View From 522: Steelers vs. Chargers

Hi. For the six of you that still check in on this site hoping to see an update, thanks for that! But today we actually have something for you, and we hope you enjoy it. Since Adam is a Steelers season ticket holder, he will share his thoughts and observations from each home game. We call it The View From 522 (because that’s where he sits). 

How does a team with Charlie Batch at quarterback go on the road and beat the first place Ravens, only to return home one week later — with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback! — and get its lunch money stolen by a reeling San Diego Chargers team that is clearly going through the motions and simply playing out the string?

That’s the question of the week after the Steelers embarrassing 34-24 loss on Sunday afternoon, a game that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the final score would indicate (and it doesn’t really indicate a close game).

The popular storyline around town seems to be the standard “The Steelers are always playing to the level of their competition” narrative and how they — particularly under Mike Tomlin — don’t seem to get up for games against bad teams and struggle to “finish them” or “put them away.” In a season where the Steelers somehow also lost games to the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and Cleveland Browns (yet beat the Giants, Redskins, Ravens, and Bengals) that’s not a surprise.

But I don’t buy it for a second, and you shouldn’t either.

First, this isn’t the SEC where the Alabama Crimson Tide can schedule some game September non-conference against Southwest Nevada A & M State and pencil in a 70-0 win just because they made it to the stadium on time. A team of highly paid, highly trained professionals (even a “bad” one … relatively speaking) beating another team of highly paid, highly trained professionals isn’t that outrageous. It happens every week in the NFL.

But why do the Steelers under Tomlin always seem to struggle in these games?

The answer: They don’t. At least not usually. At least not when they themselves are actually good.

You only think they do because sports fans see what they want to see and react to that selection bias as it’s happening right in front of them. The Steelers struggled with bad teams this season so they must always struggle with bad teams, or don’t get up for them, or play down to their level, or whatever other cliche you want to insert into this paragraph.

I went back to the start of the 2007 season, Mike Tomlin’s first year in Pittsburgh, and looked at how many games the Steelers have played against teams that finished a season with fewer than seven wins (bad teams). Coming into this season they had 28 games against such teams. They won 23 of those games, and did so by an average score of 24-13. For the mathematically challenged, that is an average margin of victory of 11 points. Anytime you beat an NFL team, a good one or a bad one, by two possessions you handled that team quite well.

Eight of those wins were by fewer than 8 points.

Eleven of them were by 16 points or more (the very definition of a blowout).

Of the five losses, an unthinkable three of them came during that forgettable 2009 season, right around the time Tomlin swore they were going to “unleash hell” on the rest of the AFC. You can add at least three more this season (Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and maybe San Diego depending on it finishes the season).

So the question now becomes why in 2009 and 2012 did the Steelers struggle with bad teams, yet completely obliterate them (to the tune of a 21-2 record and average margin of victory of 24-10) in the other four years of Mike Tomlin’s still ongoing tenure in Pittsburgh?

Is it because they weren’t “up” for the games? Or because the coaching staff did something wrong in preparation or game day? Were they looking past these bad teams?

Maybe.

But I have a theory — and perhaps a controversial one — but hear me out on it: The 2009 and 2012 Steelers just weren’t very talented football teams, and it’s not out of the ordinary for flawed teams (as both teams are/were) to play bad games and lose bad games to bad teams.

The 2009 team had noticeable and signifiacnt flaws up and down its roster. The offensive line was a disaster and on any given Sunday had Just Hartwig, Trai Essex and Chris Kemoeatu starting. It’s a wonder Ben Roethlisberger made it through the season.

The secondary was pretty much a collection of replacement level players. Troy Polamalu played five games, and guys like Joe Burnett, Tyrone Carter, Ryan Mundy, Anthony Madison, whatever remained of Deshea Townsend’s career and Keiwan Ratliff all had to see playing time. William Gay in his first season as a starter had his worst season as a pro, and the rest of the defense had the likes of Travis Kirshcke, Nick Eason, and Keyaron Fox seeing significant snaps at one time or another.

Aaron Smith, still a fairly productive player, missed 11 games as well.

That team, particularly on defense where most of their problems came from, simply wasn’t very good.

