The Pittsburgh Steelers have been here before. 6-2 at the halfway point with a pivotal conference matchup at home. Three previous times in the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have had the ninth game of the season at home, going 1-2 (win against the Browns in 2007, loss to the Colts in 2008, loss to the Bengals last season).
The Steelers hosted the New England Patriots this evening, and the home team suffered its worst home loss in the Tomlin era, 39-26. In the previous three games I mentioned, the Steelers reacted differently, so the aftereffects of tonight's embarrassment is anyone's guess.
Will they take the loss and bounce back like the champions they would become as they did in 2008, or will they go on a multi-game losing skid, as they did last season? The next few weeks will reveal who the 2010 Steelers truly are. The Steelers could end up taking this game as a lesson in humility well-learned, or this could be the beginning of the end.
Now for some observations and overreactions from tonight's game:
How Bad are Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler?
The only reason I ask this question is because, once again, embattled cornerback William Gay was beaten for touchdowns, this time by Patriots rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski; not once, not twice, but three times. Gay has had some good moments this season (the blocked punt against the Bengals, the 4th-down stop against the Ravens) but for the most part, he has been the target of opposing QBs this season.
The Steelers figured that Gay, a starter last season, could be an effective nickelback; after all, he held his own in that position in 2008. However, whether by lack of talent or confidence (likely both), Gay has looked very bad. Tonight he was at his worst. Lewis has not made enough strides to be inserted in any defensive packages, and he did not help his cause tonight with mental mistakes on special teams. Butler has not cracked the game-day roster, and it is unlikely he will, unless the injury bug visits the secondary.
My guess: The Steelers will stick with Gay for the rest of the season (much to the chagrin of many in the Steeler Nation) and will not offer him a new deal when his contract runs out next spring.
Energy Crisis in Heinz Field
I don't know whether it was Hines Ward getting hit hard in the first quarter or the Patriots' offense surgically cutting the Steelers defense to pieces on the first drive of the game, but there was no real emotion or sense of urgency on the Steelers' side tonight.
Maybe it was Patriots QB Tom Brady being 5-1 at Heinz Field and the Patriots' style of offense that took the energy and life out of the Steelers. Maybe it was the third consecutive night game or coming off three consecutive road games. Who knows?
Whatever it was, the energy level of the team was lacking tonight, and it needs to be addressed by Coach Tomlin immediately. This is where head coaches in the NFL earn their pay. Tomlin did it 2008—the Steelers did not suffer consecutive losses that season. Of course, Tomlin could not rally the team effectively last season.
Next week against the upstart Oakland Raiders will help tell the story of what kind of team (and coach) the Steelers have this season.
The Antwaan Randle El Experience Part II Needs To Be Stopped ASAP
Randle El, the former Super Bowl XL hero, came back to the Steelers this season to help revitalize a receiving corps that lost Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets and added two rookies this past April. Randle El looked to regain his former role as an underrated third receiver for the Steelers this year. For the most part, though, he has done next to nothing. Tonight, he did even less.
Randle El has never been compared to Cris Carter in comparison of good hands, but he was always thought to be at least reliable. Tonight, Randle El dropped a crucial touchdown pass that set the tone of offensive futility that would haunt the Steelers for most of the game. Randle El should be given lesser roles for the rest of the season, and the Steelers should consider releasing him if his play does not improve.
The Steelers have a developing rookie in Emmanuel Sanders, who showed flashes of good talent tonight, and speedster Antonio Brown should be getting close. There is also the veteran Arnaz Battle, who was brought in as a special teamer but has shown he can catch a pass or two every once in a while.
For all those reasons, the Steelers should scale back Randle El's role in the offense.
It Is Getting Harder and Harder To Defend Jeff Reed
Reed, whom I consider the most underrated kicker in the league, missed another kick at home today, this time from 26 yards. Reed now has missed five field goals at home, seven overall this season. Reed, of course, was designated the franchise tag and has no deal after 2010. Given his off-the-field issues and poor performance on the field, Reed is not doing anything to earn the long-term contract he desires.
If Reed keeps struggling to make kicks, he will definitely play his way out of Steel City.
The Defense Is Still Playing...Off Past Reputation
The Steelers came into tonight's game leading the league in scoring defense and rushing defense. Sure, the injuries to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are tough, but nobody would dare run on the Steelers, especially the "soft" Patriots...right? Wrong.
The Patriots, when Tom Brady was not cutting them up with short completions, gashed them with runs by BenJarvis Green-Ellis. The Patriots rushed for over 100 yards against the Steelers' defense. That was by far the most telling statistic on a night filled with embarrassing statistics
The Steelers are playing as if the opposition fears them. Well, Tom Brady does not fear them. After tonight, he is now 6-1 against the Steelers, 4-1 against defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Steelers have struggled when they do not blitz often (see the Baltimore and New Orleans games) and against great QBs (see the New Orleans game, the fourth quarter of last week's game in Cincinnati and tonight's game).
Of course, not every team has Tom Brady or Drew Brees, but the Steelers defense got exposed for who they really are. They are slow to cover, passive most of the time and can be thrown on with ease. Why run the ball against the Steelers when you can gash them for first downs with short crossing routes?
To make matters worse, safety Troy Polamalu has struggled mightily the last few weeks. He has been caught flat-footed and guessing wrong more than I care to count, resulting in big plays for the opposing offenses. Unfortunately, the secondary will not magically improve, but LeBeau can try to protect them by putting more pressure on the quarterback.
I realize that this is tough to do against a team like New England with its short rhythm passing game, but it must be corrected soon or the Steelers giving up 30 plus points will be commonplace the rest of the season.
The Steelers defense got their helping of humble pie tonight. It is up to the veteran group to overcome the injuries and step up not allow a disaster like tonight occur again. Time will tell if this group of Blitzburgh will bounce back or fold.
Speaking of Bad, How Much Worse Can the Steelers' Offensive Line Get?
The Steelers have come under heavy criticism in the past because of poor offensive line play, something that has been much a part of Mike Tomlin's tenure in Pittsburgh. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger holds the ball too long sometimes (and he did tonight as well), but tonight was one of the five worst performances by the Steelers' offensive line in the past four years.
Now that is saying something.
I really thought the loss of Max Starks would not have as heavy aftereffects as many thought, but if tonight is any indication, the Steelers are in huge trouble if they keep Jonathan Scott in the lineup. If Scott struggled against the likes of Tully Banta-Cain, how is he going to handle the likes of Terrell Suggs and other elite pass rushers?
The Steelers might have fixed the center problem by drafting Maurkice Pouncey this past April. The Steelers need to fix the tackle problems before Ben Roethlisberger and any running back getting hit in the backfield suffers a serious injury. The Jonathan Scott experiment needs to end, and the Steelers should consider seeing what they have in Tony Hills. Anyone would be better than Scott. Then again, Hills could also be horrendous, too.
Now I could go even further and do my weekly Bruce Arians bashing concerning play-calling (it was pretty awful tonight as usual), but he was like the ninth thing wrong with the Steelers tonight.
Did we all overrate the Steelers? Was tonight an anomaly?
Sure, the Steelers do not match up well against the Patriots offense, but this was absurd. Speaking of last season, one of the five straight losses that sunk the Steelers' hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champs was at the hands of the Oakland Raiders. Coming up next? The Oakland Raiders, who are even better this season than in 2009.
Let's all hope tonight was just a minor setback for the Steelers and not a sign of things to come.