Few teams in the NFL can have an 8-8 season and view it as unsuccessful, but for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a record of .500 is a rare occurrence, especially since Ben Roethlisberger became their quarterback in 2004.
Though expectations were lower this year for the Steelers—few had them pegged as potential Super Bowl champions, for example—there were many indications for much of the season that they'd reach the playoffs.
Instead, the Steelers saw their postseason hopes slip away in the final weeks of the season, with losses mounting—five of them in their last seven games, in fact. So how did things end as they did for the Steelers, and where did they go wrong? Let's take a look.
The 2012 NFL Draft
For the most part, the Steelers had an excellent showing in this year's draft, as there was no indication on that weekend in April of the injury issues that many members of the draft class would face in later months. However, it wasn't a home-run draft considering how much the players they selected were ultimately able to contribute.
The Steelers are well-known for not considering what other teams may think about specific players when crafting their draft board, and they generally blend their positions of need with the best player available at the time of selection. In the first round this year, they lucked into the biggest steal of the draft, offensive guard David DeCastro, who slipped down to their 24th overall pick because other teams needed other players.
DeCastro was a hit in the draft, as was offensive tackle Mike Adams, whom they selected in the second, despite his red-flag-plagued draft rankings. Things after that got murkier. In Round 3, they took linebacker Sean Spence, a good fit for the Steelers but also a bit undersized and more useful as a hybrid pass-rusher.
In the fourth round, the Steelers took nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, filling a position of need with what seemed at the time to be exactly the right player. The future, however, played out a bit differently. However, after their fifth-round selection of receiver/running back Chris Rainey, their draft selections were more miss than hit.
Seventh-round receiver Toney Clemons is no longer with the team; neither is another seventh-rounder, cornerback Terrence Frederick. Two other second-round picks, tight end David Paulson and offensive guard Kelvin Beachum, have each gotten playing time with the 53-man roster (with the latter being quite the pleasant surprise), but the Steelers presently have had better luck with their undrafted rookies than most of their late-round picks.
Also—and this is a personal peccadillo of mine—the Steelers failed to pick up a backup quarterback for Roethlisberger, instead choosing to ride with their two elder statesmen, Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. With Roethlisberger rarely getting through a season without injury, it would have been smart for the Steelers to try to develop a younger talent. Missing out on Kirk Cousins, for example, hurt them in the regular season, and it could hurt them again in the upcoming season.
Injuries are nothing new to any squad in the NFL, but it seems that in recent years they've been far more daunting for the Steelers than most others. In fact, the Steelers couldn't even get out of the preseason without suffering a major loss—a torn MCL for DeCastro that had him start his year on injured reserve, albeit with the designated-to-return tag. With Pittsburgh's offensive line, the one area in which they needed the most improvement, losing such a high-profile rookie wasn't the best way to start the year.
He wasn't the only key Steeler to come down with a season-ending or season-disrupting injury. Fellow rookie Mike Adams is currently on injured reserve with an ankle injury; cornerback Ike Taylor, whose season began slowly but who then became a huge reason for the Steelers defense allowing the fewest yards per game, also ended the year on IR, and without him, the defense struggled against the pass in the crucial run-up to a potential playoff berth.
It took until October for linebacker James Harrison's knee to be healthy enough for him to take the field, safety Troy Polamalu missed nine games, forcing the disappointing Ryan Mundy into the starting lineup for a time, running back Rashard Mendenhall didn't return until October himself after tearing his ACL in the 2011 season-ender and receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders all dealt with injuries and missed time of their own
However, the Steelers' worst and most significant injury ended up being the one that ultimately cost them a winning season and a playoff berth—Roethlisberger's rib dislocation and shoulder injury in Week 10, which had him miss the following three games.
The Steelers went 1-2 in that span, with Roethlisberger's No. 2 quarterback, Byron Leftwich, also suffering a shoulder injury in the first of the three games, a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. That was followed up by a loss to the Cleveland Browns that saw the Steelers offense turn the ball over eight times before finally notching a win in Week 13 over the Ravens.
