"You are educated when you have the ability to listen to almost anything
without losing your temper or self-confidence." - Robert Frost

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Steelers 23 Broncos 29

Pittsburgh     -7½      at Denver     34      -340  +240
Win Probability   75.48%

I can’t imagine a more embarrassing exit to a playoff appearance in my 35+ seasons as a diehard Steelers fan.  There are losses that have made me more upset (San Diego in 1994).  There are losses that hit closer to the heart (Super Bowl XXX).

But I have never been embarrassed to this degree.

In fact I am hard-pressed to find a playoff game in Steelers history we lost being favored as much as the 7½ points versus Denver.

The history books will forever see that a 12-4 team led by Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger and having a top-5 defense losing against an 8-8 team led by John Fox and Tim Tebow (a team that went 4-12 the previous season).  There are plenty of in-depth realistic excuses for why this happened.  How the game was close due to injuries.  How the Steelers hobbled into the post season offensively.

But the truth is when Roethlisberger retires, we’re not going to remember that.  Just as we don’t remember all the details surrounding our home playoff exit to Jacksonville in 2007 (a team that has gone 25-39 since).

In fact, this game was eerily similar to that Jack Del Rio and David Gerrard loss five seasons ago (another that rankles me considerably).  In both instances the team started poorly and fell behind at halftime due to wasted offensive opportunities.  In both instances the offense sparked a late comeback.  And in both instances, the defense ended up having a huge breakdown that lost the game.

Honestly, this is a loss on the resume of Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger that I’m not sure they ever overcome.  You might think that’s overstating such a meaningless game, but I disagree.

I have stated time and again (sometimes yelled) that this organization failed to capitalize on a rare opportunity to be a great team.  The failings are across the board, from ownership to player acquisition to coaching and player execution and preparation.

For all the apparent great things we accomplish, the inconsistencies in the team’s performance year-to-year eliminates any and all talk of “greatness” to me.  Great teams don’t lose to Tim Tebow.  Great teams don’t lose to David Gerrard at home.  Great teams don’t miss the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl.  I don’t care how injured, how beat up, how hobbled, how broken down the roster is, a great coach, an elite quarterback and a deep roster find ways to win those games.

Believe me, I’m not saying in either 2007 or 2011 the Steelers were legit super bowl contenders.  The chances to run the table after wildcard weekend were certainly bleak in each case.  But to so easily bow out of the tournament speaks volumes to me about the Tomlin and Roethlisberger and what this organization finds acceptable.

It is three weeks later and I’m still upset, frustrated and angry at this organization.

The game itself exemplified all the little things that knowledgeable fans harp about week-in and week-out about this team.  Failure to capitalize offensively (starting the game with two FG’s after dominating the 1st quarter).  Stubborn game plans that don’t change or adjust due to the circumstances in the game.  Breakdowns in game management.

We lost to a high school offense.  An offense that ran a simple QB running option attack and threw the ball long 10 times hoping something good would happen.  And it did.  Partly because of the arrogant defense we played encourage Tebow to throw long into one-on-one matchups and partly because the players just failed to execute.

It was arrogant of us to think Demaryius Thomas (who I’m sure we scouted heavily in 2010) would not have a physical advantage vs. Ike Taylor man-to-man.  Thomas was a 1st round pick for a reason.  He is raw and doesn’t read defenses or run routes well.  But to give him simple man-to-man situations where his 6’3½”, 225 lbs. athleticism can shine was a terrible decision.  This was particularly poor between the 20’s with so much real estate to defend deep.

As soon as our linemen rotation was decimated due to injury a game plan change should have been implemented, but under Tomlin’s regime that NEVER happens.  Not once have I seen their game plan change due to injury (on both sides).  You saw that in Super Bowl XLIV when Charles Woodson left the game.  You see that when Eric Decker left the game.  You see it when both Hampton and Keisel left the game.

Instead of realizing the pass rush in altitude wasn’t working and trying more coverage/zone tactics against Tebow, we blitzed MORE to compensate and exposed our secondary to even tougher assignments.

I have a tough time even saying we were “out-coached” because I’m not sure John Fox had to coach at all.  Their offensive game plan presented itself based entirely on how the Steelers played.  Tebow HAD to throw deep because that’s what we gave them.  Instead of making Tebow throw timing routes outside the numbers (which he can’t do), we gave him opportunities to just throw it up for grabs.  Instead of seeing a depleted receiving core and making them send receivers into patterns, we let them max protect and send their best 2-3 receivers out on routes.

As stated before, I am EMBARRESSED by how we prepared and played this game.  And no amount of “we weren’t going anywhere with those injuries” is going to change my mind that you have to take advantage of playoff wins as an organization.

Roethlisberger had 10 career playoff wins before age 30.  The record is now 16 (and counting) by Tom Brady.  There is no doubt in my mind Roethlisberger should have two more.

The accomplishments Roethlisberger most has a chance to become all-time great in is playoff victories as a starting quarterback.  It could (and should) be his legacy as a player.  The super bowl appearances are there (2 wins, 1 loss).  It’s just a matter of padding your stats a bit when the opportunities present themselves and hoping the team has one or two runs deep into the playoffs when the circumstances are right (health, matchups).

I will end my rant with this comment.

In Bill Cowher’s 16 year career with the Steelers, he had only ONE loss against a team with as poor a coach/quarterback combination as what Tomlin and Roethlisberger have now done twice (Del Rio/Gerrard and Fox/Tebow).  That was the 1994 home loss against the Bobby Ross/Stan Humphries Chargers in the AFC Championship game.  However, even that loss was when Cowher had Neil O’Donnell (not hall-of-famer Roethlisberger).

