Few would have expected it to come this way, but it did. Despite Ben Roethlisberger having a 40-0 career record at home when Pittsburgh allows 17 points or fewer, he made arguably the worst pass of his career to set up the Bengals for the game-winning field goal.
That inability to finish was a constant theme throughout the season for the Steelers. While a lot of unexpected events happened in 2012, this “off” year actually fits well into their recent pattern.
For the fourth consecutive time, the Steelers have followed up back-to-back playoff seasons with a subpar year that will keep them home this January. It also happened to the 2003, 2006 and 2009 teams.
One of the common trends among those seasons is a team that commits too many mistakes. That was one of the few things the 2012 Steelers did with consistency. The caliber of opponent hardly mattered, as the current record is 4-4 against winning teams and 3-4 against losing teams.
As Mike Tomlin likes to say, the standard is the standard, and the standard has not been good enough the last two seasons despite spending a lot of cap space on a roster that will produce zero playoff wins.
Where did it all go wrong this season?
That is a question with many answers, but we will focus on the most important ones. After what was truly a disappointing 2011 season despite the 12-4 record, the 2012 season is even a tougher one to stomach for a team that could see their window of opportunity closing without some significant changes.
The offseason that failed
There was a lot of change in the offseason with the Steelers saying goodbye to veterans such as Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith. They really were not missed on the field for production, but some of that veteran leadership could have helped when things were not going well.
The biggest move was at offensive coordinator by replacing Bruce Arians, who was Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite coordinator, with recently fired Chiefs head coach Todd Haley.
We will get into the specifics of Haley’s offense later, but clearly from the start there was uneasiness between the coach and quarterback, and that is never a good thing for a team to have success. Haley has been questioned in the past, while Roethlisberger was very upset over losing Arians, who went on to coach the Colts to a 9-3 record as their interim head coach.
While Haley and Roethlisberger struggled to even meet each other, star receiver Mike Wallace’s holdout did the Steelers no favors as well. His underachieving season hampered the offense after showing such promise the first three years of his career.
In the draft, the team tried to retool the offensive line with selections of guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams in the first two rounds.
DeCastro was injured in the preseason and has only returned to start the last two games, allowing two sacks already. He allowed one sack in his entire Stanford career. Adams started six games but also went down with an injury.
The team also lost second-year tackle Marcus Gilbert to injury, as it was just another year of musical chairs among the offensive line, which for the seventh straight season performed below average.
Linebacker Sean Spence was the third-round pick, and he was lost in the preseason with a torn ACL. That was followed up by defensive lineman Alameda Ta’amu in the fourth round, and he had himself quite the night in October. Make it 15 counts of drunken stupidity in a career that will likely never go anywhere.
Running back Chris Rainey in the fifth round finished off the highlight picks as the four selections in the seventh round were nothing significant. Though Rainey showed some flashes, he has only been given 39 touches on offense while doing a good job on kick returns.
But this draft class just did not deliver at all in year one.
There was also the surprise firing of special teams coordinator Al Everest just two games into the preseason. Everest improved what was a horrendous special teams in 2009 when he took the job in 2010. There was never a clear reason as to why he was released, just as there was some shadiness over how Arians departed.
The special teams regressed this year with countless penalties, head-scratching decisions by Antonio Brown on punt returns, and just not enough game-changing plays. Shaun Suisham statistically had a great year, converting 27 of his 30 field goals, but his lack of range potentially cost the team two game-winning field goals from long distance against Tennessee and Cincinnati.
Many changes this offseason, but hardly anything worked in 2012.
Offense: Lack of identity continues
More than any team in the league, the Steelers pride themselves on running the football. Even though the evolution of offense and rule changes favors the passing game, there is still talk every year about getting back to “Steeler football.”
For about the sixth offseason in a row, the Steelers talked about using more no-huddle offense, only to never see that come to fruition.
