So now that the dust has settled from an immensely disappointing 8-8 season in 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers head into the offseason with several starters eligible for free agency and a challenging salary cap situation. The Steelers also must decide whether the 2012 season was an anomaly, namely that it was a good team that had a lot of injuries, bad luck, and blips in performance, or whether the 2012 season indicates that it’s time for a significant rebuild. The answer to this question will certainly guide many of the decisions made by Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, and the Rooney clan over the next several weeks.
The conventional wisdom around the NFL this offseason will likely be that the Steelers are an aging team with salary cap problems and that 2012 was the beginning of a period of decline. On the other hand, it is remarkable just howdamnclose this team was to being 12-4 or 11-5 in 2012: the Steelers led or were tied in the 4th quarter in 13 of their 16 games in 2012, and a 14th was a 13-10 loss to Baltimore without Ben Roethlisberger. More frustratingly, there are six plays, all of which were largely unforced errors, that cost this team not only a playoff berth, but an opportunity to play home games in Heinz Field in January:
Week 3 @ Oakland – The Steelers led the Raiders 31-21 heading into the 4th quarter despite an abysmal day defensively. The Raiders scored early in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 31-28. On the 3rd play of the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown over the middle, and Brown was into Raiders’ territory…then fumbled. The Raiders recovered and drove for the tying FG, then won the game at the final gun. Not only was there no excuse to lose to THAT team, but there was even less excuse to lose THAT way.
Week 6 @ Tennessee – Playing on a Thursday night on the road, a scenario that was near certain death for most NFL teams in 2012, the Steelers floundered around against the struggling Titans for 3 quarters before finally seizing control of the game in the 4th quarter. Up 23-16 mid-way through the 4th quarter, the defense allowed the Titans to cruise 80 yards for the tying touchdown. Even despite this, the Steelers then drove inside the Titans’ 40-yard line with under 2:00 minutes left before the drive stalled. For reasons known only to him, on 4th and 7 Mike Tomlin allowed Shaun Suisham to attempt a 54-yard FG with 49 seconds left. Suisham had a nice season and all, but his CAREER LONG, in 8 NFL seasons, was from 52 yards. Suisham’s kick came up short, and the Titans took over on their 44-yard line. Tennessee used the short field to set up another game winning FG at the gun.
Week 11 v. Baltimore – Playing without Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, the Steelers opened the game with an 80-yard drive capped off by Byron Leftwich scrambling 31 yards for a touchdown (no, seriously). The defense then pitched a 3-and-out, and the primetime Heinz Field crowd was rocking. The Ravens pinned the Steelers deep on the ensuing punt, but the Steelers were working their way out of the hole when, after getting a first down on a crossing pattern, Mike Wallace fumbled on the Steelers’ 29-yard line. On the verge of being blown out of the building and with season-long struggles on the road, an energized Ravens’ team cashed in the turnover for a FG and went on to win 13-10.
Week 12 @ Cleveland – It’s pretty hard to point to any one play that costs you a game when you commit 8(!) turnovers, but even with the completely inept performance, the Steelers were leading 14-13 late in the 3rd quarter behind an exceptional defensive effort when, on 3rd down from his own 19, 3rd-string QB Charlie Batch threw a lame duck out pattern to newly-signed Plaxico Burress. The throw had nothing on it, and Burress made little effort to attack it, and Sheldon Brown stepped in front and intercepted the pass. Cleveland proceeded to score the go-ahead TD, a lead they preserved when the Steelers committed 4(!!) turnovers in the 4th quarter.
Week 15 @ Dallas – The play that everyone will remember about this game was the horrific interception that Roethlisberger threw on the 2nd play of overtime, a pass well behind Mike Wallace (who simply stood and watched as Brandon Carr got up off the ground and returned it to the Steelers’ 1-yard line). The game was really lost, however, midway through the 4th quarter. The Steelers had gone ahead 24-17, and an undermanned defense playing without its top 3 CB’s forced a Cowboys’ punt from deep in their own territory. Antonio Brown fielded the punt from inside his own 20 and broke a very nice return. As he neared the 40-yard line, however, the ball was poked out of his hands and recovered by the Cowboys. Dallas quickly tied the game and went on to win in overtime.
Week 16 v. Cincinnati – A brutally ugly game was 10-10 with 1:47 left in the 4th quarter when the Bengals took over on their own 43-yard line, needing only about 20 yards to kick a game-winning FG. The Steelers’ defense stepped up yet again, forcing a 3-and-out. The Bengals punted back to the Steelers, who took over on their own 11-yard line with 44 seconds left. After a quick first down, Roethlisberger threw a pass in the direction of David Paulsen that was nearly intercepted. Failing to learn the lesson, rather than taking a knee and heading to overtime, Roethlisberger got a second chance to throw a brutal interception and did so, with Reggie Nelson picking off a horrible pass and returning it to the Steelers’ 46 with 14 seconds. One out pattern to AJ Green later, the Steelers were then set up for their FOURTH walk-off game-losing FG of the season.
One could actually identify about 20 more plays of this nature in a season filled with turnovers, dropped passes, mental mistakes, and general ineptitude, but these 6 plays crystallized the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers’ season. On the positive side, however, it’s a team that was in every game it played other the really weird San Diego debacle, and with a few offseason moves and a more professional performance in 2013, it’s a team that should be playing again in January.