Welcome to another edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are 10 months removed from a Super Bowl victory, and will be 41 days removed from a regular season victory when the Packers visit Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon. In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model mapping the stages of human grief. The discrete five-stage model, which shows the transition from denial to acceptance, may shed some light on how the Steelers are approaching this Week 15 match-up.
On a personal note, I’m a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. I think the way that Mike Tomlin has run the team, with a focus on hard work and a team atmosphere, is admirable (especially when compared to some of the me-first teams around the league). I like the fact that their ownership is unselfish, that the Rooneys treat the team (and the men on it) like family, and that, like the Packers, the Steelers are an integral part of the identity of their community. In July 2008, Dan Rooney oversaw a restructuring of the team to keep it in the family, where it’s been since the team’s founding in 1933. The fact that he’s now serving as Ambassador to Ireland is just plain cool. This is a team that’s done a great deal for the city of Pittsburgh, and their fans are as enthusiastic and passionate about their team as any Packer fan I’ve ever met. (They also have a ladies-only training camp that the Packers should copy.)
In college, I was “encouraged” to cheer for the Steelers (my coach’s idea) in the hopes that, like the team, we would get a practice-free Victory Monday. The Packers were solid throughout that span, so I never minded cheering for a second team. During 2005, though, when the losses stacked up, I admit I hedged on football: “Well, at least my fantasy team is doing well” – though even my KnightsOfKnee barely cracked the top 10 in our 18-team family league. Still, as a coping mechanism, I found things to focus on other than the 4-12 Packers.
Avoidance can work for a time. And Pittsburghers have several things to take their minds off what’s been happening to their team this year. The Economist voted Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States (29th in the world). In September, the city played host to the world’s leaders at the G-20 summit, and will be hosting World Environment Day next year to boot. People who don’t care about either of those two things should still be happy that the Pittsburgh Penguins are 23-10-1 thus far in their bid to defend their Stanley Cup win. All that said, being that this is a Packers-centric blog and we are in the business of focusing on the Steelers, let’s take a look at how the team and its fans got to this point.
Going into W10, the 6-2 Steelers looked to be on their way to a third-straight postseason. Sure they’d lost to Chicago and Cincinnati, but both games were on the road (Soldier Field is a tough place to play) and they’d rebounded with wins over San Diego, Minnesota, and Denver. Going up against the Bengals for the second time, questions arose about the Steelers passing defense and whether the Bengals would sweep. After losing 18-12 and giving up a kickoff return for a TD, the response from Big Ben was fairly succinct: “We just didn't make the plays that we normally make.” The Bengals earned the tiebreaker and went to 7-2 with the win, so it wasn’t a bad loss, right? There were plenty of reasons to be happy with the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers. Cue Denial.
The W11 match-up with the Kansas City Chiefs looked to be a cakewalk before the Sunday night brawl with the Ravens coming in W12. But when the dust settled, the Chiefs were victorious, and even with Ben being sacked twice in three plays, even with multiple dropped interceptions by DBs, Steelers fans pointed fingers at special teams, which had let KC RB Jamaal Charles reach the endzone on the opening kickoff. “If it weren’t for that ST blunder, the Steelers probably don't even find themselves in a close game late in the game,” lamented Behind The Steel Curtain. (Here’s the thing, though – the evidence was beginning to pile up: “The Steelers have given up a fumble, interception or kick return for a touchdown in eight consecutive games.”) Seeking out a goat and placing blame seems a good deal like Anger to me.
