In the run up to the Steelers Wild Card game vs. the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, I invoked the ’89 Steelers, offering that with the odds against Pittsburgh getting to the Super Bowl, this was their chance to claim redemption for the ’89 playoff loss.
Unfortunately, it was underdog Tim Tebow who captured the mojo of the 1989 Steelers, as he and Demaryius Thomas sent the Steelers 2011 season to a crashing halt, and ending that was eerily similar to another Steelers team from that era.
By any measure, the Steelers loss to Denver counts as a tremendous upset and a huge let down, but in a sense loss served as a microcosm for the Steelers 2011 season.
Yes, We Have Seen This Movie Before
When the NFL’s number one pass defense limits the NFL’s worst passer to 10 lowly completions you’d generally concluded that things are playing out as they “should.”
The problem is that with those ten lowly pass Tim Tebow torched Ike Taylor and the Steelers secondary for 310 yards. During the entire season, which included games against the like of Tom Brady and Joe Flacco, the Steelers only gave up 2 completions for longer than 40 yards.
- Tim Tebow more than surpassed that total in the second quarter alone.
For as shocking as that may be this kind of turnaround has its precedent in Steelers history. The 1990 Steelers finished number one in defense overall and number one vs. the pass. During the season they allowed a league-low nine touchdown passes.
The problem was that they gave up three of those in a final, must win game at the hands of Cody Carlson, a journeyman back up who was subbing for Warren Moon. (Carlson, in fact finished 22-29 on the night.)
Ending the Way We Started
The reasons for Carlson’s success are of course different from the reasons why Tebow was so successful.
- The reasons for the Steelers failure vs. Tebow are far more damming, unfortunately.
Mike Tomlin’s rational behind “the standard is the standard” is that the fact that someone is in the NFL to begin with means that they’re already in the top one half of the one percent of the world’s football playing population. Therefore, the expectation is that everyone in that talent pool is capable of winning football.
The Steelers have embraced that credo when it comes to their own personnel, but made the deadly sin of forgetting it when it comes to others. We perhaps saw glimpses of that vs. the Colts, Jaguars and Chiefs, but that reality was painfully obvious at Mile High.
The Steelers stacked the line and dared Tebow to throw on him and Tebow made him play. As my friend and colleague Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain writes:
Taylor’s failures were not technique, they were with overconfidence. And frankly, every Steelers defender can be accused of that today. They didn’t respect the Broncos offense, and were going for the interception on every pass.
I’m ok with it. Why? Because I was saying all week they can gamble and force turnovers. They gambled and they lost.
Before the game week Brett Keisel said that Dick LeBeau and company were not doing anything special to prepare for Tebow which I took to be pregame boiler plate misinformation. Its obvious now that Keisel was telling the truth.
In September an unprepared and overconfident Steelers team opened the season by traveling to Baltimore and got its asses handed to it. The sad fact is that the Steelers pass defense closed the season in the same fashion.
The Standard is the Standard. True enough. The Steelers failed to take advantage of the chances they had to win this game. But let’s also keep in mind that the Steelers opened the game without:
- Rashard Mendenhall, their number one running back
- Maukice Pouncey, their Pro Bowl Center
- Ryan Clark, their leading tackler
- Cortez Allen, a stand out rookie cornerback
Ben Roethlisberger played on an injured ankle, Keenan Lewis on a bum hamstring, and during the first quarter the Steelers lost Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, and during the course of the game Max Starks would also fall injured.
LaMarr Woodley was playing, but did not seem to be himself and had to be spelled by Jason Worilds.
In the face of such adversity the Pittsburgh Steelers withstood a withering attack on their secondary, found themselves litteraly short of bodies on the defesnive line, yet fought back valiantly.
- Isaac Redman played a phenomenal game, living every bit up the standard for Steelers running backs at Mile High that Merril Hoge set in 1989
- Emmanuel Sanders also let it be known that Antonio Brown isn’t the team’s only up and coming stud receiver.
- Ben Roethlisberger led three scoring drives, including one of his patented game-tying fourth quarter touchdown specials
- Ryan Mundy, who must share of the blame for the secondary’s breakdown, forced the fumble that made the game tying touchdown possible.
While the 2011 Steelers had better luck than some other teams with injuries, all season long they’ve had to shift men in, out and around the line up. Rarely has a week gone by where the Steelers didn’t need to shift one offensive lineman out of one position and into another.
And so it was vs. the Broncos. No, the Steelers didn’t get the job done, but that in no way diminishes the valor of their efforts.
“Great teams don’t need to be great all of the time, just when they need to be.” – John Facenda, NFL Films commentary on Super Bowl XIV
The 1979 Los Angeles Rams gave the 1979 Steelers a very strong run for their money in Super Bowl XIV. But as John Facenda explained in leading up to John Stallworth’s go ahead 4th quarter touchdown catch, the Steelers made plays when it counted.
In a similar vein, the 2008 Super Bowl Champion Steelers played their very best football when it was all on the line time and time again during their season.
In contrast, their 2011 successors did just the opposite – they came up short at the wrong times, whether it was the final drive vs. Baltimore or keeping Roethlisberger in the game in San Francisco (and arguably vs. Cleveland) instead of making sure he was healthy to start the playoffs.
And so it was vs. the Broncos.
The Steelers succeeded in neutralizing Denver’s running attack but lost badly by gambling in the secondary. Offensively the Steelers had some great individual performances, but couldn’t quite get the job done.
The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers had all of the elements of greatness at their disposal, but ultimately couldn’t put the pieces together when it mattered.