Steelers Will Need to Follow 2005 Route to Return to Super Bowl

Todd FlemingAnalyst INovember 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 15: Laveranues Coles #11 of the Cincinnati Bengals can't make a catch as Troy Polamalu #43 and William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers defend at Heinz Field on November 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Every team has a mulligan in them somewhere. Sometimes a team survives its mulligan (see the Saints today). Sometimes a team doesn’t.

Today’s game was the Steelers’ mulligan, coming after an impressive five-game win streak. They were awful on offense and special teams.

Only a very solid defensive performance kept this from being a rout.

While the Bengals have a good defense, I don’t think they are as good as the Steelers made them look today.

Can the Steelers recover to win the division? Not likely.

Looking at the Bengals' schedule, it is hard to imagine a scenario where they lose more than three of their remaining games, and even that is wishful thinking. The toughest three teams left are the Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers, and New York Jets, all of whom the Bengals play on the road.

The Vikings and Chargers will likely be favored at home later in the season against the Bengals. Those are likely the only two games in which the Bengals will be underdogs.

Their other opponents? The fearsome foursome of the Raiders, Browns, Lions, and Chiefs. Looking at the Bengals’ season, they have a tendency to play to the level of their opponents, both good and bad. But it seems a long shot.

Should the stars align and the Bengals lose three games, the Steelers would win the division if they only dropped one more game. It is possible.

The toughest team left on their schedule is the Ravens, who they play twice. The rest of their opponents range from the ghastly to just not very good. There is a home game against the Green Bay Packers, who handled the Cowboys today, but the Packers' offensive line makes the Steelers’ maulers look downright scary by comparison.

The most likely scenario has the Bengals winning the division at 12-4. The Steelers, at 11-5, would settle for the fifth or sixth seed.

With wins over both Denver and San Diego, the Steelers remain well positioned in the wild card race when it comes to tiebreakers. That means that their route to another Super Bowl will look a lot more like 2005 than 2008, with the Steelers forced to go on the road against some very good football teams.

A few thoughts on the game:

This was one of the worst performances I can remember ever seeing from Ben Roethlisberger. He was wildly off target all night, and that was only when he was able to find a Steeler even remotely open to pitch the ball at.

Getting knocked to the ground repeatedly will do that to a quarterback.

The closest comparison I can think of is the Eagles fiasco last season. That’s the silver lining. That game was even more wretched, and the Steelers recovered just fine from it.

Big Ben wasn’t alone in having his worst game of the year. Several of his offensive compatriots were right there with him. 

One of the most perplexing questions from this game is the decision by the Steelers to not shift to a no-huddle approach to try to jump-start the offense and force the Bengals to adjust on defense. I think the most likely culprit for that is a mixture of pride and self-preservation on the part of Bruce Arians.

Arians has to realize that most people are noticing how much better the offense has looked when he isn’t the one calling the plays. Professional pride would dictate a desire to be the one calling the plays, especially since it is in his job description.

If that is the case, I think it is shortsighted by Arians. He will not survive as offensive coordinator with too many days like today.

Santonio Holmes has now dropped two touchdown passes that he has let sail through his hands this season. Both games finished in the L column. If it had been Limas Sweed who dropped that touchdown, we would be howling in outrage.

But Holmes built up a reservoir of goodwill following his performance throughout the playoffs last year. If he wants to emerge as a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver in this league, as he has stated, he has to make those catches.

The Steelers’ defense played exceptionally well for most of the game, but they had their worst moments with the game on the line. The retaliatory penalty on James Harrison was the backbreaker, pushing the Bengals into Steelers’ territory, allowing them to take more time of the clock, and ultimately resulting in three more points on the scoreboard.

I hate to see those kinds of penalties called. Harrison, who had his usual strong game up to that point, needs to be smarter than that.

Every kickoff for these Steelers is a horror show. We need to start cueing the Friday the 13th music whenever they kick off.

It was only a matter of time before a returned kickoff helped determine the outcome of one of their games. But the horror of the kicking game went beyond that.

Even on their “good” kickoffs, they still spotted excellent field position to the Bengals repeatedly. They have to fix that glaring problem, and fix it soon.

It is hard to find a single player on offense that actually played well. Monday night hangover? Maybe. A really pathetic performance? Absolutely.

The Bengals deserve acclaim for sweeping both the Ravens and the Steelers in the same season. That is an impressive achievement any way you look at it.

Congrats to Marvin Lewis and his squad. I always like to see a team who sticks with a head coach when everyone is saying he should be fired be rewarded for it. That appears to be the case for the Bengals.

If I was an owner and had a head coaching vacancy at the end of this season, I would give a serious look in the direction of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

This is one that the Steelers need to put in the rearview mirror in a hurry. There is still plenty of football left to play, and who knows? They may get a third crack at these Bengals before we write the book on this season.


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