The 2012 team has its own set of flaws. Troy Polamalu and James Harrison are only a fraction of what they used to be (and have both missed significant playing time). LaMarr Woodley can’t stay on the field for more than a game without getting injured again. The young defensive line has had its share of growing pains, and the offensive line is once again a patchwork unit not only due to a lack of talent, but also injuries (first-round pick and potential savior of the interior David Decastro, Willie Colon — again — and the need to have your all-pro center shift to guard). Ike Taylor, also closer to the end of his career than his prime, has been a roller coaster of ups and downs (more on him and his impact in a bit) and the Chargers were able to take advantage of his absence on Sunday.

They force no turnovers on defense and generate very little pass rush which is a bad combination.

They had to play three games with Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch at quarterback.

It’s a flawed team, and this is what flawed teams do. They play inconsistent football, tease you with moments of brilliance and leave you disappointed with games like Sunday.

Mike Wallace deserves your boos, but so does Antonio Brown

I’ve beaten this horse enough this season, but I’m going to keep doing it because I hate the double standard and for some reason it really pisses me off.

I’m the first to admit that I’m the resident Mike Wallace fanboy. I’ll also be the first to admit he’s having a bad season and isn’t doing himself any favors when it comes to getting that big contract he so desperately wants (he’s also not doing the team any favors when it comes to winning games. That’s pretty important, too).

He deserves to face criticism for it, and he deserves to be booed for his poor play.

But you know who else does? Antonio Brown.

Nobody will do it, though. And nobody will ever complain about him or send any criticism his way. Why? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. His 2012 season has been just as shitty as Mike Wallace’s, and nobody says a damn word about it.

Both players dropped passes downfield on Sunday, and when Wallace did it he was booed out of the stadium while fans screamed about his big money demands and how he’s not worth it and how he can’t catch.

When Antonio Brown did it the first reaction from fans was that the only reason he didn’t catch it was because he was interfered with and there should have been a penalty (looked like good defense to me, but whatever).

This guy isn’t looking for a big money contract, he already has it. And he’s not playing up to it. You can count on one hand the number of big, meaningful plays he’s made this season, and he can’t find the end zone even if you gave him a map to it, which isn’t a new thing. He’s scored five touchdowns in his NFL career, with one of them coming on a punt return. His only two touchdowns this season came on a fumble recovery in the end zone (his own fumble, which he was lucky to recover to make up for his own mistake) and with less than a minute to play on Sunday in a game his team was losing by 17 points, a play that is the definition of meaningless.

The “young money” crew isn’t getting it done this year. They’ve both put the ball on the ground an unacceptable number of times (both by drops and fumbles), they’re not getting open with any sort of regularity, and they’re not making the same number big plays they used to make. Just keep in mind that they combined for 36 passing plays of 20-yards or more last season (18 for each). In 2010 Wallace had 26 by himself.

This season they’re currently on pace to combine for just 19.

If you’re going to criticize one (and you should) you need to criticize the other as well.

As Ike Taylor goes, so goes the Steelers defense

Ike Taylor missed his first game on Sunday which meant second-year corner Curtis Brown had to see his first real playing time defensively. It did not go well. From the very beginning of the game Phillip Rivers and the Chargers were playing a game of “Where’s Curtis Brown” and throwing to his side of the field. They torched him so badly in the first half that Brown rarely saw the field in the second half and was replaced by Josh Victorian, who may or may not have been some guy the Steelers pulled out of the stands to play.

For years the Steelers were able to get by with average play in their secondary due to a vicious pass rush that ate opposing quarterbacks alive. That pass rush no longer exists, and the Steelers need more from their coverage in the secondary.

Their best cover corner is clearly Ike Taylor, and the Steelers defense this season has reflected the play of Taylor.

Let’s take their third down defense as an example.

In Weeks 1 through 5, when the Steelers were 2-3, opposing offenses were converting on over 47 percent of their third downs. If you recall, Taylor had a miserable start to the season not only in terms of the number of catches, first downs, and touchdowns he allowed, but also in the number of drives he extended with penalties.

But then in Week 7 everything started to turn around for Taylor as he shut down Bengals superstar wide receiver A.J. Green, and over the following six games he played like the cover corner we’re used to seeing (dropping interceptions, but for the most part keeping the other team’s best receiver in check).

