I have a few points to make about yesterday’s last minute Steelers loss to the Buccaneers, and no wish to belabor any of them. Sixteen hours later, the sting is still fresh and the taste still bitter. It was one of the most frustrating losses in my recent memory, or, at any rate, has temporarily crowded out all other contenders from my personal shortlist. I certainly have no desire to detract from the performance of Tampa Bay, who were game, opportunistic, resilient, and tenacious in victory. Though Tampa played well enough to win, I also don’t think it’s homerism to suggest that, by most objective measures, the Steelers on the whole outplayed them. They moved the ball, often with ease, and for much of the game held close to a threefold advantage on Tampa in terms of yards gained. The Bucs parlayed a crippling turnover into an early lead but then seemed to succumb to our offensive pressure and relative defensive competence, before the Steelers, who have a well-established recent history of playing down to lesser competition, shot themselves in the foot late, taking it off the gas in the process. FOX play-by-play man Thom Brennaman, who as a moonlighting Cincinnati Reds broadcaster seems to me to take tangible pleasure in subtly devaluing all things Pittsburgh whenever the opportunity presents itself, called it the biggest upset of the season. No doubt it’s in the discussion, hyperbole aside. He had his narrative ducks in a row all afternoon, repeatedly reminding the audience how thoroughly Tampa had been “humiliated” in its recent Thursday Night Football loss to Atlanta. You might think Pittsburgh, who suffered its own share of TNF humiliation against blood rivals Baltimore in week 2 only to bounce back hard last week in Carolina, would well know the mindset of the cornered but talented team seeking to pull itself back from the brink with ten days’ time to prepare. You wouldn’t know this team if you did.
With the season now a quarter gone, it could be that nobody knows this team yet, not its coaches, not its players, not the national intelligentsia – for whom each new victory or loss seems to represent a ten-position shift up/down in the Power Rankings – and certainly not the fans, who may still be suffering from whiplash following the resounding thud of yesterday’s final minutes, not to mention the season’s first four games in total. It has already been a wild ride. For one half against Cleveland, the Steelers looked like absolute world beaters; the second half of that same game saw them hanging on for dear life. The Baltimore loss was close to a massacre. The Carolina win was resounding and had the fan base dreaming gossamer dreams anew. And then, yesterday. The Steelers rebounded with such unity and strength of purpose from their early 10-point deficit that the game soon seemed destined to follow the Carolina script. Antonio Brown’s ascension to the very top of the League’s receiving ranks continued unabated with a 7-reception, 131-yard, 2 TD day, and beloved workhorse TE Heath Miller made a welcome splash with a career-high nine receptions, one of which was a touchdown and another of which vaulted him past HOFer Lynn Swann for fourth on the team’s all-time receiving yards list. Ben Roethlisberger had an excellent statistical day (29 for 40, 314 yards, 3 TDs) and actually became the twelfth quarterback in NFL history to pass the 35,000-yard mark. Some cracks in the armor were still visible, and would’ve seemed galling at the time if not for the overall sense that Pittsburgh had the game well in hand. The Bucs, always stout up front, largely stifled the ground attack that had wreaked such havoc in Charlotte, holding reigning FedEx “Ground Player of the Week” LeVeon Bell* to 63 yards on 19 carries and sacking Roethlisberger five times in the first half. For all their dependability and heroics, Brown also dropped a sure touchdown that might well have put the game out of conceivable reach and Miller had a first down conversion carom off his fingertips. Our offense is a thing of utter beauty when it is purring, but all too often the Steelers’ inability to convert critical third downs springs up at precisely the most inopportune time.
*Nominate a Steeler for ANYTHING open to fan vote, and his win is almost assured. Ours is a deep and diffused national fan base, eager at all times to publicly reinforce its high opinion of both itself and the team it so passionately loves. I can’t help thinking that all these in-season accolades never do us any favors. Just as there’s a thin line between confidence and cockiness, one I think we rarely cross (and even if so, our rocky results should hopefully guard against that and somewhat ground us), there is also a thin line between confidence and complacency, one which we tend to handle less gracefully. Brett Keisel opined the other day that the Steelers need to play with an underdog mentality, and I couldn’t agree more. Properly motivated and focused, this is definitely a team to be reckoned with. Unfocused, they are more often a greek tragedy waiting to happen.
