Super Bowl XLV left a strange feeling about the Pittsburgh Steelers. In recent years we learned to know this team, seeing it regularly cruising through playoffs, winning the AFC three times in six years and raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy on two occasions. Pittsburgh, entering Super Sunday, was considered a Super Bowl veteran, since this squad and many of its roster elements had enough experience to supposedly top the Green Bay Packers.
Pittsburgh’s tradition always seem to carry this team on top, so watching them falling in the hole they dug for themselves was highly uncharacteristic. Defense, running game, clock management and smart quarterback play made this franchise the force that, with New England as the only exemption, has dominated the AFC with its well-known smash-mouth football.
The Steelers fell behind Green Bay early in the first quarter, when a bunch of unconventional mistakes suddenly morphed them into underdogs. The Packers, who took advantage forcing two costly Roethlisberger interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by safety Nick Collins, acted like they were the real Super Bowl experts.
In the past Pittsburgh was capable of re-emerging from games where the team didn’t take care of the ball, winning games where the turnovers ratio was negative, but last Sunday they simply risked too much. They forgot about one of the game’s greatest fundamental aspects, and they acted like an undisciplined team.
When the defense came to the rescue, the offense came up short with penalties that disrupted drives, and one silly special teams act cost field position on what could've become the game-clinching series.
This was not the first time in the playoffs that the Steelers had to fight back. The situation was in fact similar to the Divisional Playoffs against Baltimore, where Mike Tomlin’s squad was ineffective on offense, and had already conceded three touchdowns in the first half of play. Tomlin regrouped his team in the locker room and found the right adjustments to begin the second half. Pittsburgh resisted to Baltimore’s last raid, won the game and qualified for the AFC Championship. In Super Bowl XLV, they were doing it again.
When strong defensive play stalled Green Bay’s first two second half possessions forcing consecutive three and outs, the Howard Green pressure-led first interception and the Jarrett Bush pick were already forgotten. Once again all the puzzle pieces were suddenly coming into place, apparently taking the Packers’ first half fun to an end. Foremost, Tomlin decided to give Dom Capers’ 3-4 a heavy dose of the rushing game, an aspect that he previously shelved, and Rashad Mendenhall consequently began to gain huge first downs, attacking the edges with quickness and grit. In the meantime, the Packers’ most dangerous weapon, Aaron Rodgers, was not on the field, and this is just what Pittsburgh’s strategy desired to accomplish.
Mendenhall himself however committed a mistake already seen from him, that historically kept this coaching staff unsatisfied with his growth as a football player. The Steelers were in opponents’ territory, ready to score a touchdown that would give them the team's first lead, when past fears morphed into hard reality: Mendenhall was sandwiched between Ryan Pickett’s helmet and Clay Matthews tackle, did not take enough care of the ball and lost it.
Pittsburgh ended up losing what could've been a third Super Bowl ring in six years due to this fatal mistake. In his young career, Mendenhall’s strong play was often overshadowed by his fumbling problems preventing him from becoming a great running back, and his future could be forever haunted by that Super Bowl turnover, an episode that sadly occurred in the biggest stage of them all.
Pittsburgh lost a game on details, but this doesn’t means that the team will not make another Stairway To Seventh run. Next year, assuming there will be football to watch, the big-play, game-changing defense will be once again ready to rumble.
They will be counting on a veteran group comprised of current Defensive Player Of The Year Troy Polamalu, an athletic and furious linebacking corps that will mix James Harrison’s ferocity, LaMarr Woodley’s pressure ability, Lawrence Timmons’ strong play, and a likely impassable defensive line that will regain one of its most important players against the run, Aaron Smith. If the organization will add secondary depth selecting one or two defensive backs to grow for nickel situations, another year of high-level competition is assured.
Pittsburgh’s offense is young and can only improve. Mendenhall will live a make-it-or-break-it year, he'll be challenged in changing his turnover-prone fame; Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown all have fresh legs and plenty of football ahead of them, and a much-maligned offensive line could build on a new found depth that enabled little-known Doug Legursky to honourably substitute Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon will be back from his season-ending injury.
Add a piece of two in April, possibly a first rounder, and everything could be alright. And let's not forget that aside from his Super Bowl-related mistakes, Big Ben is a clutch quarterback, no question about that.
Pittsburgh is a winning organization and Mike Tomlin is a smart motivator that can get every bit of energy out of his players. There’s a feeling that the Steelers will soon make another Super Sunday trip, sooner or later. They lost this one by themselves, so they will have rage and revenge to spread all over their future opponents, and a notable chip on their shoulders.
This team should not worry about anything, because history shows that they can constantly perform at high levels. They will be back.