Over that stretch opponents were just 16-for-76 (an amazingly low 20 percent) on third downs.

Without Taylor in the lineup on Sunday, the Chargers were 12-for-22. That’s 55 percent.

Here’s a look at the Steelers cumulative third down percentage for the season. It pretty much mirrors the season Ike Taylor is having. When he’s good, the defense is good. When he’s bad (or not there) the defense is bad.

Hurry back, Ike. And play well when you are.

Other assorted thoughts

1) On the fumble that wasn’t really a fumble, why was Antonio Brown trying to pick up the football in the end zone? What was he going to do with it at that point? Even if he succeeds he’s going to be tackled in the end zone for a safety. Why not just make sure San Diego doesn’t have a chance to fall on it for an easy touchdown (as it did) and kick it out of the end zone for the two points? Forget whether or not the refs made the right call (I don’t think they did) Brown made a poor play given the situation he faced.

But as my brother Matt so perfectly asked: Why are they running wide receiver bubble screens on their own five-yard line, anyway?

2) On one of their first drives the Steelers faced a third-and-inches in their own territory. Their play of choice was a slooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow developing stretch play to Isaac Redman (who was lined up about seven yards behind the line of scrimmage) behind their third-string right tackle playing his second game in the NFL. Naturally, the play was stuffed for a loss which has been a rather common occurrence for Isaac Redman in short-yardage situations.

3) For as flawed and mediocre as this team is, the Steelers still control their own destiny for a playoff spot and will continue to do so even if they lose in Dallas on Sunday. Just so they beat Cincinnati and Cleveland in Weeks 16 and 17 (both of which are at home) they will be in the playoffs no matter what they do against Dallas. That is crazy, and a testament to how bad the AFC is.

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  • Cols714

    Bravo. I applaud this post.

  • Sarah
  • Sarah

    Good post Adam, thanks…

    I think for me I’m not saying the “always” play down over Tomlin. (Though Smizik seems to show otherwise)…

    I am saying it seems to be a distressing pattern lately. They have several poor losses to the dregs of the league.

    I don’t think I would even call it inconsistency. Based on the assertion “they play to the level of the competition” they’re actually pretty consistent. Play well v better teams, play crappy v crappy teams.

    I think there’s a number of immature players in the bunch. Brett Keisel said it well this week that too many guys are looking past opponents with weaker records.

    I guess we can argue about teams overcoming immaturity is something the coaches ought to address….

    • Cols714

      Do you really think that the team’s motivation each week is the primary factor in whether or not they win?

      Because the way you always put it is that the team who wants it more wins every single week. I really doubt this is what happens.

      Sometimes players play shitty whether they are motivated or not. Sometimes the coach coach shitty whether they are motivated or not. Sometimes they both happen at once like last weekend vs SD. Sometimes you get weird bounces and fumbles at inopportune times like what happened at Cleveland. Sometimes the opposing team plays out of its mind, like what happened at Oakland.

      Were the Texans not motivated to beat NE last night? Probably they were but played poorly while NE played great. Was Baltimore not motivated to beat the Steelers a week ago.

      These things happen, and it’s not always or probably almost never based on the amount of motivation or want the players have.

      • reynolds11

        Cols714

        “These things happen, and it’s not always or probably almost never based on the amount of motivation or want the players have.”

        Motivation – The desire to do things

        If a team has little desire/motivation to win, i’m pretty sure theyd give a half ass effort which would effect a win or loss

        • Cols714

          Actually I’d completely disagree. Most fumbles probably happen when the player is trying to do too much instead of too little. It’s easy to get tackled and go down, it’s hard to fight for more yardage which can easily lead to fumbling.

          And why on earth would players have no desire to win? Why oh why do fans, NFL fans in particular, always think that it’s the desire to win that matters more than anything?

          This is, incidentally, why most NFL discussion boards suck. Because after every loss everyone blames motivation or other pyschological nonsense.