All of Cowher’s remaining playoff losses were against superior coach/quarterback combination:

Jim Kelly & Marv Levy (1992)
Joe Montana & Marty Schottenheimer (1993)
Troy Aikman & Barry Switzer (1995)
Drew Bledsoe & Bill Parcells (1996)
John Elway & Mike Shanahan (1997)
Tom Brady & Bill Belichick (2001)
Steve McNair & Jeff Fisher (2002)
Tom Brady & Bill Belichick (2004)

Read that list again and explain to me how I can “accept” losing to John Fox and Tim Tebow.  Really?  There are legitimate excuses I’m supposed to consider in this context?

I’m actually shocked so many Steelers fans are as apathetic about this loss as is.  There is a general ho-hum attitude from many that it “wasn’t our year”. 

I call bullshit.

I would have loved another crack at New England or Baltimore even as big underdogs.  I actually saw a fan write “I’d rather lose to Tebow now that Tom Brady next week.”

That’s awful.

We should have expected more.

Go Steelers in 2012!!!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Steelers Weeks 12-17

Steelers 13     Chiefs 9
Pittsburgh     -11     @Kansas City     42     -700  +500
Win Probability 85.42%

Steelers 35     Bengals 7
@Pittsburgh     -7     Cincinnati     42.5     -310  +260
Win Probability 73.92%

Steelers 14     Browns 3
@Pittsburgh     -14     Cleveland     40     -1100  +750
Win Probability 89.95%

Steelers 3     49ers 20
@San Francisco     -3     Pittsburgh     37     -165  +145
Win Probability 39.28%

Steelers 27     Rams 0
@Pittsburgh     -10     St. Louis     33.5     -500  +400
Win Probability 81.67%

Steelers 13     Browns 9
Pittsburgh     -7     @Cleveland     33     -330  +270
Win Probability 74.86%

The injury situation I was so optimistic about during our bye week has not turned out to be positive.  Highlighted by Ben Roethlisberger’s severe ankle sprain and Rashard Mendenhall’s torn ACL the last week of the season, this team appears more worn down now than six weeks ago and so much so it could severely impact our playoff run.

That said, we did take care of business as I had hoped, albeit with some ugly offensive performances.  The team ended with a very respectable 12-4 record but lost the tie-breaker to a resilient Ravens team that deservedly won the division due to their regular season sweep.

The team now travels on the road for the wildcard round of the playoffs where they meet the Tim Tebow led 8-8 Denver Broncos, a game we are currently favored by 8½ points.

The final stretch of the 2011 season is highlighted by additional struggles on the offensive side of the ball but improved and clutch defensive play.  All six games above came in under the Las Vegas point totals.  The defense allowed an absurd 8.0 points per game while the offense struggled and only scored 17.5, including only 30 total points in Roethlisberger’s last three starts on his injured ankle (CLE, @SF, @CLE).

It was ugly December football and there is really no denying that.

The question becomes whether we can continue to win this way come playoff time and if not what part of the puzzle has to change?

The game versus Denver probably won’t answer much.  Despite being heavy favorites you have to expect another ugly, grueling, low-scoring game.  The offense under Roethlisberger has just not consistently executed enough to think we can score 20+ points without defensive help and holding Denver under 10 seems likely unless our offense helps them.

A zero turnover game clearly favors the Steelers to outlast the Broncos based on their deeper talent base and physicality.  But in any low scoring game turnovers, missed FG’s, or even one defensive lapse can mean the difference between winning and losing.

After Sunday, who knows?  I would suspect injuries finally catch up to us, but I also am not afraid of either New England or Baltimore, or think either is an impossible matchup.  I would not be shocked if we gut-out a victory vs. either.  The hard part doing that three straight times for a world championship (we will likely be underdogs every remaining game of the playoffs after this week).

I will delve into a lot more statistical analysis of the regular season in the coming months but as of now, I’ll say the season has been a success, despite losing the division to Baltimore.  Twelve win seasons are nothing to sneeze at in the NFL.  It was unfortunate half our losses came against our arch-rivals, but the roles were reversed a year ago and maybe this is just karma evening things out.  Hopefully that karma doesn’t extend into the playoffs and the Steelers can rock the boat as a wildcard.  Nothing would please me more than getting another shot at the Ravens this post-season and beating them.

While the record the Steelers accomplished was exactly as I predicted in August, how we accomplished it is not close.  I suspected a drop off with the defense and an MVP caliber season from Roethlisberger.  That didn’t happen.  The defense remained very good but did not generate the turnovers or sacks of previous seasons.  They ranked 3rd in points allowed/possession, 8th in Drive Success Rate, and 4th in defensive passer rating (actually a better rating than 2010).  Football Outsiders ranked the defense 7th overall.

The offense was below expectations due almost entirely to turnovers and red zone production.  The Steelers ranked 29th in turnovers per possession and failed to convert points on 16 of 53 trips into the red zone.  This led to a huge disparity in our Drive Success Rate (72.2%, 6th), which is the highest ever during Roethlisberger’s career, versus points scored per possession (1.86, 14th).

In many ways if the light bulb ever goes off with this offensive unit, if we can avoid turnovers and score TD’s in the red zone (at least stop turning it over!), then we might be able to catch fire in the playoffs and make a run at a championship.  I know it seems unlikely (that’s way too many if’s), but it’s not impossible.  This team just needs to execute a clean game, play smart and play within themselves.

I’m not giving up.

This has not been Roethlisberger’s best season but he has made some magical post-season runs before.  Let’s have some faith and see what happens.

Go Steelers!!!