If nothing else, the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers embrace symmetry.
For two straight weeks an understaffed Steelers squad has jumped to an early lead thanks to an unlikely contributor
- Vs. Baltimore it was Byron Leftwich running 31 yards for a touchdown on the 3rd play from scrimmage
- Vs. Cleveland it was Lawrence Timmon’s pick six on the 4th play from scrimmage
Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to adversity. In fact, under some circumstances, they thrive on it.
The starts to Pittsburgh’s last two games called to mind a similar time when a wounded Steelers squad had to play with the deck stacked against them.
Remember the Steelers 2010 road trip vs. the Titans, where no one but the Steelers gave themselves gave them a chance to win? Recall that during that game, the Steelers:
- Started the game with a quick strike touchdown
- Followed with one of the greatest defensive performances in franchise history
- Found ways to overcome both pregame and in game injuries
Against the Ravens and again against the Browns the Steelers began following a similar template and then backed it up by playing some pretty stout defense, only to watch things fall apart anyway.
The question is, why?
Turnovers Are Symptom, Not Cause….
Injuries are a reality of the NFL. Injuries often serve as an equalizing force.
That much, is easy enough to understand. Subtract a few All-Pros or, worse yet, force a team to play a green third or fourth string rookie, and you expect bad things to happen.
Yet, while the above scenario is common enough in the NFL, it is far from the rule.
- In the ’90’s ESPN’s Tom Jackson and Chris Berman constantly reminded viewers “No one circles the wagons like the Bills” to explain Buffalo’s ability to overcome injury
- The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV with 16 players on IR
How is it that sometimes some teams can buck logic? Is it because sometimes an organization just comes across an uncanny stroke of luck?
No, that’s not it.
Coaches and commentators attribute such feats to “heart,” “believing in themselves,” “wanting it more,” or “stepping it up.”
The characteristics embodied in those clichés all are relevant to overcoming injury-induced adversity in the NFL. But, alone they are not enough.
- For any to become truly effective, a team needs another element to bring them together: Focus.
Former Washington DC area sports commentator Ken Beatrice used to explain that focus is what allows the elderly Kung Fu master to put his hand through bricks he has no business breaking. Its what allowed Michael Jordan to put the ball through hoop with the game on the line.
Focus enabled Franco Harris to author the most improbable play in NFL history.
The difference in the football game for the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Cleveland Browns wasn’t the turnovers. You read that correctly because the turnovers were symptom of a more fundamental problem that plagued the team – lack of focus.
Consider the following:
- Chris Rainey answered Cleveland’s first touchdown with a 31 yard kick return, only to have it erased by a penalty
- The Steelers 1st series of the 2nd half saw them: negate 9 yard pass to Mike Wallace with a penalty, throw passes for -1 yard and 2 yards, commit a delay of game penalty
That brought up 3rd and 19 at the Steelers 12. A nine yard pass to Heath Miller allowed them to punt from the 21, which is where they’d started the “drive.”
A similar series later in the third quarter saw the Steelers start at their own 18, advance to the 29, and then go all the way back to the 7 yard line – thanks to penalties.
Focus allows extraordinary players to make ordinary plays at critical junctures (think Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs. the Ravens in the AFC Championship.) Ordinary players make plays they didn’t think they were capable of when they are extremely focused (think Merril Hoge in the ’89 playoffs.)
When players lose focus, passes bounce off of hands, a grip tightens on a jersey when you didn’t want it to, and opponents become just a tad bit more skillful in their attempts to strip the ball.
“Very few games are ‘won’ in the National Football League. Its more often a case of one team losing.” – WMAL/WTEM sports anchor Ken Beatrice, on many occasions
When you turn over the ball 8 times in the NFL, you expect to lose. But in spite of the fact that Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Chris Rainey lost four fumbles and Charlie Batch threw 3 interceptions, the Steelers were in this game until the very end.
That’s due to the heroic effort put forth by the Steelers defense.
For two straight weeks, the Steelers defense has done its part to “step it up” and carry an extra part of the load for an ailing offense.
And for two straight weeks we’ve seen a mix of young, mid career, and aging Steelers veterans answer the call.
- James Harrison, Brett Keisel, and Jason Worilds came through with sacks
- Steve McLendon, Ryan Clark, and Larry Foote helped stuff the run
- Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Clark shut down the Browns receivers
But in the end it was not enough. And, like the Baltimore game, its hard to ask them to do more, the Steelers defense also had focus issues at times. The Steelers let two, if not three interceptions slip through their fingers on an afternoon when Pittsburgh desperately needed a momentum changer.
Credit the Cleveland Browns for taking advantage for collapsing on the opportunity the Pittsburgh Steelers laid at their feet.
But make no mistake about it. The Browns did not “win this game.” The Pittsburgh Steelers lost it because they suffered from a chronic lack of focus.