And then there were the penalties. The vile, vile penalties.
Brown and Bell are both undeniably stars on the rise, but their extracurricular antics cost us 15 yards apiece. Bell got lippy with a Buccaneer who took exception to his first down observance (even though 80% of the league mimics Ed Hochuli in one way or another when they get first down yardage), while Brown just couldn’t restrain himself from trying out a new nonsensical touchdown celebration (never test in production, screams the quality assurance analyst in me). Even though Brown flipped the ball to the ref on the occasion of his second touchdown, their immaturity and lack of discipline was emblematic of the Steelers’ play, as the team was penalized 13 times for a mind-numbing 125 yards, including six so-called personal fouls in total. Asking a team of any talent level to overcome 125 yards in penalties is already asking the moon. Late drive after late drive was either stalled on offense or extended on defense by awful and untimely penalties, until, after the Steelers were unable to ice the game with a final first down, the Buccaneers regained the ball near mid-field, down four with under a minute to go. The Steelers defense seemed to slightly but noticeably degrade as the day wore on, and a sense of disbelief settled over fans on both sides of the television screen. The loss of Ike Taylor and Ryan Shazier was more pronounced than it was last week, as green corners were repeatedly burned for first down yardage and replacement linebackers tried valiantly but failed just enough to make the result stick. When a moderate completion got the Bucs inside the Steelers’ ten-yard-line with forty seconds left on the clock, I saw two Tampa wide receivers embracing and celebrating as if they’d just won and wanted to protest, but did not. It all seemed ordained. The fact remains that for everything – for how well the Steelers played in responding to Tampa’s early knockdown, for how well they handled the Buccaneers on multiple levels for the majority of the game only to be a fingertip or costly penalty away, multiple times, from salting things completely, for how well Tampa responded with its collective back against the wall and battled back strong – the Steelers still had four downs and forty seconds to keep Tampa out of the end zone, but couldn’t do it. Mike Glennon to Vincent Jackson it went, and that was the ballgame. Drive safely everybody.
That’s also the NFL, of course, which on a weekly basis provides either the thrill of victory or agony of defeat in concentrated blasts suitable for destroying psyches and planets in equal measure. It’s called professional football for a reason. There shouldn’t be any easy games, no penciled-in wins on the schedule, no contests that ever require less than your best effort, or concentration, and that axiom is proving uncomfortably true for the 2014 Steelers, who, even after an acute dose of heartache, are still 2-2 after four games. Last year’s 0-4 start was unequivocally disastrous, and, even then, the Steelers would’ve made the playoffs had then-Chiefs placekicker Ryan Succop not been, metaphorically of course, falling down drunk in the final minutes against San Diego. We can rally together with the best of them. I just wish we wouldn’t dig the hole in the first place. I saw plenty to be encouraged by yesterday, if not proud of. Our offensive weaponry is pretty much as advertised, and potentially devastating. We can move the ball in space dependably if not chained to a conservative gameplan. James Harrison didn’t look entirely out of his depth a mere three weeks removed from retirement, noted Cams Heyward and Thomas applied some decent pressure, and Arthur Moats had a sack. The pass defense remains porous, however, and the properly motivated opponent seems able to drive the ball downfield in large chunks almost at will. The front seven did a fine job against the run but still didn’t generate sufficient pressure. There were maddening drops at exactly the wrong time, and then, of course, there were those vast acres of penalties, which absolutely must be mitigated immediately. Head coach Mike Tomlin harped and hammered on the penalties after the game, steering conversation away, I think properly, from the other possibly contributing factors and accepting full responsibility for the team’s chronic lack of discipline. “If we don’t fix this,” he said, “we’re going to continue losing close games.” Steeler Nation nods its collective head in agreement, or, I imagine, at least those do who are not still in shock.
On Steelers.com, there is currently embedded a fan poll question, which reads, “Which AFC North team do you think will be the Steelers’ biggest challenge this season?” and then lists our three division rivals. With due respect to the Bengals, who thus far look like the class of not just the division but the conference, the disgustingly resilient Ravens, and the hard-charging but young Browns, I personally think they left one AFC North team off that list of options.