How about just focusing on what works, and what best fits your talent base? The Steelers have been a pass-first team for seven years, and they seemed to be in good shape with their three young receivers (Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders) and Heath Miller at tight end. Jerricho Cotchery was a reliable No. 4 receiver.
Haley had his success in Arizona with three-receiver sets, but questions remained on how he was going to change this offense from the heavy-vertical looks Arians used, and which you can see Andrew Luck running in Indianapolis.
Haley’s goal was to keep Roethlisberger healthy this season. That can only be accomplished by getting the ball out faster, which means an increase of quick, short passes.
Some thought this was working early in the season as Roethlisberger was not taking as many sacks and hits as past years. He currently has a 6.2 sack percentage, which would be the lowest of his career.
But Haley’s plan ultimately failed. You could even argue it has failed miserably.
Not only did Roethlisberger suffer the most significant injury of his career, but Haley has neutered the offense’s strengths: Roethlisberger’s improvisational skills and the downfield speed of the receivers.
The offensive line was still not a good unit, and these receivers are not built to run a dink-and-dunk offense, which is the phrase that was accurately used to describe it.
- Roethlisberger’s average of 7.35 yards per attempt is the second lowest of his career.
- His average of 11.64 yards per completion is the lowest of his nine-year career.
- Roethlisberger is 9-of 40 (22.5 percent) on passes thrown at least 21 yards down the field this season, but has five touchdowns.
- Last season, Roethlisberger was 14-of-53 (26.4 percent) on such passes with five touchdowns.
The 2012 splits show more passes behind the line of scrimmage and fewer down the field. Even though the success has been there when they have gone deep with some big touchdowns this year, there just have not been as many opportunities as past years.
That is not using Wallace, or even Brown and Sanders to their full potential with all the speed they have. Doing it for the sake of injury prevention is a joke, as we have seen injuries can happen on any play to any player.
Roethlisberger’s injury to his shoulder and rib, which caused a scare with the aorta, was more serious than any other injury he’s ever had. He missed three and a half games with it. So much for that plan.
By neutering the offense, the Steelers had to be outstanding on third down to put together drives without the big-chunk plays. Halfway through the season, they were outstanding with a league-best 51.3 conversion rate.
But starting with the Kansas City game when Roethlisberger was injured, the decline on third down set in quickly. Even after his return, things were about as bad as they have been all season with the 2-for-14 performance on Sunday.
The 30.9 conversion rate over the last seven games would rank 29th for the entire season. They went from the top of the league to nearly the bottom in the second half of the season. It’s not that third-down success is not sustainable, but clearly they were never going to keep at the rate they started with.
One of the common complaints for Arians’ offense was how it would stall in the red zone. Here is the red-zone touchdown production this season compared to the five under Arians. This did not exclude drives that were just kneel-downs in the fourth quarter.
Comparing Arians’ whole tenure, the percentages are practically identical. On the bright side, at least you cannot say the Steelers got worse in the red zone under Haley.
The safe approach to offense led to just nine turnovers in nine games, but they have had 21 giveaways in the last seven games, including an embarrassing eight times in Cleveland.
While you live and die by the pass, the running game has also been a non-factor this season. Pittsburgh ranks 26th in both rushing yards (96.4 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.77).
There was a very productive three-game stretch against the Bengals, Redskins and Giants, but other than that, things have been very pedestrian, and sometimes downright awful when it comes to running the ball.
The offensive line is a big problem, but the Steelers also rotate in too many backs. Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are all averaging under 4.0 yards per carry this season, and they have four rushing touchdowns combined.
Mendenhall has been injured and even suspended by the team in a very disappointing season. Dwyer was part of that big run in Weeks 7-9, but has also been injured and ineffective the rest of the season. Redman is your ideal short-yardage back, though the Steelers have struggled there.
Since the Kansas City game, Pittsburgh is just 3-for-10 at running on third and fourth down with one or two yards to go. This comes after starting the season 13-of-15 (86.7 percent) on such plays.
