The 2012 Steelers: Missed Opportunities, Mind Games, And Trying To Figure Out What The Hell Happened

Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers still have one game remaining on their schedule we already know the 2012 season is officially over.

In what is a relatively rare event around these parts (a regular season Steelers game that doesn’t mean shit) the Steelers will close out the 2012 campaign on Sunday by playing a completely meaningless game against the Cleveland Browns. It’s sure to be a pig of a game (the Browns could be starting some guy named Thaddeus Lewis at quarterback. I have no idea who that is or where he came from) that will be seen by dozens of uninterested people in the tri-state area that have nothing better to do with their Sunday afternoon (hello!).

Quite honestly, it might be the most pointless game in the decades long rivalry between the two teams.

There will be no playoffs this season for the Steelers, and no chance for a miracle late-season run from a team that was able to “get hot at the right time.” All of that ended last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals when Josh Brown’s 42-yard field goal split the uprights in the final seconds of what was a 13-10 loss at Heinz Field.

Actually, you could argue that it ended the week before when Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted on the second play of overtime to help clinch a loss in Dallas. Or perhaps the week before when a bad San Diego Chargers team marched into Heinz Field and took the Steelers’ lunch money by bullying them all over the field and kicking the living piss out of them.

Or maybe you would prefer to look at any of the earlier (and completely embarrassing) losses to Oakland, Tennessee, and/or Cleveland.

Any and all of them will work, and no matter which game you want to pin the failures of the season on the reality remains that the only thing the Steelers have to play for on Sunday is avoiding what would be just their second losing season since 1999 (and what would be the first under head coach Mike Tomlin).

Some thoughts to kick around as we begin preparing for the 2013 NFL Draft…

The Steelers Missed A Lot Of Opportunities This Season

When I say missed opportunities I’m not only talking about the four losses to Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland, and San Diego as a whole, but also the individual events that took place within those (and other) games and the larger problem that they’re a symptom of.

For me, this season will be summed by two offensive possessions over the past two weeks.

In the third quarter against Dallas the Steelers, after fighting back from a 10-0 deficit to tie the game, were given a prime opportunity to take the lead when Antonio Brown returned a punt to mid-field. The Steelers started on the plus side of the field and proceeded to put together the following sequence of plays:

First down: Run to Jonathan Dwyer.
Second down: Run to Jonathan Dwyer.
Third down: Pass behind the line of scrimmage (incomplete) to Jonathan Dwyer

They ended up having to punt.

One week later against Cincinnati the Steelers were gifted a turnover by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton when second-year cornerback Cortez Allen (who played a whale of a game in what was his first NFL start) stepped in front of Dalton’s intended target and set the Steelers up first-and-10 deep in Cincinnati territory.

You would hope that maybe, just maybe, the Steelers would have learned their lesson from a week earlier and taken some sort of a shot down field. The proverbial “go for the throat” play. If you’re not going to do it in that situation, in that game, against that opponent, with your entire season on the line … when the hell are you going to do it?

Instead they went with the following sequence:

First down: Run to Jonathan Dwyer
Second down: Run to Jonathan Dwyer
Third down: Sack

Look familiar?

The Steelers had to punt, missed a golden opportunity to take the lead and never played with a lead at any point during what turned out to be a season-ending loss.

No two offensive possessions infuriated me more this season, and after each one I turned to my brother and commented that those are the types of missed opportunities that cost you games.

And eventually entire seasons.

For the second year in a row the Steelers defense didn’t generate a lot of turnovers, but whenever they did the offense often times failed to turn them into points. Here’s a look at every turnover the Steelers defense created this season (not counting ones that were returned for touchdowns), where the offense started, and what they did with that possession.

The results are not good.

(The negative numbers represent drives starting on their own side of the field. So minus-49 would be their own 49-yard line.)

That’s 15 turnovers. The Steelers turned just four of them into touchdowns, only two into field goals, and gave the ball back on nine of them. Of their nine turnovers that gave the Steelers the ball back on the plus side of the field they scored touchdowns on just three, kicked field goals on just two, punted three times, and had one turnover on downs.

That is pathetic.

In a league where most games are decided by just one possession, those missed opportunities are enormous. Keep in mind that 11 of the 15 Steelers games this season have been decided by a single possession (eight points or less), including six of their eight losses (and at least three of those missed chances after turnovers — Denver (punt), Tennessee (FG instead of TD after a Lawrence Timmons interception deep in Tennessee territory), and Cincinnati (Punt) — could have been game-changers).

