One week ago, the Steelers were sitting pretty.
They controlled their fate, had two lousy teams remaining on their schedule, and they were becoming a sexy Super Bowl pick by many amidst a weakened AFC field.
Then, 20-17 happened.
The Baltimore Ravens knocked them off for the fifth time in the rivalry’s last six meetings.
With one game remaining the Steelers are looking at a likelihood of a 10-6, non-playoff season as the NY Jets control the fate of the 6-seed playoff world.
To make matters worse, the Pittsburgh organization is facing a fifth-straight season without a playoff win, the franchise’s longest drought since entering the Immaculate Reception game in 1972 (then a 39-year ‘never had a playoff win’ drought).
This current drought is happening despite future Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback during his age-29 through age-33 seasons.
So how did the 2015 version of the Steelers lose six times and who’s to blame should they miss the postseason? Let’s look back at each of the six defeats this year:
WEEK 1 at New England, L 21-28 — This one is the easiest to excuse, as almost nobody wins as a road team on NFL opening night against the defending champions. However, Pittsburgh had their opportunities: Josh Scobee missed two 40-plus-yard field goals, Darrius Heyward-Bey dropped a pass in the end zone, and the Steelers settled for three points in the fourth quarter after achieving a 1st-and-goal at the one-yard line (the Patriots defensive line shifted in unison to draw Pittsburgh offsides). Still, excusable.
Blame: Schedule Makers (and faulty New England headsets)
WEEK 4 vs. Baltimore, L 20-23 OT — The Ravens were 0-3, but Michael Vick was starting for Pittsburgh after St. Louis safety Mark Barron had taken Ben Roethlisberger out with a helmet-on-knee hit the previous week. Still, Pittsburgh led 20-7 early in the 3rd quarter and didn’t score again. Thanks there goes to two more Scobee misses (49-yards and 40-yards), the Steelers playing it safe late in regulation instead of getting aggressive on 3rd-and-4 at Baltimore’s 23-yard line (Scobee would miss instead of giving Pittsburgh a six-point edge), and two failed OT possessions on offense including a curious-at-best 4th-down-and-2 Vick running play at Baltimore’s 39-yard line (where was Le’Veon Bell?).
Blame: Mark Barron, Scobee, and coaching
WEEK 7 at Kansas City, L 13-23 — The Chiefs were 1-5 at the time, and this sparked KC to the first of nine-straight wins. Landry Jones made his first start in the NFL, and Al Villanueva his first start at left tackle in the league. Also, DE Stephon Tuitt was out. An early field goal-fest, KC led 9-3 at the half, and a Jones interception (a tipped pass by Derrick Johnson into the scooping arms of Eric Berry) set the Chiefs up 16-3 shortly thereafter. Climbing back to within 16-13 with 10 minutes left, the Steelers defense got gashed by Travis Kelce for 26-yards on a 3rd-and-4, and Charcandrick West on a 36-yard run to basically salt the game away.
Blame: Mark Barron and a defense that can’t cover tight ends (why is Lawrence Timmons always in coverage?)
WEEK 8 vs. Cincinnati, L 10-16 — The dreaded first-game-back-off-injury for Roethlisberger, which almost never goes well. This one didn’t either against the-then 6-0 Bengals. And Pittsburgh wore the Bumblebee jerseys. Nevertheless, the Steelers led 10-6 in the second half, blocked a field goal, and came up with two interceptions (Antwon Blake in the endzone and Mike Mitchell on a deep ball) that should have ended the game. Two plays later, though, Shawn Williams made a diving pick at the sideline for the Bengals on a ball that Roethlisberger probably shouldn’t have thrown to Will Johnson. AJ Green and Reggie Nelson did the rest in the game’s final five minutes as Andy Dalton finally came through.
Blame: Mark Barron, Roethlisberger, and Shawn Williams (great play)
WEEK 12 at Seattle, L 30-39 — Lots to blame here, but of course the defense allowed 39-points so let’s start there. Russel Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, and Jimmy Graham (until injured) were unstoppable. However, throw same blame pie in for: a bizarre fake field goal call on the first play of the second quarter (Chris Boswell is looking for Villanueva??); two Ben interceptions (a bad one to Ahtyba Rubin on a short Antonio Brown crossing route that led to a Thomas Rawls TD run, and a controversial one to the hand-fighting Richard Sherman); and the end-game sequence that led many to criticize Mike Tomlin for not going for the touchdown on 4th-and-goal at the 4-yard line with three minutes left (the 22-yard field goal cut the Seattle lead to 32-30). Either way, the Steelers D wasn’t stopping anyone.
Blame: The defense, with a little coaching and Roethlisberger thrown in
WEEK 16 at Baltimore, L 17-20 — This loss will carry more weight than the others, because again, the Steelers controlled their playoff fate despite the first five defeats. To me, it was a classic ‘Ben-Clunker’. Happens every year, for some reason it’s part of his DNA. This one came at the worst possible time, and I believe was attitude-influenced (how could it not?) by a 3rd-most-in-history 337-yard-per-game passing average, an offense that had put up 30-plus-points in six straight games, a Baltimore opponent with four wins and 19-players on IR, and Brown approaching NFL record numbers at wideout. It wasn’t all about turnovers as Tomlin indicated afterwards, but Ben’s two picks were huge and horrid. The first one to Daryl Smith (only Baltimore’s fifth on the season) came on a pass forced over the middle to Brown with DeAngelo Williams wide open underneath. The second one to Jimmy Smith was just a bad throw on a route he and Brown complete 99-times-out-of-100. The picks led to 10-points against. Throw in a chance for Pittsburgh to still win the game (or tie on a field goal) given 2:55 and a timeout left, a drive that ended in six plays, and this one is as frustrating as they come. Now throw in Ryan Mallett, who was signed 12 days prior by Baltimore, and a Pittsburgh defense that allowed Baltimore to convert 9-of-18 times on third downs, and this one will make your head explode. And some will throw in the decision to go by Tomlin to go for a 4th-and-1 on the game’s opening drive, with Williams getting stuffed by Courtney Upshaw.
Blame: Roethlisberger, team arrogance (this includes coaching), and a D that couldn’t pressure Ryan Mallett