I know that feeling you were feeling. All of Steelers Nation felt it. What feeling, you ask? The feeling I am referring to is the twinge of incalculable pain and immeasurable sadness that you, fine Pittsburgher, felt this past Sunday as you watched the Baltimore Ravens trample over the carcass of the New England Patriots’ dynasty, then proceed to characteristically hoot and holler at the television cameras about their Wild Card success.
Unfortunately, no amount of pillow punching and/or hard drinking could remedy the seething toothache pain brought on by Ray Lewis — pork pie hat tipped over his eyes — praising the work of his teammates at the post-game podium with the kind of canned, faux-humble sincerity usually fashioned by politicians and Amway salesmen.
As he waxed poetic with a spoken word softness about the journey and the work and the commitment and all the clichés in the NFL handbook, you knew deep down inside that what Mr. Lewis really wanted to do was step away from the microphone bouquet, toss his silly hat aside and do his little celebratory chicken dance.
Lewis’ whole routine, accompanied by the CBS studio crew’s congratulatory yuck-up, hurt our souls. For Steelers fans, and probably the Steelers themselves – if they weren’t preoccupied swimming with dolphins or having somesuch millionaire fun – it was hard not to think, “if only it had been us in the dance instead of the Pats, we would have wiped the smirk off Lewis’ face.”
As the Steelers were cleaning out their lockers last week, there was an undercurrent of we-deserved-it injustice in every hushed, shoe-gazing exit interview. Hines Ward looked like someone stole his bowl of cornflakes. So, did the 9-7 Steelers really get screwed, or did they all just come down with a severe case of whaaa-mnesia?
On one hand, it’s hard to believe that a team could have the audacity to think they belong in the playoffs after a regular season in which they let up 300 passing yards to a bald man from Seton-La Salle named Bruce Gradkowski and then somehow mustered the indifference to follow up on that dreadful performance with a loss to a Cleveland Browns team led by sensitive man-child Brady Quinn. That’s not the stuff of playoff teams.
On the other hand, the statistics from the 2009 Steelers season are, literally, surreal. Imagine for a second that it is August 2009 – back when you could walk out of your house without your tears freezing to your face and when Pittsburgh sports media luminaries like Mark Madden and Ron Cook were predicting that the Steelers would finish the regular season undefeated.
Imagine that we are living in those glorious, hopeful times and Pulling No Punches visits you from the future to tell you that the following things will happen during the 2009 regular season:
- Ben Roethlisberger will pass for more than 4,000 yards, including 26 TDs and only 12 interceptions.
- Rashard Mendenhall will rush for 1,100 yards.
- The defense will be ranked fifth in the league in yards against.
If you had known those three pieces of information in August, would you have bet your mortgage that the Steelers would win the AFC North? I would have.
The 2009 Steelers might be the best 9-7 team in NFL history – and not just on paper or in videogames, but on the field as well. Don’t believe it? Chew on this nugget: In 2009, the Steelers were out-gained by opposing running backs just three times. Three. Times. To the delight of Medicare recipients across the Steel City, Smash Mouth Football© is still alive and well.
Think the Steelers’ undersized secondary was the problem? Here, Super Size your nuggets: Ben Roethlisberger was out-gained by opposing quarterbacks just six times in 2009, and for all the flack that the Steelers’ secondary received in print and at the water cooler, the pass defense still finished a respectable 16th in the league. Other playoff teams, like the Vikings (19th), Cowboys (20th) and Saints (26th), actually gave up more yards in the air. So please take off your “I Don’t Like Ike” buttons, because Mr. Taylor did quite alright considering the absence of safety Troy Polamalu.
So, if the Steelers were so awesome, what the hell happened?
The Steelers lived off of big plays in 2008 and won a Super Bowl because of momentum-swinging, towel-waving, Renegade-playing acts of bravado. James Harrison’s 100-yard touchdown return in Super Bowl 43 was really a metaphor for the entire season: dramatic, remarkable, sort of unbelievable. But in 2009 they died by that same sword.
In short, the Steelers were haunted by the ghost of Mr. Plaxico Burress. Nursing a bit of a Super Bowl hangover, the Steelers never bothered to change out of their sweatpants, so they shot themselves in the leg, repeatedly.
Take these gut-punching statistics for example:
- Roethlisberger was sacked for a total of 348 yards in 2009, compared to 284 last season. For comparison, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers — a quarterback of equal repute — was sacked for only 167 yards this season. The NFL Films 2009 Steelers Season Review DVD should be titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.”
- The special teams allowed four kickoff return touchdowns, tied for the most permitted by any team since 1994. The Steelers ranked 30th in kickoff coverage and 24th in punt return coverage. On average, opponents started their drives against the Steelers on the 31 yard line. This is preposterous.
- Kicker Jeff Reed went 14/18 on field goals. But all of his misses came in the second half of games, and three of those four clunkers happened in the 4th quarter. For the first time in his career, Reed demoralized more teammates than South Side co-eds.
Reed will likely be waving goodbye to the ‘Burgh and its many affordable watering holes this off-season, and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky has already been axed. However, head coach Mike Tomlin’s feverish shuffling of special teams personnel during the season proved that no matter the number on the jersey, the same heart beat underneath. A timid one.
For all the sterling statistics and what-ifs and fiery rhetoric that defined the 2009 season, one thing really stood out: No one seemed terribly interested in making a damn tackle. Sometimes, football is that simple.
Back in August, I poked fun at the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik for writing a column titled, “Steelers are so good they’re boring.” I thought Smizik, with his decades of experience, should know better. The fortunes of NFL teams swing wildly year-to-year based on emotion, momentum and healthy dose of unpredictable cruelty. This is the league of Any Given Sunday, after all. I didn’t buy into Smizik’s sense of invincibility.
Unfortunately, the Steelers seemed to until the bitter end.