Again, everything on offense fell apart that night against the Chiefs, and they never recovered. How good they were prior to that is up for debate, but that level of offense likely could have carried this team into the postseason.
Instead, you get a 13-10 elimination loss at home to the Bengals, which has just never happened before in the Roethlisberger era (2004-2012). Considering the playoff impact of the game, recall the fact that the Steelers have scored at least 20 points in 16 consecutive playoff games.
It has often been the heralded defense letting them down in big games. That was not the case on Sunday, but it was at other points this season.
Defense: False identity continues
The easy way out would be to credit Dick LeBeau for having the “No. 1 defense” again, while overcoming injuries to key players such as Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark.
But that would be a sham. This defense was never anywhere close to being the best in the league, and a lousy indicator like total yards allowed would trick you into thinking otherwise.
Instead, let’s face the facts. The Pittsburgh defense is getting old, and they were fortunate to have faced the fewest defensive plays from scrimmage this season (889; the 2-13 Chiefs are next with 897).
For much of the early season, the Steelers ranked in the bottom half of the league in points per drive allowed, due to a smaller number of drives faced. This comes back to the offense’s early-season dominance on third down.
Through Week 15, the Steelers are 13th in points per drive allowed, which sounds like a much more accurate representation of their season. This is just not the same defense from a few years ago.
Despite all the blitzes, the Steelers have just 33 sacks this season, and getting pressure has been a real struggle as Harrison and Woodley fail to produce in injury-plagued seasons. Lawrence Timmons has really emerged as the defense’s best player this season, but by position, he’s not going to get a lot of pressure.
But the single biggest problem the defense faces is their inability to make game-changing plays. That’s what the NFL is all about now: creating takeaways, defensive scores, forcing field-goal attempts in the red zone, big stops on third/fourth down, and closing the door in the fourth quarter.
The goal is not to hold the opponent under 300 yards. You have to dynamically change the game, and without a player like Polamalu healthy and back to his old self, they just do not have the capability to do so.
But there were opportunities, which we will see. They just do not make them, and have not been making them. The Steelers have 16 takeaways this year after just 15 last season.
The 31 takeaways over the last two seasons is by far the worst ever in franchise history, with several other recent pairs of seasons in the mix. Four teams have more takeaways in 2012 than the Steelers in the last two seasons combined.
Now it is true turnovers are less common in today’s game, but this is historically bad. In fact, three 2011-2012 teams could finish with the three worst back-to-back seasons in NFL history for takeaways.
Only 14 teams have ever had 16 or fewer takeaways in a 16-game season. If the Steelers do not get a takeaway vs. Cleveland, they will be the first team in NFL history to average 1.0 takeaways or fewer in back-to-back seasons.
It is hard to win without takeaways, and that is why the Steelers have been -13 and -14 in the turnover differential the last two seasons.
Fourth quarter has been the melting point for Steelers
No team in 2012 has been involved in more close games than the Steelers. Outside of soundly beating the Jets and Redskins and losing badly to San Diego, the Steelers have played a dozen close games that were decided by the slimmest of margins.
Pittsburgh scored the game-winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime of five games, but had seven losses in the same situations.
Realistically, the Steelers could be anywhere from 2-13 to 14-1 right now. Instead they are 7-8, and a failure to close out more of these close games was the culprit.
Pittsburgh peaked in Weeks 7-9 when they beat Cincinnati, Washington and the Giants. Even in those games, they had to come back from a double-digit deficit twice, but at least they came through, and that was the only time the running game was working.
The season almost has taken on two halves, as it was more about the defensive failures early in the season. The defense surrendered a fourth-quarter lead in four of the first five games this season. But then the defense improved in the second half while the offense really struggled to close games out.
The offense even had a chance to win a game late in all three starts Roethlisberger missed, but they could not come through with Byron Leftwich against Baltimore, or Charlie Batch in Cleveland. Batch however did get the job done in Baltimore, which is Pittsburgh’s only win in their last six games.