Just by comparison, here’s what the Steelers did after turnovers last season.

That’s 13 turnovers. Six touchdowns, two field goals, three punts, two drives that ended the game on kneel downs, and no turnovers. But pay special attention to the seven drives that started on the plus side of the field. Four touchdowns, two field goals, only one punt, no turnovers, and no turnovers on downs. Unlike the 2012 Steelers the 2011 team made opponents pay dearly for their mistakes.

The former is a team that is 7-8 overall and 5-6 in games decided by one possession. The latter is a team that went 12-4 and was 6-2 in games decided by one possession. People would always get mad at Bill Cowher for his cliche line about what “a fine line it is between winning and losing in the NFL,” but he was absolutely right every time he said it.

So how do we explain this? Is it just small sample sizes producing misleading results that would eventually balance out over time? A fluke? Or a result of an offense that lost its big-play capability due to trying to establish more of a running game (how many times did the Steelers plow Jonathan Dwyer up the middle for two or three yards on first down this season) and trying to play more of a quick passing game? The latter definitely helped to protect Ben Roethlisberger more, but it also robbed them of their biggest weapon on offense in recent years: Big passing plays.

Big plays in the passing game aren’t just about entertainment value and excitement (though they do provide plenty of both). They lead to touchdowns, and at the very least, can help swing field position. Both of those things win games. In Bill Walsh’s book, “Finding The Winning Edge,” he wrote that teams that make two or more “explosive” plays (20 yards or more) than their opponents win 80-85 percent of the time.

The 2012 Steelers completely lost their big play ability, at least compared to recent Steelers teams.

Through 15 games the offense has produced 57 plays of 20-yards or more. That’s not a terrible number by any means, but it’s a noticeable decline from the previous three years when the Steelers won 33 or their 48 regular season games and went to a Super Bowl.

Just for comparisons sake In 2011 they had 69. In 2010 they had 78. In 2009 they had 77.

Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, the two most talented players on the offense not named Roethlisberger, combined for 36 such plays on their own in 2011 (18 for each).

Through 15 games in 2012 they’ve combined for just 19 (10 for Brown and nine for Wallace) in 2012. They went from averaging over 16 yards per catch last season to 13 this season for Wallace, and a Hines Ward-ian 11 for Brown. These aren’t possession receivers; they’re big play guys that need to stretch the field to be effective. These are their strengths, and the Steelers did not play to that this season.

Barring an offensive explosion in Week 17 this is going to be one of the lowest scoring Steelers teams over the past decade, which isn’t exactly a great debut year for offensive coordinator Todd haley. After all, he was supposed to fix the offense and make it better given the talent it has at the skill positions. The best thing you can say about the group this season is that it’s just as good as it was a year ago, which wasn’t good enough for any of us.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that it regressed.

Other than Heath Miller just about every player on the offense took a step backwards this season, and some more than others (Wallace and Brown, I’m looking right at you).

That’s either an unfortunate coincidence or a bigger a problem with the offensive game plan.

Rashard Mendehall, Mike Wallace, And Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face

If I’m an NFL general manager (and I’m not) and my team needs a running back this offseason the first phone call I’m going to make is the agent for Rashard Mendenhall.

I know he’s not popular in Pittsburgh for a variety of reasons, including his running style (“stop dancing!”), his attitude, or the dumb things he occasionally says and does. I also know that he’s the most talented running back on the roster, his value is at its lowest point, he could probably be had for next to nothing in free agency, and that between 2009 and 2011 only six running backs in the NFL rushed for more yards than him.

For whatever reason the Steelers decided that the 30 carries they gave him when he was healthy this season (and admittedly, they were not very productive carries) were enough to determine that he shouldn’t get a helmet on game days, which eventually led to him skipping a game and earning a one-game suspension.  I don’t condone what he did, but I also don’t condone the Steelers essentially benching him for an inferior player based on 30 bad carries. Especially when the players they benched him for (Dwyer and Isaac Redman) were equally ineffective.

Dwyer had two great games in consecutive weeks against Cincinnati and Washington but has otherwise been bad. In the seven games since the game against Washington he averaged less than three yards per carry. Redman has done nothing of consequence all season.