The game against the Ravens might not fit perfectly because there were so many other things at play. With Ben Roethlisberger out with a concussion, and backup QB Charlie Batch already out with a broken hand, the Steelers started QB Dennis Dixon, a 2nd year pro whose only regular season action before the lights went on Sunday night involved a 3yd completion during 2008’s 31-0 shutout of the Browns. Dixon played well, and the Steelers were up 17-14 with 5 minutes to go. But, as had happened in 4 of PIT’s 5 losses, things fell apart late. BAL turned an ugly 3rd-and-22 into a manageable 4th-and-5, where Ray Rice caught a short pass and took it 44 yards. The resulting FG forced an overtime that saw PIT unable to move the ball, and on their second possession of the extra period, Dixon threw his only interception of the game, leading to the decisive BAL FG. The Steelers players didn’t blame Dixon or the play at QB for the loss, even though talk prior to the game included poorly-chosen words by Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes about why Big Ben couldn’t (or wouldn’t) play. Losing to a division opponent in a big game? Things got tense in the Steelers locker room, and Mike Tomlin promised to “unleash hell in December.”
If we’re following a strict Kübler-Ross model, the Bargaining stage of grief likely shows up during the game at various points. If we could only get a first down…if we could only convert this third down…if we could only get a stop here…if we could only get the ball back… Every team does this (the Packers did this for much of 2008, no doubt) but the Steelers were likely bargaining quite a bit during the Ravens game.
Faced with a situation similar to the Packers (3 games in 12 days), the Steelers looked to bounce back in a short week that featured the Oakland Raiders and the league’s favorite punching bag, the Cleveland Browns. (By this time, the bargaining had gotten to, “If we can win out…”) But, instead of getting a double-shot of momentum to head into the last three games, the Steelers continued to struggle. Mike Tomlin didn’t have any answers after his team let the Raiders score 3 TDs in the 4th quarter. Just like the Lions did a few weeks earlier, the Steelers made the Cleveland Browns look like a force to be reckoned with, as Big Ben went down 8 times and the Steelers were kept out of the end zone entirely.
The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook pulled out all the stops:
There is no other word to describe a team that, by all indications, has quit on the Rooneys, Tomlin, their fans and -- most egregiously -- themselves.
"We're better than this," Ward said, shaking his head.
They aren't better.
Coming into this game, the Steelers are… 6-7, out of contention for the AFC North division title, and seemingly in the throes of Depression. After last week’s prime time loss to the Browns, Hines Ward posted this on his official Facebook page:
I'm speechless about the game last night. I am embarrassed for the organization. I have got to get away.
John Harris of the Tribune-Review accused Mike Tomlin of giving up on his team and his players after the Oakland game, prompting a spirited blogger to retort that, while Tomlin deserves to be called out, Harris picked the wrong thread – the blogger (another very good one) indicates that all of Tomlin’s actions, beginning when he wrote off the Super Bowl 12 hours after it was over, should come under the microscope.
We have the desire to play dominant football. We haven't done that. When you don't play dominant football, you have to be opportunistic and make timely plays. We haven't done that, either. When you are not dominant and you don't make timely plays, you lose football games.
The fans at home are… at a loss. Some have gone ahead and acknowledged that with playoffs out of the picture, it’s time to look toward next season. Therefore, they argue that the remainder of the season should see Dennis Dixon getting some time at QB and rookie Limas Sweed (who suffers from Jarrett Bush syndrome) getting some time in the WR rotation. These same fans encourage a similar rotation of new blood on defense, spelling vets on the DL and in the secondary, with the argument that the Steelers are still in the top 5 for total defense --- some rotation won’t hurt the overall scheme.
Other fans are more focused, after the Trifecta of Shame, on what’s wrong, highlighting the primary factors that have contributed to the total collapse of the World Champs: special teams coverage and age and conditioning (for many key spots, the starters and their backups are all over 30). (Read them both – this is an excellent multi-part series that will be updated here.)
Of course, because this type of losing streak doesn’t happen every year (should they lose to the Packers, they will be the first team ever to lose six in a row the year after a Super Bowl win), everyone and their brother has weighed in on what’s wrong with the Steelers. Some have looked at a broader “Super Bowl Syndrome” – with horrible accents. Fans of other teams (in other countries!) have begun to question the Steelers’ toughness, especially without Polamalu on the field. And, as is the popular trend, the “who’s going to get the axe” talk is in full swing – on the theoretical chopping block are ST Bob Ligashesky, OC Bruce Arians, and OL Larry Zierlein. Or maybe they won’t be fired, the good ones, like GM Kevin Colbert, will just jump ship.