Roethlisberger actually could have won the league’s MVP award with better play in crunch time. The offense’s inept play without him would have been the additional argument he needed to build his case, because he had the stats. He just had an unusually high number of failures in the clutch.
Though Roethlisberger may finish 2012 with just eight interceptions, many will define his season by the four big ones he had.
Week 1 at Denver – After the defense surrendered the lead on an 80-yard drive by Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger had his chance to lead a game-winning touchdown drive. He threw a pick-six to Tracy Porter with 1:58 left for a 31-19 loss.
Week 15 at Dallas – In another game where the defense allowed a game-tying touchdown drive, Roethlisberger had the ball with a 24-24 tie in overtime. Playing aggressive with the no-huddle, he threw late to the sideline and Brandon Carr intercepted the pass and returned it to the Pittsburgh 1 for the game-winning field goal.
Week 16 vs. Cincinnati – Throwing an interception in the first quarter for the first time in 2012, Roethlisberger cost the Steelers the only touchdown allowed on Sunday. Then with the game tied 10-10 and few seconds remaining, he inexplicably overthrew Mike Wallace for an interception with 0:14 left. The Bengals came up with the 21-yard completion to set up their game-winning field goal.
Last week I looked at Roethlisberger’s “Dirty Dozen,” or the 12 (now 13) interceptions he has thrown in his career in fourth-quarter comeback/game-winning drive opportunities the Steelers lost. Some were not game-enders, some were Hail Mary’s, but the pass on Sunday to lose to Cincinnati may have been the worst one yet.
This is something Roethlisberger has rarely ever done outside of his 2006 season, but it came up in three big games this season against playoff-level competition, and he knows he has to own up to that.
But it was a season of the Steelers unable to finish as a team.
In Oakland, Roethlisberger played one of the finest games of his career (384 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT), but the defense blew a 10-point lead as the Raiders won on a last-second field goal, 34-31, back in Week 3.
The defense allowed four comebacks and five game-winning drives this season, which is somewhat reminiscent of their 2009 struggles.
A loss like the game in Tennessee was troubling. Leading 23-16, Keenan Lewis dropped an interception Matt Hasselbeck threw right to him, and sure enough the Titans finished the 80-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown. That comes back to the lack of takeaways. Lewis makes the pick and it could be the Steelers going up 10 to win the game.
The offense and defense just could not get on the same page this year, and even the special teams had their struggles, like Brown coughing up the ball on a punt return in Dallas in a similar situation when the Steelers could have gone up two scores.
But what might be most unacceptable is how the offense crumbled when they were so close to winning several of these games. We are talking about when one more completion likely would have did the job to run out the clock, and have Suisham come out for the game-winning field goal.
Twice the Steelers pulled that off to perfection this year. The defense cannot blow the lead if you take it with no time remaining.
Week 5 vs. Philadelphia – After the defense blew the lead, the offense had 6:33 left, trailing 14-13. Roethlisberger converted a third-and-12 to keep the drive alive. Then at the two-minute warning, it was a big call on third-and-4 at the Eagles 38. Sanders was open for a 7-yard gain, and the clock was then run down for Suisham’s 34-yard field goal with 0:00 left.
Week 13 at Baltimore – Tied 20-20, Batch had 6:14 left. Just like the Philadelphia game, an early third down was converted. Also, another critical play at the two-minute warning. Wallace was open, gained 10 yards, and Paul Kruger was flagged 15 yards for roughing the passer. The Steelers were able to run down the clock, and Suisham’s 42-yard field goal was good with no time left.
That was perfectly executed. Now there were the three times they had the same situation, but failed to finish.
Week 6 at Tennessee – In a tied game, Roethlisberger faced a huge third-and-7 at the Titans' 36. He just previously scrambled for 14 yards in a similar situation. The lane was there again for him to get as much as he could, but instead he decides to cut back before the line of scrimmage, spins around and attempts to make the spectacular throw to Miller, which was incomplete.