Both were still viewed by the coaching staff as superior options to Mendenhall. Even on Sunday, when the Steelers finally turned to their most talented back (and he not only played like it, he was perhaps the best offensive player on the field … for both teams) he still had fewer touches (11) than Dwyer (14).

Mendenhall seemed to be the only player called out for ball control issues (Tomlin called him out for it after his first game) and seemed to be the only one that was benched over it. While all the running backs were pulled at various times for the fumble the debacle in Cleveland, Mendehall was the only one that lost playing time (and the opportunity to dress) in the games that followed.

It’s almost as if we’re more concerned about HOW a player produces as opposed to WHAT they’re producing. Jonathan Dwyer fits the mold for what a Steelers running back should be (big, physical, between the tackles guy) so we “like the way he runs,” and tolerate his poor performance. But because Mendenhall “dances” and “doesn’t hit the hole” and says stupid things from time to time he’s an expendable malcontent that can’t get out of Pittsburgh fast enough.

A similar thing was happening at the receiver position.

Mike Wallace became public enemy No. 1 in training camp when he held out in the hopes of getting a long-term contract extension, an extension that he never received and likely will not get from the Steelers. He didn’t do himself any favors this season with a down year, but there was still an obvious double standard with the way he was treated.

Instead of signing Wallace, the Steelers gave Antonio Brown the big-money contract extension even though he had produced just one big season in the NFL (Wallace, by comparison has already produced three of them). Both players had bad years. Both players put the football on the ground entirely too often whether it be via drop or fumble.

(Something to keep in mind: Antonio Brown has five fumbles this season — three on punts, two as a receiver — and has scored just four touchdowns).

The only one that faced any real criticism from fans and media was Wallace. Brown, for the most part, was given a free pass (even though Wallace still had the better season). Antonio Brown was never listed as a “co-starter” alongside Emmanuel Sanders.

The handling of the Wallace and Mendenhall situations just reeked of stupid and pointless mind games that did nothing to benefit anybody or the team.

It’s very likely that both players will be gone after this season (I suppose it’s possible that Wallace could get the franchise tag), which means the Steelers will have lost their most talented wide receiver and running back, and thus creating two more holes on a team that already has plenty of them.

Does that strike you as a great way to improve the offense or the team? Losing Mendenhall doesn’t bother me as much, because I still believe that running backs are largely interchangeable. But he’s still the superior player to the other guys on the roster, arguably the best free agent available at the position, and I hate the thought of investing a high draft pick in the position. But I have little confidence in an offense that features Brown as the No. 1 receiver without Wallace on the other side drawing safety attention over the top and Emmanuel Sanders as the No. 2 option.

This is going to be a season where we look back at it and look at the talent they had on both sides of the ball and wonder what in the hell happened. Perhaps it’s just a blip on the radar like 2009, but with some more aging players on defense and some big free agents coming on offense it’s going to be an interesting offseason in Pittsburgh.

One that started way too soon.

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  • informed reader

    I agree with most of your points. Making Mendenhall inactive was just a stupid move, considering everybody else on offense had the same issues, and he was coming off an injury and likely not fully back into the swing of things yet, He is CLEARLY the best RB they have. The man is entitled to his political opinions – the only thing that should matter is your performance on the field (assuming you break no laws.) They never benched Wallace despite all the drops he had early in the season when Brown was still performing well. They kept playing him and targeting him, despite what appeared to be a lack of effort. They would have been better off getting the ball to Heath. He always comes through. When our front 7 weren’t generating a pass rush none of them ever got benched. It’s like Mendenhall was made the scapegoat for the entire team. They’ll miss him when he’s gone.

    COMPLETELY agree with the play calling on the drives you mentioned. When I can predict they will hand the ball off to Dwyer and try to run up the middle (and I’ve never played a day in my life) you can bet your ass the opposing team can predict it. This insistence on “Stillers football” is just stubborn, stupid, and out of touch. I always thought Steelers football was about WINNING, not about a certain run/pass ratio. And we DON’T have the personnel necessary to have a power running game (and league rule changes don’t encourage it). Our line sucks (AGAIN) and Mendenhall is the only elite back we have, and we insist on sitting him in favor of lesser talents?