Some fans are holding out hope until not even fuzzy math can get the Steelers playing into January. Some, perversely, see this season as a “test of loyalty” for fans that have gotten used to success. Others…have simply raised the white flag, in the face of those preaching patience, saying that “the End came on a snowy night in December”:
The end has arrived, and not just for the 2009 Steelers. It is the end of an era, one that began with the 2004 season and included two Super Bowl victories and three trips to AFC championship games.
Even The Bus says the Steelers are done:
When you lose your spirit, then everything is pretty much gone. And that’s what I saw when they hit the field against the Cleveland Browns. It tells me the leadership isn’t there, there was a lack of commitment. The season is basically over.
A good metaphor (from ESPN) is that the Steelers continue to spring leaks.
Something to chew on… the Packers responded to the Tampa loss, which represented the lowest point of the 2009 season, by airing out their problems internally and then moving forward --- why haven’t the Steelers done this? Or, have they, and it just hasn’t worked?
What We’re Up Against: Who knows, really?
If you take away the names and just look at the numbers, this looks like a game the Packers should win. On paper, the Packers have better stats in all areas but one, where they allow an additional 0.1 yard rushing per game.
|Off Yd/G||Off Pts/G||Off 3d Conv||Def Yd/G||Def Pts/G||Def 3d Conv||TO Diff|
|GB||374.4 (7)||26.5 (7)||45% (5)||272.0 (2)||18.7 (9T)||35% (6)||+18 (1)|
|PIT||362.5 (9)||21.4 (16)||38% (17)||294.1 (4)||18.8 (11)||40% (24)||-5 (25)|
And, maybe I’m stuck in the same denial phase as some fans, but this is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, they’re a year older and yes, they’re down a few players, and yes, Ben Roethlisberger gets hit more often than a piñata, but these guys just won a Super Bowl, and they should not be taken lightly.
I’m not going to do a lot of analysis here, because, frankly, I don’t think the numbers, or even past performance, are going to be indicative of what we’ll see on the field on Sunday. The Steelers are playing for pride, and I think that could throw everything out the window. If you’re not satisfied with my wishy-washy excuse, check out Pete Dougherty’s scouting report (and his take on the Polamalu-sized hole in the PIT defense), Bob McGinn’s scouting report, JS Online’s preview and things to watch for, and the SB Nation game page (with articles from APC).
I wasn’t able to get another tell-all interview with my Steelers-cheering friend, but it looks like you’ll be able to chat with a Steelers fan over at APC, if you so choose.
- In 2007, Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein ‘accidentally’ sent pornographic videos to NFL officials. True story.
- Earlier in 2009, the Highland Park Station of the Pittsburgh police department lost 3 officers in a shooting. This week, 7 Steelers players chipped in to buy the station 28 GPS devices.
- There are a million Steelers blogs, and many of them are really good. It was a lot of fun reading this week, I tell you. Now, one of these blogs, Behind the Steel Curtain, features a 6-bullet post with news of the day. Each of the bullets is replaced by the numerals of one of the Super Bowls won by the team. This is not the point. The point is that the Steelers and their fans are extremely proud, as they should be, of their 6 modern rings. February 2009 saw the birth of the phrase, “It’s a Sixburgh thing,” to commemorate the feat. When the Packers and Steelers meet on Sunday, each team will be on a five game streak. Should the Packers win, will “It’s a Sixburgh thing” take on new meaning?
I expect this game to be full of sacks and ST blunders. Other than that, I have no earthly idea what will happen for the three hours beginning at 4:15pm EST.
Maybe the Packers will help the Steelers and their fans ease down the road toward acceptance of a failed season. Or, maybe the Packers will do what they usually do, get up big in the first half, and then let the Steelers hang around, only for the Steelers D to collapse in the last five minutes to allow Aaron Rodgers one more shot at the end zone. Or, maybe the Steelers recovered enough during their long break to play like it’s February 2009.
Where do you stand?
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