The curse of 6-2 continues.
A year ago, Pittsburgh was 6-2 before a five-game losing streak destroyed what had started out as a promising season.
There’s no reason to think that the Patriots’ 39-26 embarrassment of the Steelers will send this team into a similar spiral, but it was a scary sign that Pittsburgh could be manhandled on their own field.
This wasn’t your normal loss–Pittsburgh hadn’t suffered through a loss like this in years. As bad as 2009 may have been, every loss was close–Pittsburgh never loss by more than one touchdown. You have to go back to the 2008 season and a 31-14 loss to the Titans to find a game where Pittsburgh was equally blown away.
If there is a bright spot in a loss like this (and I’m not saying there is), it’s that hopefully it exposes weaknesses that have to be addressed in a way that’s it impossible to discern when winning. And we definitely saw some weaknesses for the Steelers.
1) Get healthy. It’s not an excuse–the Patriots would have likely won this game if Pittsburgh had everyone healthy. But if Pittsburgh is going to go deep in the playoffs, it has to be a healthier than the one that limped off the field Sunday night.
Pittsburgh finished the game without their left tackle (Max Starks), left guard (Chris Kemoeatu), top wide receiver (Hines Ward), starting defensive ends (Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel) and top inside linebacker (Lawrence Timmons). Starks is done for the season, but the rest of that laundry list of bumps and bruises should be back in either the next week or two (everyone by
2) Fix the nickel back problem. After a loss like this, there’s always a danger in being too quick to call for changes on a team that is still 6-2. But in the case of William Gay, it seems like it’s time to see what second-year corner Keenan Lewis or rookie Crezdon Butler can do. Gay was beaten for what appeared to be three touchdowns passes on Sunday. That came a week after he was beaten by Terrell Owens for a touchdown (although it appeared to be zone coverage) against the Bengals. The Steelers have given up 11 passing touchdowns this season, Gay has been responsible, as best as I can tell, for five of them. Of course, to be fair, it’s worth mentioning that starting cornerback Bryant McFadden has been beaten for four himself.
3) Get the rush going. We mentioned on the preview podcast that the big difference between when the Steelers have beaten the Patriots (a la 2004 and 2008) and when they have been beaten badly largely depends on whether then can generate pressure on the Patriots quarterback with four pass rushers. Pittsburgh didn’t make Tom Brady sweat on Sunday night. And as a result, he picked the defense apart.
4) Pray for Ben Roethlisberger. I’ll have much more on the offensive line’s play in the near future, but this was definitely a game where Roethlisberger kept the line from even more of a disaster than the five-sack debacle that it was. And a week after the Browns ran all over the Patriots, Rashard Mendenhall gained only 50 yards. Mendenhall had one carry for 34 yards and 10 more carries for 16 yards. A lot of that had to be blamed on the line.
5) Find the real Jeff Reed. Sure he’s crazy and he doesn’t exactly boom kickoffs, but Reed’s calling card has been his ability to make Heinz Field look like a reasonable place to kick field goals. Now he’s shanking extra-point length field goals. Coming into the game, Reed already was leading the NFL in missed field goals. Sunday night just made that worse.
The Steelers are still 6-3. That’s a place where most teams in the NFL would like to be. And one blowout loss doesn’t really mean much of anything–New England played equally poorly last week. But right now, Pittsburgh has some things to fix.