    One final point about the lack of big plays on offense. Before Ben got hurt it was dink and dunk all day. He almost never threw deep. Then, when he gets injured, they suddenly have Byron and Charlie throwing deep much more often. WTF? Why put it in the game plan with the backups and not your proven starter, No wonder Ben didn’t connect on too many deep passes. He rarely got the chance to throw them so was likely out of practice. Bad coaching decisions. Bad play calling. Bad execution on both sides of the ball. That sums it up.

  • David

    Here’s my summary of what went wrong:
    1. Injuries
    2. Ben became Romo
    3. No turnovers

  • Canadian Steeler

    I might be splitting hairs, but I think Brown had a better season than Wallace. Tied in receptions, more plays over 20 yards, and more first downs despite playing less games. He also averaged more yards per game. It’s also a little disingenuous to say that the front office “chose” Brown over Wallace because it’s been reported Brown’s contract was offered to Wallace first, and clearly the front office looked forward to this off season where they would’ve had their top 3 receivers up for free agency. They took the gamble with Brown, and I believe it will pay off in the long run. I appreciate the way Wallace performed for us in seasons past, and it would be great if he stayed and performed to his usual standards. I don’t know what the front office was supposed to do with Wallace beyond giving him a larger contract, but let’s just say they did and he went out and had the same sub-par season. It’s hard to argue that the front office made the wrong decision after Wallace’s 2012 season. There’s every chance he bounces back, but this is a season and a half of inconsistent play, which I wouldn’t give more money than Brown for.

    Brown doesn’t seem to be a guy who scores touchdowns. That could change, but right now, you have to go forward with the assumption it won’t. That means we’re going to have to find a wide receiver who can. Heath had career highs this year, but Manny and Brown combined for 5 touchdowns. That’s not enough from your starting wideouts, as they are projected to be in 2013. While Cotchery does seem like a guy who could generate in the red zone (3 TD’s on 14 receptions in 2011), he wasn’t a TD guy with the Jets. Since it seems like Wallace is gone, this needs to be addressed via the draft or even through signing a guy like Plax. Sure he’s one dimensional, but the wideouts need to score more as a unit, especially if (when) Wallace leaves.

    FO says what you’ve been saying all along, Gretz. We’re a mediocre team with a large week to week variance. Interestingly enough, we’d actually overperform by 1.3 wins with a win sunday. We’ve also faced the league’s 4th easiest schedule by their metrics, which shows you how brutal some of this season really has been. We’re in the bottom 10 in variance too. http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2012/week-16-dvoa-ratings

    • Eric

      I agree with everything you said but especially your take on Brown and Wallace.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I can’t settle on a short list for why this team under-achieved, as there seem to be many reasons.

    My theory of the day centers on splash plays. Last year, we had a dramatic decline in splash plays on defense (sacks and forced turnovers, as David notes). That continued this year, but, as Adam chronicles, we added a lack of splash plays on offense, too. If you aren’t forcing the issue on either side of the ball, you have to be incredibly consistent to win, and we weren’t at all.

    My theory yesterday was that a lot comes down to Ben at the end of games. When he’s been at the top of his game in the fourth quarter in past years, we’ve won a lot. But we too often rely on his late heroics, hoping he’ll pull a rabbit out of his butt. But whether it is regression to the mean or something else, starting with the final drive in the Super Bowl against Green Bay, he’s seemed much less effective at the end of games than he was earlier in his career. And we’ve lost a lot of games that we would have won if he could have engineered a final drive.

    My theory a few days ago was also related to Ben. Earlier in the year, he was fairly pedestrian on first and second downs but was ridiculously good on third down. My sense (unproven with any real data) was that Haley was been very conservative on first and second downs and was cutting Ben loose on third downs. But after his injury, Ben wasn’t all that good on any of the downs. But I’m not sold on any of these theories as being the primary one, and tomorrow I’m guessing I’ll have another.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    On the positive side, Carnell Lake really seems to know what he’s doing as a DB coach.

    • Rob D

      THat was obviously a great hire. You can see how each of the young guys seems to improve on a weekly basis. Curtis Brown is a good example..so young and green but you can see the potential there and the sense he is being coached up. Keenan had a nice year and Cortez Allen was a revelation. I have high hopes for Golden next year too. I think we need to draft a safety this year..if there is an impact one available

      • Sarah

        Totally agree on Lake. I recall a couple years back Stan Savran had him on his talk show once/week, and the guy is clearly really intelligent, has great analysis skills, very well spoken too. You could see he’d be a great communicator as a coach, and hopefully an excellent teacher as well.
        Let’s hope that’s what we are seeing playing out now with this young secondary!…

  • Cols714

    Sounds like LeBeau isn’t going to retire. I think this is a good thing.

