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Airing of Grievances

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On a winter Sunday in December, we saw the final nail driven into the coffin of the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff hopes. That Sunday was also the annual celebration of Festivus, known for its “Airing of Grievances.”

It seems appropriate, then, to air some grievances about this year’s Steelers campaign.

Pittsburgh needed more from its young receivers. No group on the team was talked up more than the pass-catchers in the offseason, and it’s easy to see why. The trio of Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, and Emmanuel Sanders may not have been the league’s best (they didn’t look far off), but they undoubtedly had more potential than any other threesome in the league.

Wallace was unhappy, but was expected to play through 2012 at a high level in hopes of scoring his next big contract, even if it wasn’t the Rooneys handing it to him. The team had instead invested heavily in Brown, who had taken a giant leap forward the year before and was looking to prove he had the chops to be Ben Roethlisberger’s primary target. Sanders, who was hindered by injuries in 2011, was expected to take his own leap forward in Pittsburgh’s passing offense.

None of the three necessarily lived up to the hype.

Wallace leads the team in yards (823) and is tied for the team lead in touchdowns (8), but his 2012 season hasn’t passed the eye test. The speedster has been plagued by iffy hands all year, erasing a number of big plays that could have changed the complexity of games. In addition, critics have called him out for a lack of effort at times and have accused the Photo by Vincent Pugliesereceiver of playing not to get hurt. Regardless, Football Outsiders has Wallace ranked 73rd in the league on a per-play basis among qualifying receivers (currently set at 48+ targets). For perspective, he’s ranked behind players like Arizona rookie Michael Floyd, New York’s Jeremy Kerley, and Detroit’s Titus Young – who was essentially banished from his team this season.

Brown’s season hasn’t gone as expected either. Even factoring in his injuries, the third-year wideout has struggled with consistency. In some games, he has shined, pairing with Big Ben to form a dynamic duo capable of shredding defenses every which way. In others, he has been invisible or – in the case of the loss to Dallas – visible in all the wrong ways.

Sanders ranks higher on a per-play basis (25th) than either of the men in front of him on the depth chart, but his traditional numbers are lackluster. Part of the problem for Sanders is that he’s essentially the fourth option in the passing attack (behind Wallace, Brown, and tight end Heath Miller), meaning his opportunities are limited. However, he didn’t really capitalize on either Brown’s injury or Wallace’s late-season “demotion.” Instead, his 2012 campaign could be remembered more for his two critical fumbles instead of the fact that he was quietly a solid third receiver.

The positive here is that all three receivers are still young and have time to right the ship and develop. The glaring negative is that one of the three – Wallace – is likely to be developing under someone else’s watch.

That means Brown and Sanders will become Pittsburgh’s true #1 and #2 receivers, respectively. If they’re not up to that challenge, or if the injury bug strikes again, 2013 could be another long season.

Pittsburgh’s defense was stingy, but lacked in flash. It’s awfully tough to be harsh on a defense that is first in the league in yards allowed, but it’s warranted.

Don’t get me wrong, here. There were games this season where the Steelers were only in it because of the play of Dick LeBeau’s defense. Late in the season, the defense was stellar while the offense or special teams found ways to lose.

But all the same, the Steelers have been lacking in all the things that make good defenses great: sacks, pressure and turnovers.

Pittsburgh’s defense has registered 33 sacks going into the final game of the season. If the Steelers get shut out in that category against the Browns, they’ll finish with their lowest team sack total since 1989 (31). The total numbers aren’t much different from last season (35), but they’re far more spread out.

In 2011, both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were near the double-digit sack mark. Each finished with nine sacks, but both linebackers also missed at least five games, meaning that both were netting just shy of a sack per game when they played. Jason Worilds and Brett Keisel tied for second on the team with three sacks apiece.Photo by Charles LeClaire

In 2012, Harrison and Woodley each missed time again (both have played 12 out of a possible 15 games), but have five and four sacks respectively. Harrison’s decline was to be expected somewhat, considering he’s 34 years old with a recent history of back issues. Woodley’s disappearance, however, was troubling.

