Well, here we are; the end of the football season a month earlier than Steelers fans are accustomed to. In what is usually a down year, following their Super Bowl appearance last season, the Steelers still rebounded to post a 12-4 record. It was the same 12-4 record that got them a first round bye in 2008 and 2010, but crushing losses to Baltimore gave the Ravens the tie-breaker by the end of the season. Looking back, this season definitely had fewer headlines that last year's Super Bowl run, but there were still some storylines, nonetheless. Here's a list:
Say what you want about not making excuses for injuries and "the standard is the standard", the Steelers entered the playoffs in bad condition and exited the playoffs in worse condition. The season started with Willie Colon tearing his triceps in week one against the Baltimore Ravens.
Meanwhile, James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, two of the premier pass rushers in the league, only played four games together, without injury. Harrison broke an orbital bone in week 4 against the Houston Texans and Lamarr Woodley severely pulled his hamstring in week 8 against the New England Patriots. While Harrison eventually returned, Woodley was in and out of the lineup through the rest of the season and was highly ineffective.
Ben Roethlisberger was limited early in the year with a sprained foot, only to become immobile by the end of the season with a sprained ankle. The offense also lost Maurkice Pouncey before the playoffs started, as well as feature back, Rashard Mendenhall. Max Starks, who came in to replace the terrible Jonathan Scott, tore his ACL in the playoff game against Denver.
Then there's the defensive line, as a whole. Aaron Smith went on IR with a neck injury after week five, Casey Hampton suffered a serious knee injury on the first drive against the Broncos, Chris Hoke had season ending neck surgery, and Brett Keisel -arguably the best defensive lineman all season for the Steelers- had a severe injury to his groin.
Losing to Good Teams
In year's past, the Steelers were always able to seize the moment and come up with the play to win big games. This season, that did not happen. Other than their win against the New England Patriots, the Steelers failed to win a pivotal game during the regular season. In week nine, the Steelers had a chance to even the score against the Ravens after getting demolished in week one. With roughly two and a half minutes remaining in the game, the Steelers defense allowed Joe Flacco and the Ravens to drive 92 yards down the field for a game winning touchdown. The loss ensured that the Steelers would have to have a better record than the Ravens to win the division, losing any chance of a tiebreaker situation. Six weeks later, the Steelers had an opportunity to take the division as well as home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead of beating the 49ers to improve their record to 11-3, they were bludgeoned in one of the worst performances on Monday Night Football in recent team history.
With all of the hype surrounding Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown was even more impressive by the end of the season. Last year's sixth round pick out of Central Michigan, Brown became the first player in NFL history to record over 1000 yards receiving and returning in one season. He was the perfect disruptor for defenses that decided to focus solely on Wallace. Not only was Brown voted team MVP but he was also elected to the Pro-Bowl. His biggest play of the year was his 79 yard touchdown to seal the game against the Cleveland Browns in week fourteen.
The Steelers were ranked dead last in turnover differential in the AFC at -13. The offense committed a combined 13 turnovers in their week one match up with Baltimore and week fifteen match up against San Fransisco. Ben Roethlisberger, alone, had 19 turnovers (14 int's, 5 lost fumbles) and the defense only forced 15 turnovers ALL SEASON. It's one thing to be the best defense against the pass, as the Steelers, statistically were, but the downfall of their season hinged on their inability to take the ball away. The biggest reason? No pressure on the quarterback. As mentioned before, the Steelers were missing James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley for most of the year which also explains why the team ranked 17th in sacks. Conversely, the Steelers were ranked first in sacks, fifth in interceptions and first in forced fumbles in 2010.
The biggest story of 2011-2012 season will actually come a few months down the road. Who will be in Pittsburgh and who will not? Casey Hampton's injury certainly places his career in jeopardy. While Hines Ward has already publicly stated that he is coming back for a fifteenth season, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Brett Keisel and James Farrior could all retire. Also, the draft in April will be interesting since it is loaded with defensive players in the back half of the first round. With the 24th pick, the Steelers will surely look to find a defensive tackle or inside linebacker.