          • reynolds11

            sounds like you never played a sport before and dont know what it feels like to have motivation for a game or not. Makes a huge difference

          • Cols714

            Um yes I have and no it’s not remotely the same thing. A high school coach gives a speech because at that level some players may need extra motivation. At the pro level do you really think these guys are just dogging it? It’s their jobs and most of them take it pretty seriously if for no other reason than money and they can be replaced by younger more motivated and talented individuals.

          • Cols714

            In your world
            Week 1, the Broncos wanted it more than the Steelers
            Week 2, the Steelers wanted it more than the Jets
            Week 3, the Raiders wanted it more than the Steelers
            Week 4, the Steelers wanted it more than the Eagles

            Do you see how dumb this is?

  • Sarah

    Anyway I think Keisel and Hampton said it best this week.

  • Canadian Steeler

    Good post. Luckily for us, you apparently don’t have to be a “very good” team to win the Super Bowl anymore. Last year’s Giants lost twice to the Redskins, at home to the Seahawks and were pounded by the Saints, the Packers the year before lost to Washington, Miami and only managed 3 points against the Lions.

    This team’s definitely inconsistent for whatever reason. A lot of their play depends on Ben (and apparently Ike). This team has shown that they can play with just about anybody, but who knows if they can put it all together to make a run. Clearly things would have to go our way. Woodley and Ike would have to return to full health (operative word being full) and play at a Pro Bowl level and the line would have to hold up to keep Ben healthy. If those things happen I think we’ve got a shot, but it doesn’t look likely at this point since we’d have to do it all away from home.

    As for the Antonio Brown/Mike Wallace thing, I’d agree that they’re both underperforming. Wallace was always going to be under the gun having refused the contract Brown ended up getting. He’s definitely playing the role of the scapegoat. There’s a certain amount to do with perceptions of the individuals as well. Wallace is seen as a pouty, greedy, one-trick pony who lost the ability to catch, while Brown is the young try-hard with an infectious personality that will go over the middle. It’s not exactly fair, although I would say that I’ve thought Brown had been playing better than what the numbers show.

  • Cols714

    Looks like Mendenhall will be elsewhere next season. A shame. He was really talented.

    • Eric

      If you say so.

      • Sarah

        Well I agree with Cols….lotsa talent….below the neck anyway.

        A real shame. I was expecting him to get the start in DAL til all this crap played out. What a head case.

        Speaking of – was Mendy the same draft as Limas?….

        • David

          Yes he was. As was Bruce Davis, Tony Hills, Dennis Dixon, Mike Humpal, and Ryan Mundy. Great class, huh?

          • Cols714

            Well we did get a couple of good years out of Mendenhall and Mundy has performed pretty well for a late rounder. But yeah, that draft was a downer.

          • Eric

            “Well we did get a couple of good years out of Mendenhall”

            I disagree. Let’s look at Mendenhall’s DVOA with the Steelers:

            2009: -3.2%
            2010: -3.0%
            2011: 2.3%
            2012: -44.3%

            So Mendenhall has been a replacement level player over his career. But wait! The Steelers have a terrible offensive line. Maybe Mendenhall is better than his DVOA shows? So let’s look at the other running backs over the last four years:

            2009: M.Moore (-27.2%), W.Parker (-17.6%)
            2010: I.Redman (1.7%), M.Moore (-38.2%)
            2011: I.Redman (3.1%), M.Moore (28.5%)
            2012: J.Dwyer (-18.4), C.Rainey (17.8%), B.Batch (-28.3%), I.Redman (-18.0%)

            Hard to argue that Mendenhall is been appreciably better than the other running backs on the roster. So for a 1st round pick we got a replacement level running back. I’d have rather drafted an offensive lineman or a defensive player in the 1st round and just picked up a late round running back instead.

          • Cols714

            That makes sense. Thanks for the stats. I think we’ve learned out 1st round running back lesson. Duane Brown was in that draft, FYI.

        • EasyLikeSundayMorning

          Our worst draft since at least 1997.

  • Jesse

    Nice post sir. It’s always amusing to me (though also sad) that the one real post a week here has more value than the dozens of posts a week over at BTSC. I wish you guys had the time/resources to grow this place.

  • Eric
  • David

    OK, just a prep for Sunday’s game:

    Series is tied 15-15

    We’ve won the last two.

