If the season ended today, the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers could sum up their season in three words: failure to close.
For the fourth time this season, the Steelers blew a fourth quarter lead and lost the game. The Steelers, now at 6-5, are pretty much just fighting for a wild card spot which they still could not earn even if they win out and finish 11-5 a la the New England Patriots last season. It is a possibility that the Steelers and Steeler Nation needs to come to grips with quickly.
Some observations from tonight's game:
1. Dennis Dixon played OK given the situation. Yes he did throw the back-breaking interception to Paul Kruger in overtime and just looked lost in OT period, but you have to give the second-year QB his due. He played within himself. He did not take any sacks, and got rid of the ball quickly whenever he could. He also flashed his quickness and foot speed which made him a Heisman candidate in 2007, scoring on a 24-yard run.
Dixon has shown to be a capable backup, but Steeler Nation will obviously want their franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger to come back as soon as possible, likely next week at home against Oakland. It is good to know what the Steelers have in Dixon. So expect Charlie Batch to be put on injured reserve within few days.
2. Bruce Arians called the best game of the season. Yes, even in a loss, Arians did his job well and should not face too much criticism this week. His play-calling protected Dixon and had 38 run plays to 26 pass plays, a great combination for an inexperienced QB.
Rashard Mendenhall got 24 carries for 95 yards against a tough Ravens defense, and the Steelers as a team rushed for 153, which is admirable even in a loss. Arians should definitely stick with this philosophy even when Roethlisberger comes back. It will protect Roethlisberger from unnecessary contact and help the team control the clock more efficiently.
3. The kickoff coverage was much better Sunday night because, well, they did not give up any returns for touchdowns. All sarcasm aside, the Steeler coverage unit held Ravens return man Ladarius Webb to 21.3 yards per return, which for them is phenomenal. Chris Carr got loose on a punt return once for 34 yards but other than that, the Steelers also did their job efficiently.
1. The defense was not great tonight. Let's get one thing clear. This Steelers defense is not the 2008 Steelers defense. Tonight they gave up two long touchdown drives in the first half before finally clamping down on Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense in the third quarter and part of the fourth quarter. The tying FG drive by the Ravens? 10 plays for 84 yards, something that has become usual for these Steelers defenders this year.
This Steelers defense played their hearts out tonight, but let's give credit where credit is due. Ray Rice is a star running back and he made the Steelers look silly in the game-tying drive, easily beating James Farrior on the gutsy 4th down catch with 3:31 to go in the game.
In OT, Rice drove the ball all the way down inside the 12 yard line after Kruger's interception return was stopped at the Steelers' own 28 yard line. The Steelers knew who was getting the ball but it did not matter. They came into tonight's game as the best run defense in the league. Tonight that number meant nothing. 132 yards rushing against the No. 1 ranked rush defense is inexcusable no matter who is not playing or who is playing.
2. Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay were not good tonight. Gay has been picked on by opponents all season and tonight was no different. The real surprise was Taylor, who is usually a very good cover man, getting beaten consistently by Derrick Mason. Tonight Taylor was beaten for a touchdown and was flagged for a pass interference.
Gay, a free agent at the end of this season, will likely just play out his contract with the Steelers and will not be asked to come back for 2010. With Deshea Townsend at age 34, the Steelers will need to draft another cornerback, or groom 2009 draft picks Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett to eventually take over. Given how little Lewis and Burnett have played this season, it remains to be seen if they are the long-term future or if they are just in Steel City for another year.
Was this loss a sign of things to come? Now with three losses in a row, the Steelers are in a deep hole in the AFC playoff picture. They might as well forget about playing at Heinz Field in January, because barring a Denver Broncos -like collapse by the the Cincinnati Bengals, the division is lost.
Like 2005, the Steelers need to win out to ensure a playoff berth. The best things about the Steelers right now are these things: One, they have made playoff runs before. Two, wins against the now surging Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos, and even the San Diego Chargers will loom large if it comes down to tie-breakers.
But enough of that.
While this Steeler team is no doubt talented, they don't look like a team trying to attain a common goal like last season. There seems to be no real fire inside this team, almost like they are content with last season and just want to play out the string this season.
I think that the month of December will show how important Mike Tomlin is to this team. For the first time in his three seasons in Pittsburgh, Tomlin is facing the reality of not making the playoffs. Some Steeler fans have questioned Tomlin's leadership and coaching calls this season.
Bill Cowher cemented his legend in Pittsburgh in December 2005 and January 2006 by leading the Steelers to nine consecutive wins, including four straight wins in the playoffs. Before 2005, Cowher was just a good coach. After 2005, he was a great coach who could go to the Hall of Fame when he officially retires.
While last season Tomlin was the toast of the town, but the NFL is a fickle business. Tomlin can shut up the remaining naysayers if he can lead the Steelers to wins and a deep playoff push this year, especially in the first real moment of crisis in his coaching career.
The Steelers need to take care of their own business and not worry about what the Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, or anyone else is doing. Troy Polamalu will likely not be back this Sunday against the Raiders or next Thursday night against the Cleveland Browns. While he makes the Steelers a better team, one man should not make an entire defense.
The remaining schedule sets up favorably for the Steelers, but this is the same team that could not close out a 10 point lead against the Kansas City Chiefs. Bottom line, the Steelers need to close out games. If they don't, they will be watching football during the playoffs, not playing in them.
Next game: December 6 vs. Oakland Raiders @ 1 pm Eastern