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
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.