    Longest win streak for Cryboys = 7

    Our longest win streak = 5

    Regular season W-L vs Cryboys: 13-14
    Postseason: 2-1

  • Sarah

    Well first time I can remember there’s no game thread.
    Maybe that’s a good thing after this debacle. Good gracious AB…
    Cincy eyeing the division.
    Have we entered a parallel universe yet?

  • David

    I guess that’s the continued decline of this site. Not even a thread for the late game on Sun.

    But yep, AB lost this game. Doofus. Fumbling and not catching a punt.

    • Rob D

      A mediocre STeelers team lost that game …..and Brown is just a symptom of whatthey are this year..finding ways to lose every week. ST’s are atrocious. The pass rush is non existent. They YMC can’t catch the ball (Wallace could today though..good on him) They have no real running game. Can’t force turnovers unless Harrison decides its time for one for old time’s sake.

      It all adds up to..not a whole lot. And they are STILL in it if they win next week! lol…what a year in the AFC.

      • David

        How could anyone bet on us vs Cincy–at home, for that matter–after the last two games?
        Does anyone else think Green goes for 200 yds vs. us?

        • EasyLikeSundayMorning

          We are what we are: a 7-7 team that makes as many mistakes as good plays. With the way we’ve played recently, I wouldn’t bet on us in any game. And about half of me is screaming the Jim Mora, “Playoffs?!?!” quote as I write the next bit, but… bizarrely, we not only control our own destiny for a wild card slot, but there is a not-implausible scenario in which we still win the division and host a playoff game (probably against the Colts). If we beat CIN and CLE, and BAL loses to NYG and CIN, the ESPN Playoff Machine says we win a three-way tiebreaker for the division with head-to-head winning % (and then the Ravens win the 6th seed tiebreaker with CIN based on win % in divisional games). Strange but true. http://espn.go.com/nfl/playoffs/machine

          • Canadian Steeler

            Wow. This surprises me. BACK ON THE BANDWAGON ALL THE WAY. STAIRWAY TO SEVEN BAAAAABY.

            Seriously though, those things are – if not likely – definitely possible. For them to be plausible though, our secondary needs to get healthy. It was ugly out there today. If Keenan’s good for next week, I think we’ll be OK (and nothing more). Luckily the Bengals don’t have any serious options behind Green. Lewis should theoretically be able to contain him somewhat with help over the top, and Timmons/Polamalu can handle Gresham. It’s also Andy Dalton. He’s never completed more than 50% of his passes against us.

            Of course, by measuring matchups and talent, the Steelers would have at least 2 more wins this year. We’ve showed the unnerving ability to find ways to lose. Today Woodley was stoned cold one on one with Doug Free, who’s been terrible this year. He has to be better.

          • David

            Hey, you know, if Bubby Brister can beat CIN and CLE to end a season, so can Ben? Right?

          • Rob D

            Easy, it’s bizarre but true…
            LOL..I think I’ll go around this week using my bad Mora impression just to annoy people. It’s a living..

            I’m disappointed in the Steelers this year but I really look at the injuries and the young kids being integrated (some way too soon like Beachum and Curtis Brown) and the aging vets no longer playing at their former Pro Bowl level (Troy, Woodley (I guess he’s younger but he’s injured like an old guy..lol, James (great against the run but the pass rush is gone) and wonder why I thought they’d be a contender this year.

            But you get a team with an elite QB into the playoffs and they know the way to the dance. I think we could make a little noise, especially if our convalescing vets get healthier as we go. I wish we had a better running game and it still vexes me that we don’t. Nothing like o-line shuffling to kill that dream and we shuffle every week it seems.

            I am holding the fort, and hoping the light comes on for many of our youngsters, that Ben catches fire, the YMC starts to cactch the ball again, Troy hits his stride just in time etc etc…That’s what this league is about..the dream of your ragged team picking itself off the ropes and couterpunching their way to glory.

          • Sarah

            Glad you’re holding the fort Rob! I confess I’m feeling awful about this team right now!! Admittedly that was another horrible game to watch….but I’m queasy about the last 2 games – I think they’re at least as likely as BAL to go 0-2. It feels like they’re teetering to me.

            But maybe that’s just my hangover from yet another “We’ll move on” MT post-game presser…..

