What Went Wrong for the Steelers in 2009?

How did it happen? How did the Steelers fall so far, so fast?

12 months ago they stood atop all pro football. Victory in Super Bowl XLIII transformed the Steelers into the NFL’s sole posseser of Six Lombardi trophies.

Pittsburgh had no peer.

Stairway to Seven was supposed the song of 2009. 20 plus veterans from Super Bowl XL were to negate any chance of a Super Bowl hang over. Instead, the Steelers would embarrass ESPN for prematurely picking the Patriots as the decade’s dominate team.

None of it happened.

There are many reasons for this. No one has a definitive answer.

Steel Curtain Rising offers one interpretation here. Some of it objective, some is subjective, and the rest a mix between the two. Everything is interelated of course, but the reasons for the Steelers failures breakdown along these five themes:

Falling Off the Edge
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
Less Bang for the Buck
“…Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Into the Looking Glass Mike Tomlin

Falling Off the Edge

Sample Steelers fans for the Steelers 2009 season’s defining image, and they’ll likely suggest:

  • Carlson Palmer’s completion on 4th down late in the fourth quarter in week three
  • Return men scurrying through the Steelers kick coverage units in route to the end zone
  • The dropped interceptions against Kansas City and Oakland
  • Ray Rice’s 40 yard plus scramble to keep Baltimore’s game tying drive alive
  • Ben Roethlisberger getting sacked on the Steelers final offensive play against Cleveland

These were pivotal plays in the Steelers 2009 season, all are worthy of mention.

But Steel Curtain Rising has one you won’t find else where:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown to Hines Ward that put the Steelers up 10-7 in the 2nd against KC.

Think back to the play. The Steelers were in the Red Zone. The line was giving Ben a ridiculous amount of time, and the Chiefs had totally blow the coverage, as Ben found Ward standing still in the end zone.

It was beautiful. In scoring the touchdown the Steelers displayed the nonchalance of Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And that’s the problem.

As Steel Curtain Rising mentioned during training camp, the 2008 were never more dangerous then when they looked to be hopelessly on the ropes. Against Jacksonville, San Diego, Dallas, twice against Baltimore, and of course in the Super Bowl against Arizona, these Steelers found themselves behind late in the 4th.

Each time they rallied for victory, and each rally was more dramatic than the last.

Such experience can fortify a team’s will, often it does.

  • But perhaps there’s a fine line between coolness under fire and complacency or, at the very least, a lack of urgency.

In 2008 the Steelers lived on the edge and thrived on it. Instead of stepping up on the edge in 2009, the Steelers fell off it.

This tendency was just as apparent in the fourth quarter meltdowns, as it was in the failed third down conversions on offense, in large gains given up on third and short by the defense, in the lack of turnovers, and in repeated Red Zone possessions that went for naught.

The killer instinct that served the Steelers so well in 2008 was absent in 2009, and it cost them dearly.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Mike Tomlin’s “unleash hell in December” declaration will be debated elsewhere. For all of Tomlin’s bluster, he was taking about something he did not control.

Tomlin’s comments about things he could control are far more interesting, such as:

  • The disparity between the treatment of Jeff Reed and Santonio Holmes
  • Commitments to give special teams equal footing with everything else
  • Promises to make roster changes that seldom materialized

There is an apparent disparity between Tomlin’s words and actions. This disparity did not cause the broken plays that spelled doom for the Steelers. But discontinuity between a coach’s words and deeds rarely results in continuity on the field.

Less Bang for the Buck

“Blitzburgh” from Behind the Steel Curtain has made an excellent point about how the salary cap affected Pittsburgh in 2009.

“Blitzburgh” did detailed research and spent serious time putting the piece together, and Steel Curtain Rising will do him courtesy of recommending that everyone read his post (click here to read.)

In a nutshell, the essence of his argument is easy to summarize. Because players like Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison had much, much higher cap values in 2009, the Steelers were forced to release men like Carey Davis and Anthony Madison in favor of rookies like Frank “the Tank” Summers and cheaper veterans like Keiwan Ratliff.

  • The Steelers quickly regretted and repented both moves.

Success in the salary cap era is about getting the most bang for your buck. The Steelers had much greater difficulty pulling that off in 2009 than in 2008.

Wars are not won by evacuations
– Winston Churchill, June 4th, 1940; following the miracle at Dunkirk

Respect for sacrifices made for freedom and justice demands recognition that the stakes in Europe in 1940 and for the Steelers in 2009 are in no way analogous.

But if that’s true, then it is also true the Steelers would be wise to heed the moral of the message. Churchill’s was telling Britain that however miraculous the rescue of 300,000 men might have been, Britain had only managed to live to fight another day.

And so it is with Pittsburgh today.

The Steelers were a team in a total tail spin following the loss to Cleveland. They were learning to lose. Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola as much concluded that the team had quit on Tomlin.

But Tomlin broke the team’s nosedive. The players fought tooth and nail until the very last play of their final three games, and all three contests were decided on the final series.

As Art Rooney II told the Tribune Review’s Scott Brown:

It showed something about Mike that he’s not going to let a team give up on itself. That’s the kind of coach we thought he was, and I think he obviously had a significant challenge to get us through this year. While there were disappointments about the season, that aspect of it was a good sign for the future.

Rooney is right.

Finishing the year with an eight game losing streak would have had repercussions lasting into 2010 and beyond.

Credit Tomlin for rallying the troops, but be clear that it only means the Steelers would live to fight another day. Mike Tomlin still has some soul searching to do.

Into the Looking Glass Coach Tomlin

Mike Tomlin is an excellent coach.

A rookie coach doesn’t take a team furious over the departure of their coach, number one linebacker, and impending departure of their only All Pro guard to a division title in his first year and then for, an encore, win a Super Bowl during his sophomore season.

The knock on Tomlin during 2007 was that his team played down to the competition after they dropped games to the:

  • 7-9 Broncos
  • 5-11 Ravens
  • 4-12 Jets

No one leveled that criticism in 2008 but, then again, the Steelers 2008 schedule didn’t include many soft spots.

This year the Steelers lost to the:

  • 7-9 Bears
  • 5-11 Browns
  • 5-11 Raiders
  • 4-12 Chiefs

2009 made it bitterly apparent:

  • Mike Tomlin teams do in fact play down to the level of competition.

This is a problem. Great teams, even good teams, win the ones they’re supposed to. Consistently.

The Steelers have yet to do that under Tomlin.

The Steelers must address needs on both lines, on special teams, and in the secondary.

All are important, but Tomlin has no greater imperative for this off season than to rectify his team’s tendency to under perform against subpar competition.

If Mike Tomlin takes care of that, many of the other issues mentioned above will fall into place.

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