Before a hamstring injury knocked him off kilter in 2011, Woodley was well on his way to a 13-16 sack season. This season, he never had that same level of dominance as he continued to deal with hamstring issues.

While the sack numbers are an issue, the rest of his pass rush contributions are a bigger problem. In the past, Woodley would put consistent pressure on a quarterback, even if he didn’t pick up a sack. In 2012, if he didn’t get the sack, he wasn’t close to the passer.

A defense can survive without a high sack total if it can hurry the quarterback and either force him into throwing before he is ready or force him to speed up his process so that he might not spot a guy who was otherwise open.

It can also survive if it can come up with takeaways. This year’s defense was middle in the league in forcing fumbles and bottom-five in interceptions (with a measly nine picks). Once again, this isn’t much different from 2011, where they were dead last in forced fumbles (with 6!) and bottom-ten in interceptions (11 at season’s end).

The recent decline in turnovers could be attributed to a number of reasons. Perhaps the lack of overall pressure is letting opposing quarterbacks breathe a little easier than in the past. Perhaps the loss/limitation of key playmakers (Woodley, Harrison, Troy Polamalu) is the reason why the big plays are down. Perhaps those left in the lineup, guys like Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, etc., aren’t cashing in on the opportunities they do have.

The Steelers’ biggest issue in 2012 was timing. Think back to the teams of a few years ago, what we might now refer to as this team’s peak – the Super-Bowl-contending stretch from 2004-2010.

Score-wise, those games weren’t all that different from what we saw in 2012. While there will always be some outliers (good or bad), most games were played close and tough. Matchups would usually come down to the fourth quarter where, more often than not, Pittsburgh would pull through for a victory.

Both sides of the ball were capable of sealing things off. If the defense had the lead late, it was safe to bet that they would hold fast and keep it, or that they’d come away with a big turnover to ice it. If Pittsburgh was trailing in the final minutes, well then that was just another chance for Big Ben and the offense to wake up for another game-winning drive.

Simply put: the team seemed to play its best when it mattered most.Photo by Charles LeClaire

The past two seasons, the feeling around this team has changed. The defense is no longer insurmountable during crunch time, though it was much more reliable this season than in 2011. The offense, however, doesn’t seem to have the same magic it used to. There is no longer an expectation that Big Ben can simply march down the field to force overtime or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

This team no longer steps its game up during crunch time, and that was never more obvious than in the latest losing streak that ended up knocking the Steelers out of the playoff chase. Roethlisberger threw crucial interceptions in back-to-back late-season losses to Dallas and Cincinnati – both of which handed the opposition a game-winning field goal attempt (and conversion). Key players like Antonio Brown had severe mental lapses in crunch time, costing the team field position, time, and even points. Defensively, the Steelers made big stops late, but they failed to simply shut down the opposition with the clutch fumble or interception.

Other assorted grievances

  • Big Ben’s performance in December would be more appropriately titled “The Nightmare before Christmas.” Since his return from injury, Roethlisberger did not look like the player he was earlier in the season. He held the ball longer, eschewed some of the easier throws, and—most importantly—made some awful mistakes at all the wrong moments (both turnovers and sacks).
  • Jonathan Dwyer was the best of a mediocre and ever-revolving cast of running backs that left the team’s rushing offense in dire straits for much of the season, but he’s clearly not a full-time lead back. This team needs to find someone who is if the offense is ever going to consistently churn out yards on the ground.
  • The offensive line has talent, but most of that talent seems to be spending a troubling amount of time on the sidelines with various ailments. The potential and pedigree is there, but it won’t matter if the team has to shuffle bodies every week.
  • Cameron Heyward has had his moments, but he’s not quite ready to be a starter, which is an issue considering Ziggy Hood hasn’t developed into the player he was expected to be when the team drafted him.
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