          • Rob D

            It’s really all you have as a fan…faith that a team that generally knows what it is doing will overcome the obstacles in its path and go on a run. It’s a year when anyone can beat anyone else..look at the Giants getting run over yesterday, the Pats getting outgunned on their home turf, …you win big one week and the very next you can get taken apart. EVerything you do is on tape and teams are brilliant at exploiting your previously disguised weakness. Makes for a chaotic scene but it’s interesting anyway. As for the STeelers , all these losses are probably not quite as interesting however…lol

          • David

            Easy, lol!

            This, my friend, is nuts. I never thought this was possible.

            So I am going to pray like crazy that we all finish 9-7. That would be the ultimate (late) Christmas gift on the 29th.

    • Sarah

      Young Money. Ugh. UN Money.

      These kids are so not clutch. I’ve never missed Hines more.

      And how Heath Miller only got 1 touch the 4th quarter is crazy. Was he tripled teamed?

      If we could have 10 Heaths we’d be great. He catches better than all the WRs, and he probably blocks better than the whole OL.

      • Sarah

        Sorry, it was ZERO touches whole 2nd half. My bad.
        After 6/6 85 yards and a TD in the first.

  • Cols714

    I think we are underestimating the impact of injuries on our 7-7 record.

    • Eric

      Agree.

      I see the Pittsburgh media is sharpening their spears for Haley and making a big deal out of anything Roethlisberger says. Just like they did with Arians. Just like always.

      When I was a teenager in Pittsburgh, I used to read/watch everything said about the Steelers. Now I find that with each passing year I am more and more actively avoiding any sports media. That’s why the internet has become so valuable. With sites like this and many others, I can get useful information and cut out a lot of the same regurgitated crap that those guys write/say to sell papers and get ratings.

      • Cols714

        Yep. I think that injuries, turnovers and field position has been the key driver to this crappy season. I was just reading about the field position battle on Steelers Depot and short story is we suck at it.

  • Sarah
    • Cols714

      I hope zero.

  • Eric

    This comment is not directed at anyone or with any venom but I have to say that I am very amused that people are criticizing Haley for not getting Miller the ball enough. I realize that that criticism may have some merit for yesterdays game but considering how criminally under utilized Miller has been for years, its amazing how 85 yards and TD is now considered to be insufficient.

    • Cols714

      People would still be saying that Miller was underutilized even if he had 150 yards. It’s just something people like to bitch about. The problem is there are only so many plays so it’s always going to seem like someone wasn’t utilized.

      I was just thinking that the Steelers have now lost 3 games on last second FGs and won two on last second FGs. It’s nuts how close almost every game we play is. It certainly makes for an exciting season.

      This is also why the constant cries of “we’re doomed, blow it all up, fire Tomlin” that happen with every loss are crazy. This team is close, would be closer if they were remotely healthy, and still can make the playoffs and do some damage.

      • David

        Well, to those saying Heath needs the ball more, I totally agree.

        However, wanting and getting are two different beasts. Heath was covered by a safety or nickel back most of the game, and not by a LB, from what I noticed.

        Sucks. The only silver lining was that the eval of DeCastro was very positive, although he did allow a sack. So a future line with Pouncey, DeCastro, and Adams looks exciting.

      • Sarah

        Out of curiosity then do you suppose it’s just random that Miller had 8 touches 1st half and 0 2nd?

        They just didn’t have enough plays to get him the ball? At all?

        Or coverage adjustments?

        I think when you have targets that routinely are dropping the ball and clearly struggling mentally, vs targets that are not, you might go out of your way to call plays where Miller is primary. And make necessary adjustments to do that.

        • Cols714

          He had 7 catches total which would be 112 catches per 16 games. That’s a lot of catches. So yeah I don’t think he was underutilized this game.

          How many catches does Miller need to make you happy? Would 200 be enough? But then you’d be complaining that we are underutilizing Antonio Brown.

  • Cols714

    FYI

    Antonio Brown catch rate 61%

    Mike Wallace, 57% (64% last year)

    For some perspective, AJ Green is 59% and Calvin Johnson is 61%

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Last year at this point, the Giants were 7-7 and had lost 5 of 6. We can always dream…