Suisham was short on the 54-yard field goal, which gave Tennessee great field position. Hasselbeck had no problem converting on his third down, and the Titans kicked a game-winning field goal with no time left. If Roethlisberger had just scrambled for all he could get, the Steelers likely win this game.
Week 15 at Dallas – Roethlisberger was having a great second half. But tied 24-24, it was a big third-and-4 at the Dallas 37. No receiver was able to get open, so he ate a sack by two Cowboys, and Pittsburgh had to punt.
Later the Steelers had a first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 46 with 1:34 to play. Expecting another game-winning drive, that one quickly ended after back-to-back sacks of Roethlisberger. Then of course the big pick in overtime ended it.
Week 16 vs. Cincinnati – Out of the two-minute warning, the Steelers faced their play of the season: third-and-8 at the Bengals 40. A conversion likely means another game-winning field goal. Instead, Wallace and Brown are not only running routes short of the first-down marker, but they are not even in position to reach the red line, which is CBS’ estimate of Suisham’s field goal range in the toughest stadium to kick long field goals.
With Miller out and everyone else covered here, Roethlisberger just scrambles for what he can this time (four yards), and Suisham’s 53-yard field goal comes up short.
Whether it is better execution or getting a better call by the coaches, you have to find a way to make these plays.
Even in the loss to Baltimore with Leftwich, the offense twice had it in Baltimore territory with a third down, and Leftwich was sacked on both drives. While the sacks may be down overall this year, too many have come at the worst possible moments.
That’s just the story of the Steelers’ 2012 season. They made too many mistakes during the critical point of close games.
Big decisions ahead
Getting back on track is going to require some difficult decisions for the Steelers. Strapped for cap room, they will have to strongly consider not bringing back Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall for their drop in production and personal conduct issues.
Heath Miller should be able to return from his ACL injury, though it is not something you want to see for a player who will be 31 next season. Tight ends often drop off a cliff around this time in their career, and he was the only dependable receiver they had this season.
A decision will also have to be made on Troy Polamalu, who will be 32 years old and has missed 23 games in the last four years. Likewise, James Harrison (35 in May) is not the same player, and Casey Hampton’s replacement is a big need.
The draft pick should be higher this season, but GM Kevin Colbert has to start hitting picks again. There just has not been enough production in the draft since 2008, and it is showing when the team’s depth is greatly tested by injuries. It makes the draft even more important when you do not strategize or have the money to spend on free agents.
Getting a legit backup quarterback that is not brittle would also be a big help, because you cannot rely on Roethlisberger to make it 16 games no matter what kind of offense you install. Whether that means a Kirk Cousins-type move in the draft, or going after a younger backup with starting experience, they cannot possibly enter 2013 with Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich again.
Finally, the biggest changes may need to come with the coaching staff and the way the Steelers do things. This team plays down to the competition, and while they have usually pulled those games out in the past, this season they lost to teams like Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Diego, which should be inexcusable.
The Steelers hate to replace head coaches, but another disappointing season like this, and Mike Tomlin should be on the hot seat. He was outcoached several times this year, and that lack of preparation or seemingly even interest that is evident in “small” games against the lesser competition can fall right on his shoulders.
It is about time for Dick LeBeau to retire. His schemes do not outweigh talent, and maybe it’s time for Tomlin to return to the 4-3 style of defense he knew best. That would mean a new hire for defensive coordinator, and a big emphasis in the draft to start making the switch.
Should Todd Haley get one more season? He likely will, though if things cannot be patched up between Haley and Roethlisberger, then it’s obvious who has to go in that case.
It seems like every three years, the Steelers get lazy and have to recapture their winning ways. They drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, hired Tomlin in 2007, and set a new standard for tolerable player conduct in 2010 (situations for Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes).
The 2012 season was a microcosm of the mistakes made in the last few years.
Something significant, culture or otherwise, has to change in Pittsburgh, because the last two seasons are completely unacceptable given the “all in” method the front office put into this roster.
They failed to get the job done.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.