The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers have a record of 1-2 after three weeks. This Sunday, they face a perennial playoff challenger in the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers defeated the Chargers twice last season, including in the post-season. While last season ended with a win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, this season appears to be headed in a different direction.
Many reasons have been offered as to why the Steelers are not performing as they did last year. Those reasons include the early season injury to strong safety Troy Polamalu; the continuing struggles of the offensive line and running backs; the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone; and, “the Super Bowl hangover.”
I believe that the issues facing the Steelers in 2009 are essentially the same issues that plagued them in 2008. I think, in many respects, the Pittsburgh Steelers are performing exactly how they performed in 2008.
- Limited Total Offense. The Steelers have lost only six games since the beginning of 2008. In each of those games, they failed to score more than 20 points. In three of those games, they managed to score 14 points. In one game, they only scored six points. In 2009, Pittsburgh lost 23-20 to Cincinnati and 17-14 to Chicago.
- Blown Early Scoring Opportunities. Each of those losses were characterized by missed opportunities to score early. Against the Bears, DE Alex Brown hit Roethlisberger just as he was releasing a ball that Mike Wallace could have caught for a touchdown. A touchdown at that point would have pushed the lead to 14-0. That might have been enough to salt away the win. Against Cincinnati, Limas Sweed dropped a touchdown in the end zone that probably ends the Bengals comeback bid. The same thing happened in 2008. Nate Washington dropped a sure touchdown versus the Giants. Troy Polamalu dropped a “Pick 6” vs. Peyton Manning just before the half. Roethlisberger missed a wide open receiver vs. the Titans in the first half. In each of these games, the Steelers were dominant early, but failures to produce touchdowns allowed teams to make comebacks. Last season, the Steelers started the season 6-6 in the Red Zone. The Eagles ended that streak; held the Steelers to two field goals; and began what was to become a trend.
- Fourth Quarter Fizzle. With everything that is going on with this team, I don’t know of any single stat that demonstrates the depth of the problem more than this one:
In 6 losses in 2008 and 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been outscored in the 4th quarter by a score of 62-3.
That’s not a typo. 62-3.
You can’t justify it. You can’t excuse it or dress it up. It’s as ugly a number as I’ve seen for any “elite” team in years. If it’s not fixed soon, this team will need a very serious overhaul. This is just the tip of the iceberg — and people in Pittsburgh must know that the overall condition of the team merits some very hard looks.
- 2008. Week 3. Philadelphia Eagles. 4th Quarter: Philadelphia 5, Pittsburgh 0. Final Score: Phi. 15, Pitt. 6.
- 2008. Week 8. New York Giants. 4th Quarter: NYG 12, Pittsburgh 0. Final Score: NYG 21, Pitt 14.
- 2008. Week 10. Indianapolis Colts. 4th Quarter: Indy 7, Pittsburgh 3. Final Score: Indianapolis 24, Pitt 20.
- 2008. Week 16. Tennessee Titans. 4th Quarter: Tenn. 14, Pittsburgh 0. Final Score: Tennessee 31, Pitt 14.
- 2009. Week 2. Chicago Bears. 4th Quarter: Chicago 10, Pittsburgh 0. Final Score: Chicago 17, Pitt 14.
- 2009. Week 3. Cincinnati Bengals. 4th Quarter: Cincinnati 14, Pittsburgh 0. Final Score: Cincinnati 23, Pitt 20.
There is no question that this defense is getting older. There is also no question that the offense suffers from inexperience at some very critical positions. Mike Wallace is an emerging threat at wide receiver, but he’s a rookie. Santonio Holmes is a Super Bowl MVP, but he allowed Leon Hall and company to hold him to a single reception last week. Hines Ward is also a Super Bowl MVP, but his best days are behind him. Limas Sweed has not emerged as a consistent player. Rashard Mendenhall has not emerged as a reliable player. If the Steelers are to right the ship in the 4th quarter on offense, they need Sweed’s size and Mendenhall’s power to show up on time, every week.
On defense, the inability of Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel to get pressure on Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler is no surprise. That neither James Harrison nor Lamarr Woodley could impose their will is troubling. Lawrence Timmons, while a better performer than Sweed and Mendenhall, has to justify his draft status. He was selected just after the Jets Darelle Revis. Revis has already notched excellent games against every single elite receiver the Jets have faced. Timmons has to build his resume right now. Larry Foote is gone. William Gay is young. DeShea Townsend is old. Tyrone Carter is old. Keiwan Ratliff is Keiwan Ratliff. And, with all of that said, Troy is out.
Polamalu can make many things better, but he cannot do it alone. The Steelers have a systemic flaw that will be fatal unless they get significant production from players who have yet to produce. If the youth don’t step up, this team and its fans will not be served.