So Much for 16-0
Just one month ago, as the summer rolled on and the ‘Burgh was still basking in the glow of two incredible championships, long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik tempted fate by lamenting that the Steelers were “so good they’re boring.”
Back then, it seemed like the weather would never turn and the city’s collective cerveza buzz would never fade, but on Monday morning, September 28, 2009, Pittsburghers were awakened by the sound of a chill wind tapping a naked, brown tree branch against their window. Welcome back to reality, Steelers fans. The heartburn. The pillow punching. The berating of the deaf television.
A Super Bowl will make you forget what it’s really like to be an NFL fan. While the previous weekend’s ill-fated trip to the windy city was written off as a fluke, Sunday’s shocking 23-20 loss in Cincinnati was a reality check for Steelers Nation, and especially for the punch-drunk media members who predicted a near perfect season.
Congrats, on winning your Super Bowl, Cincinnati! We’d come join you in celebration, but your city makes Cleveland look like Barbados. Plus, we kind of had this G-20 thing, so…
Just a few weeks removed from being untouchable juggernauts, the 1-2 Steelers are now bracing for a potential must-win game against the frisky and revenge-minded San Diego Chargers. If the Ravens take down the Patriots this Sunday afternoon, the Steelers will walk into Heinz Field for Sunday Night Football staring up at a three-game deficit in the AFC North. With the Ravens’ Joe Flacco looking like the real deal Hollyfield, throwing for 839 yards and six touchdowns in his first three games, the Steelers can’t afford to give Baltimore that kind of cushion. So much for boredom.
In the NFL, the line between success and failure is wafer thin. Take wide receiver Limas Sweed, for example. By all accounts, the second-year receiver worked his tail off this spring to make up for a disheartening rookie season, and was one of the Steelers’ most impressive players in the pre-season, fighting through contact to come down with balls over the middle – an area of the field where he had previously sprouted alligator arms.
On Sunday, the path of Sweed’s career changed in an instant. If he had held onto his game-changing dropped touchdown pass for just one more second, Steelers fans would be trumpeting his transformation from zero to hero from high atop Mt. Washington.
Instead, I saw Sweed’s number 14 jersey on a Fayette County goat this morning. Fitting, since Sweed may very well lose his starting job to old Shaun McDonald.
Coach Mike Tomlin now has to make a tough decision. With the swift and sure handed Mike Wallace proving that he can host play 60 minutes by racking up 7 receptions for 102 yards in only his third NFL game, the Steelers already have the big play threat that Sweed once promised (and kudos to Wallace for using his blazing speed as a decoy to get cushion from defenders, grabbing easy first downs).
On the flip side, if Tomlin yanks the 6”4 Sweed from the lineup, the Steelers won’t have a starting wide receiver over six feet tall. The Steelers have a wealth of possession receivers, but no big target. That could prove to be a problem in goal line situations when space is at a premium and the only place to go is up.
With Sweed out of the equation, there won’t be a fade in sight.
It’s easy to blame Sweed for this loss, but it was only one play. Like last week in Chicago, the Steelers defense had plenty of opportunities to slam the door on a lackluster offense, but instead let a skittish quarterback loiter in the pocket like an amateur Anarchist in Lawrenceville.
The hogs on the Steelers’ offensive line held up their end of the bargain, letting up only one sack, but the defense could only manage two on Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who at this point in his career is as spry as an overfed English Mastiff.
This whole debacle, like the Chicago game, was not lost because of coaching mistakes (Tomlin’s decision to go for it on 4th and 4 in the first half), or miscommunications (Holmes turning left instead of right on Roethlisberger’s pick-six) or even missed field goals (Reed’s string of hook-shots that would make Doctor J blush). Nope. Both of these games were lost in the trenches.
Cedric Benson’s 23-yard scamper to bring the Bengals back into the game was resisted only by James Farrior’s pinky finger. Fill-in safety Tyrone Carter’s pursuit angle on the play will undoubtedly cause some spittle to fly in the film room, and compared to Sweed’s drop, is actually more concerning with Troy Polamalu out another few weeks. The Steelers have depth at receiver, but the cupboard is bare at safety.
While the media outlets will nearly burn out their LCD bulbs replaying Sweed’s Herculean blunder, the single image that should stick in the craniums of Steelers fans happened on the final drive of the game.
With game on the line, the Bengals faced a 4th and 10 from the Pittsburgh 15. Despite all the gaffes that came before that play, the Steelers had a chance to win the game if they could dig deep for one more play and get pressure on Palmer. As the teams broke their respective huddles, CBS cut to a close-up of linebacker James Harrison.
You didn’t need a plasma screen or Jim Nantz to smarmily to tell you what would happen next. You could see it in Harrison’s exhausted eyes.
Winning one NFL game, let alone a Super Bowl, takes an unbelievable amount of sacrifice. As the Steelers search within themselves to rekindle the wild-eyed fire and perseverance that carried them to their sixth Super Bowl, perhaps the dreary autumn clouds looming over Pittsburgh will help fans truly appreciate just how good we had it in the sun.
When your teacher calls you up to the blackboard to correct a mistake in front of the whole class, it seems like you’ll never get another A+. When the phone stops ringing at work, it seems like you’ll never make another sale. When you strike out at a South Side bar, it seems like you’ll never get another number. Maybe that’s why we love football in this town. Redemption is always just six days around the corner.
Remember, seasons are long. With Roethlisberger playing the best football of his career and master motivator Tomlin greeting the Steelers at practice on Tuesday, the sun will shine again soon.
So keep your shades on, Pittsburgh