    I think they will re-sign Mendenhall and attempt to work out something with Wallace. If you look at the positives from this year
    1. The CBs were pretty good
    2. Timmons was awesome
    3. The DL struggled early with Hampton coming off of injury and Keisel playing like crap, but rounded into form as the year went on
    4. If Ben doesn’t get injured, despite all the other injuries, this team makes the playoffs
    5. For once, Troy ended the season healthy

    The bad things are that Woodley and Harrison didn’t look good all year. For Harrison this isn’t good, but Woodley is in his prime and if he gets healthy I imagine he’ll return to his fearsome self.

    I imagine that Hampton will come back next year, I’m hoping that Hood and Heyward finally develop, and that they find a young OLB in the draft.

    I’m also hoping that they can work it out with Mendenhall and Wallace because really losing our best RB and our best WR will suck.

  • Cols714

    Reasons for optimism
    1. Ben
    2. Talent on the OL that should eventually have a healthy year
    3. Young CBs
    4. Timmons
    5. Troy ended a year healthy for the first time in seemingly forever
    6. DL looked good after a rough start.
    7. Woodley is still in his prime

    Reasons for pessimism
    1. Harrison looked old and slow
    2. Woodley has had two straight down years
    3. Hampton is older
    4. Heyward and Hood have not yet justified their draft status
    5. Wallace could leave
    6. If Mendenhall is gone then we basically have no RB
    7. Heath Miller tore his knee apart

  • Cols714

    Reading around the various Steelers’ sites, it seems like the majority of commenters feel that the Steelers will be better off when Wallace, and to a lesser extent, Mendenhall are gone.

    I think this is nuts.

    • Canadian Steeler

      By no means will they be better off, but I think they’ll be fine. Sanders needs to show more consistency, but Cotchery has been criminally underused and should have success as a number 3. I do think we could use a RB with some speed (and size, unlike Rainey), but I think Dwyer, Redman and Rainey could combine to make decent enough backfield. The two positions were real strengths this year so I think they’ll be fine without Wallace and Mendenhall.

      The two certainly have lots of ability, but neither has been consistent for 2 seasons (Mendenhall) and a season and a half (Wallace). I think if you can argue that Brown was overpaid this year, it’s difficult to give Wallace a bigger contract than that, given his performance the last 20 games or so.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.kurimsky.3 Ron Kurimsky

    Figuring out this problem is not rocket science. PP Coaching is what happened. Coaches must put their players (especially championship players) in a position that promotes the higher probability of success. When the play calling is so utterly predictable what what also becomes predicatble is failure and turnovers. There is no big majic here. GET RID OF HALEY AND YOU DRASTICALLY IMPROVE THE PROBABLILITY OF SUCCESS. It is just that simple. These players have won championships before – Haley has not – he came from the worst team in the league – which is precisely hwere he belongs. I’ll stick with the players on this one.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    It looks like our draft slot could be between 11 and 17, depending on the outcomes of this week’s games (based on this: http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/draft/blog/rob-rang/21446386/updated-2013-nfl-draft-order). If it meant we would be assured the 11th pick, I think I’d root for us to lose this week.

  • Sarah

    Troy!

  • Sarah

    ….and long completion to AB comes back…..ridiculous

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.t.martin.5 Charles T Martin

    Excellent article.
    I would like to offer one opinion that NO ONE will agree with.
    RETIRE Lebeau. Install Carnell Lake. get rid of the 3-4, let rookies play (by the time that we let them play in this overly complex defense we can’t afford them.) Draft the horse from BYU at outside linebacker.
    I will admit that one argument for the 3-4 is this new run-read option. The 3-4 is designed to stop this type of offense. One has to look at the run read two ways. Run your QB and get him hurt (RGIII) Or like Russell Wilson does. He seems to avoid the big hits. We will see how long this fad lasts and how long Wilson lasts.
    Cordell Stewart would have made a great run read QB. What about Jarrod Jackson?