.
On first down, Big Ben turned to throw a screen pass from his own end zone. Unfortunately, the Charger David Paulson was blocking pushed the tight end so far off the ball that Paulson’s rear end got in the way of Roethlisberger’s pass. The ball bounced off of his posterior and rolled into the end zone.
San Diego’s Quentin Jammer recovered the “fumble” for a touchdown.
In 17 seconds, the Steelers went from trailing 13-3 to losing by 24 points. The game went from competitive to completely out of reach.
It was that kind of year for Pittsburgh. The kind of season in which these sort of unlucky plays happen. The kind of campaign in which a team’s players miss a total of 160 games due to injury. In which nearly every offensive lineman spent at least one week on the sidelines recuperating from something.
Heath Miller's touchdown showed what the Steelers were capable of.
In every disappointing season, there are a handful of plays that make fans wonder what might have been. Moments when everything comes together just right and when an inconsistent team’s potential is realized. Plays that make fans think, “If only they’d played that way all year…”
In the middle of a crushing Week 15 loss to Dallas that put Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes on the ropes, a brief ray of sunlight poked through the clouds in the form of a 30-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Miller just before halftime.
Big Ben took the snap, pump-faked, stepped up in the pocket, didn’t see anyone open, avoided a sack, rolled to the right, juked out of a second potential sack, drifted to the left and then threw a bullet back across the field to Miller. The tight end zipped down the sideline and into the end zone.
The touchdown was Roethlisberger at his best, a glimpse at what makes him such a special player. His ability to move around the pocket and avoid a sack for an astounding nine seconds while his receivers got open is nearly unparalleled in today’s NFL.
Unfortunately, due to the quarterback’s injuries and new offensive game plan that never quite clicked, Steelers fans saw very few vintage Big Ben plays this year.
That one touchdown against the Cowboys was ultimately an unsatisfying taste of what could have been had things gone a little differently in 2012. It was a painful reminder that the Steelers have lots of talent but just couldn’t quite put everything together.
Big Ben saw more of Geno Atkins than he ever wanted to.
Thanks to injuries and inexperience, the Steelers’ offensive line had a rough year, ranking 27th in adjusted line yards and 15th in adjusted sack rate. The unit struggled to open holes for Pittsburgh’s running backs and to keep opposing pass rushers off of the team’s quarterbacks.
In the second-to-last game of the season, rising star Geno Atkins absolutely abused the middle of the Pittsburgh’s line. Steelers rookie guard David DeCastro couldn’t handle the Bengals defensive tackle, who hounded Roethlisberger throughout the afternoon.
With the score knotted at 10 near the beginning of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh forced a turnover that had the potential to change the course of a game that had not been going the Steelers’ way.
Unfortunately, Atkins came barreling through the line on third down, dropped Roethlisberger and forced a fumble. Though DeCastro fell on the ball, the sack killed the drive before it started.
If 2012 proved anything, it was that Pittsburgh needs Big Ben on the field and playing at full strength. And for that to happen, the offensive line will need to play better. The potential is certainly there, but the execution will have to catch up if the Steelers are going to make the playoffs in 2013.
Cortez Allen's forced turnovers came too late to save the Steelers' season.
As is so often the case in disappointing seasons, the good stuff comes too late to make any difference. When the pressure is off and the stakes are low, the team suddenly plays well or does all the things it never did during the rest of the year.
The Steelers didn’t play particularly well in the final game of the 2012 campaign, but Pittsburgh did finally correct one shortcoming that plagued the team throughout the season. After generating a mere 16 turnovers in the first 15 games, the Steelers defense forced three fumbles and an interception in just 60 minutes of play.
Cornerback Cortez Allen jarred two balls loose himself, and the first of those made the sort of game-changing difference that turnovers so often lead to.
Allen forced a fumble by receiver Josh Gordon in the second quarter. Timmons fell on the ball, and for one of a handful of times in 2012, the Steelers offense benefited from a short field. Three plays later, Pope was in the end zone. Pittsburgh went on to win the game 24-10.
And that’s the worst part about a decent ending to a tough season. It leaves fans with that uneasy feeling that if things had just broken a little differently, the year could have been a whole lot better.