Even once Roethlisberger returned, things didn't turn around for the Steelers. With his mobility decreased after the injury, he wasn't throwing comfortably and the result was more mistakes. He had 17 touchdowns to four interceptions over the first 10 weeks, and though he threw nine touchdowns in his final four games post-injury, three came against the San Diego Chargers with the game entirely out of the Steelers' reach. He also threw four interceptions in that span, two of which directly led to losses.
After he returned, Roethlisberger also never completed more than 65.3 percent of his passes, though he had five games with completion percentages of 70 or better prior to the injury.
Finally, in Week 16 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers tight end Heath Miller—Roethlisberger's most reliable target, the team's receptions leader and the co-leader in receiving scores—went down with a torn ACL and MCL. Had the Steelers won that game, they would have been headed to the playoffs without their most important offensive weapon not named Roethlisberger; the loss, in a sense, was thus a blessing in disguise.
However, injuries alone aren't to blame for why the Steelers' season ended up being a disappointment.
Losing the Fight
A common complaint about the Steelers over the past few years is their players appearing to mix complacency with overconfidence, a dangerous cocktail that has resulted in disappointing losses to sub-.500 teams they should have beaten. That continued into the 2012 season, and it's hard to pin the blame on any one person.
The coaching staff and players are all equally culpable in this particular disappointment—the coaches for not instilling more discipline in the players, more desire to win and shutting down their belief that no so-called "terrible" team can beat them simply because of their Super Bowl pedigree, and the players for simply not trying hard enough at times.
This season, the Steelers lost to the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers and pulled off a close overtime win over the league's worst team, the Kansas City Chiefs. At the same time, they also defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the Baltimore Ravens, without Roethlisberger's help, and the Washington Redskins.
The Steelers had no problem getting prepared for their seemingly tougher opponents, while they fell flat, lifeless and without fight to some of the NFL's very worst squads. If they had won just three of those games, Pittsburgh would be AFC North champions right now. But with losses like those, it's not surprising the team is sitting at home in January instead of playing football.
Offensive Problems, Defensive Disappointments
The Steelers' switch at offensive coordinator from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley also produced its fair share of troubles. First, there were the (not entirely unfounded) concerns that Roethlisberger wouldn't take to Haley's domineering personality nor his more conservative approach to the passing game. Though it at first resulted in Roethlisberger having one of the better seasons of his career (at least until his injury), it still didn't make the quarterback particularly happy.
Though the ball-control oriented offense helped the Steelers become one of the best third-down teams in the league and put them near the top in time of possession, it also involved fewer risky (though potentially high-reward) downfield throws. That meant fewer deep passes for Roethlisberger and thus fewer targets, catches, yards and scores for impending free-agent receiver Mike Wallace, he of the summer holdout.
Further, the passing game was never truly complemented by the ground attack. Mendenhall's early-season absence was never fully un-felt with Isaac Redman and later Jonathan Dwyer taking over the starting job. Though there were flashes—the Steelers had no fewer than 95 rush yards and as many as 167 in Weeks 7 through 11—it wasn't sustainable. Just when one back would get hot, he'd cool nearly as quickly.
Offensive line shifts had something to do with this, as well as the caliber of opposing defenses. But without a stable run game, there was little stability overall for the offense, especially once Roethlisberger fell to injury.
On defense, the issues were a bit more nuanced. Though Pittsburgh spent most of the season allowing the fewest yards per game, they weren't getting much-needed turnovers. Every game it seemed another Steelers defender was dropping a sure-thing interception, and the Steelers ultimately ended their season ranking 27th in interceptions and 17th in forced fumbles.
Pressure was also lacking throughout much of the season, with Harrison, Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley battling injuries. Their 37 total sacks ranks them 15th in the league, and 10 of those came in the final two games of the year. These aren't the kind of turnover and sack numbers one would expect out of a defense as storied as Pittsburgh's.
With 25 current Steelers set to be restricted or unrestricted free agents in a few months' time and the salary cap situation just as bad as it was last season, the Steelers desperately need to right the issues that resulted in their 8-8 finish to their 2012 year, lest it get even worse in 2013. Identifying the problem areas is an important start, but how they address them—both how aggressively and how successfully—will be the bigger challenge.