Pittsburgh Steelers Lull AFC Into False Sense of Security

Todd FlemingAnalyst INovember 24, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22:  Wide receiver Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers jumps to make a catch over defensive back Brandon Flowers #24 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri.  The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 27-24.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The abomination at Arrowhead was all part of “the plan".

So was the loss to the Bengals the week earlier.

The Steelers have set out to lull the rest of the AFC playoff field into a false sense of security. Any time now, they will spring their trap.

After all, no team can possibly give up four kickoff returns in five weeks, right?

That must have been intentional.

Maybe the special teams were just itching to set a record. Maybe they were feeling unappreciated since everyone was talking about the defense last year. Well, everyone is talking about them now.

A midseason swoon that looked like it was cooked up in the depths of hell worked so well in 2005 that it appears the Steelers have decided to pull a page out of their playbook from that season.

Actually, the loss to the Chiefs was not that surprising. There are a few things to consider before throwing in the towel on the 2009 season.

1. There are no give me games in the NFL.

Every team is loaded with elite talent, even the ones who inspire the most pity. Was it really that big of a shock that the St. Louis Rams, thought just a few weeks ago to be the worst team in the league, almost beat the New Orleans Saints, the top dog of most power rankings?

If a team doesn’t bring its “A” game, it can even lose to the Cleveland Browns.

Consider that if the Detroit Lions matched up against the Florida Gators, they would probably run them right out of the stadium…not that I wouldn’t pay to see a matchup of that kind if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity. It would be a heck of a lot more interesting than the Pro Bowl. 

2. These Steelers have a painful tendency to play to the level of their competition.

They did the same thing last year, rarely blowing out even their worst opponents. While some Steelers' fans were celebrating what appeared to be a much easier schedule, I was not at all sure that was a good thing for that reason.   

A team that is comfortable winning ugly will lose some games. The law of averages says that some years you will win a majority of the close games and some years you will lose most of them. Last year, the Steelers won most of their close games. This year, the coin has flipped. 

3. This year’s defense is plenty good.

But, last year’s defense was one of the best in the history of the league. It is easier to win the close games when a defense is nearly impenetrable.   

4. Every game features two teams who want to win.

Sometimes, as fans, we forget this. All wins are attributed to the glorious might of our team. All losses are attributed to the glorious incompetence of that same team who we were burying in praise the week before.

Rarely do we ever shrug and say, “Oh well. The other guys played better today.” That was the primary answer as to why the Steelers lost to the Bengals. The Bengals’ coaches were better on that Sunday, and their players were a tad better. That is usually all it takes.

The loss to the Chiefs is one of those rare games that says more about the problems the Steelers’ are struggling through than anything to do with the Chiefs. There is no question which team was more talented. That was fairly obvious. But, the more talented team does not always win.

5. Spotting a team seven free points each game is a huge burden to overcome, especially for a team built to win close games.

That is essentially what these Steelers are doing by allowing a weekly kickoff return for a “torchdown.”

Last year’s kickoff unit was one of the best in the league. Now, they are the worst in the history of the league. That is shocking. It may indeed be time to start kicking the ball out of bounce, or perhaps trying a few onside kicks. 

But, for all of that, there is still plenty of reason for optimism in Steelers Nation. The glass is still half full.

Here are five reasons why:

1. There is no dominant team in the AFC ready to run away with this thing come playoff time. So the Colts are 10-0. Big deal. They do not look at all impressive. Each week features their latest escape. Are they a good team? Absolutely. You don’t run off that kind of record if you stink.

Are they scary good? Not even a little bit. They are a consistently good team. In 2005, the Colts looked truly unbeatable and nobody thought they could be had come playoff time. They murdered almost everyone they faced. They looked invincible.

And they were promptly bounced by a Steelers’ team in the divisional round of the play-offs that suffered a similar mid-season run of futility, including being blown out by that Colts' team. 

2. The Steelers’ offense truly has the potential to be something special. Mike Wallace, despite a subpar game, has the potential to be a real game breaker. Rashard Mendenhall is developing into an elite runner. And the offensive line has improved dramatically from last year, although the loss of a much improved Chris Kemoeatu will hurt.

For some reason, these guys can’t quite put it together for a full 60 minutes. But, the fact that they have not peaked is encouraging. They would be in a lot more trouble if they had already peaked and were still losing. There is still time for it to come together before the playoffs with six games left.

3. The Steelers are still well positioned for a playoff run. And that counts for something. They are 6-4. I think 10-6 will probably get a team in this year based on the current records. 11-5 will definitely land a team in the playoffs.

The Patriots were sent packing at 11-5 last year, which was a glorious thing, but that is rare. After the Colts and the Patriots, there are no sure things when it comes to the playoffs on the AFC side.

The Chargers and Bengals will probably land there. But, the other two spots are wide open. And this looks like one of those years when a wildcard team can do plenty of damage.

The Steelers were bad this past weekend. That is an undeniable fact. But, so were most of their primary competitors for the last two wildcard spots.

4. Adversity sharpens a team’s desire and prepares a team for the serious tests that await come playoff time. It also conditions a team to be able to handle pressure and respond when the going gets tough.

The Steelers have faced plenty this year. The Colts and the Saints have not faced much, other than a few injuries. That is a tribute to the fact that both are very good teams.

But, I think the best thing that can happen to either of the two remaining undefeateds is to lose, and perhaps even lose badly. Not only will that give them a taste of adversity, but would remove the pressure cooker that builds with each successive win.

It was the adversity that the Steelers faced as a team in 2005 that prepared them for their playoff run. It was the adversity faced by the Giants in 2007 that gave them the confidence to knock off a juggernaut.

The Steelers of 2008 also faced plenty of adversity with a viciously tough schedule and a few humbling losses, including that to the Titans that cost them the top seed in the AFC.

5. The Steelers are indeed built to win ugly. That doesn’t always look so hot during the regular season when other teams are lighting up the scoreboard seemingly at will. But, it becomes a much bigger asset during the playoffs when you need to be able to win close games when the pressure is sky high.

If you ask me which team is more likely to blow out the Detroit Lions, the Steelers or the Coltriots, the Coltriots would win in a landslide. If you ask me which team was more likely to lose to the St. Louis Rams, the Steelers or the Coltriots, the Steelers would win in a landslide. But, if the Steelers meet the Coltriots in the playoffs, I still like the Steelers and I would feel that way even if I wasn’t a fan of the team.

There are plenty of other reasons that go unmentioned here. The biggest is that I will never count out a Ben Roethlisberger-led team once it gets to the playoffs.

The Steelers will also likely have the best defensive player in the league back to his fully disruptive self.

For all that I wrote above, the Steelers desperately need the win this week, although not quite as desperately as the Ravens need it. Will they get that win? I like their chances. And if they do get it, they can easily get right back on the tracks.

Even if they lose, the clock will not have struck midnight just yet.  


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