It was Week 13 of the 2014 NFL season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were losing a critical game to the New Orleans Saints despite playing at home and rolling up 538 yards on offense with relative ease. Drew Brees could not be stopped, throwing five touchdowns and playing turnover-free football, while Mark Ingram paced the Saints rushing attack with 122 yards on the ground.
Two game-changing interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger resulted in two Saints touchdowns, and a missed field goal, a turnover on downs, and a Pittsburgh possession that bogged down in the red zone cost the offense points that would have come in handy in a 35-32 loss. While the defense wasn’t good, it was the offense that shouldered the burden of failed expectations, struggling to finish drives and play up to their potential as a unit. The resulting loss moved Pittsburgh to 7-5 on the season with four games remaining, putting the playoffs in doubt.
Fast forward to 2015, and you have a Steelers team coming off an eerily similar loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12, dropping Pittsburgh to 6-5 with five games remaining on the season. If you compare box scores, statistics, and even situations throughout the game (a defensive lineman had an interception of Roethlisberger in both contests), you’ll find striking similarities in the way Pittsburgh lost. The fanbase was up in arms in 2014, and rightfully so, as the Saints were a pathetic 4-7 coming into Heinz Field, and struggling in all facets of the game.
Following that loss, Pittsburgh went on to win four straight, including a pair of victories over the Cincinnati Bengals to clinch the AFC North title and the #3 seed in the playoffs. It was an impressive run to close out an up-and-down regular season preceding the final four weeks, something Mike Tomlin and co. have become known for over the past few years.
In 2013 the Steelers won their final three games, and six of their last eight after a 2-6 start. And in 2008, 2010, and 2011 they won six of their last seven games to finish those regular seasons at 12-4 each year and make the playoffs.
We talked at length about Tomlin’s weaknesses effecting Pittsburgh in a negative capacity on Sunday and during this season, but if there is one thing he’s great at, it is rallying the troops when their backs are against the wall. Tomlin is an exceptional motivator, and if history is any indication, the Steelers typically take his tactics to heart.
I can’t tell you what will happen over the final five weeks of the season, but I will tell you that you shouldn’t despair yet. The Steelers boast one of the NFL’s most dynamic and high-powered offenses, and a defense that is opportunistic and has done a great job all season long limiting damage and making teams one dimensional with their rush defense.
Yes, the turnovers are killer, and the red zone/third down offense is absolutely befuddling. But you’ve got to believe Roethlisberger is going to hit his stride, and an offense with every ability imaginable is eventually going to break through inside the opponent’s 20. This unit has absolutely all the necessary parts for a championship run if Alejandro Villanueva can keep his head above water. Not many offenses around the league can say that. They’ve got to be able to carry Pittsburgh down the home stretch, and the ability is certainly there.
Yes the pass defense is a sieve and Pittsburgh doesn’t have any elite pass rushers, but they’ve consistently gotten to the quarterback this season regardless, and have come up with big plays in the red zone more often than not. No, I don’t think the defense is going to be a top-tier unit in the NFL this season despite a strong start (sans New England loss of course). But can they help propel this team through a weak AFC with big plays and timely contributions? No question.
Pittsburgh returns home to host Indianapolis and 40 year-old Matt Hasselbeck in a must-win game on Sunday night. Then a road trip to Cincinnati and a home game against the Broncos, before going back on the road to face Matt Schaub in Baltimore and whoever the Browns trot out at quarterback in Week 17. No gimmes, but if they can somehow win the next three, the Steelers should be in command for the #5 seed in the playoffs, provided the Chiefs falter again at some point. Certainly won’t be easy, but remember, this team plays better with its back against the wall.
I’ve seen many of you lament the fact that this team is basically the same team from last year, and maybe that’s true in many ways. Certainly have the same porous pass defense, the same red zone struggles, and the same questionable decisions from coaches in key moments of the game.
But last year’s team went 11-5 and might have been a Le’Veon Bell injury away from making a Super Bowl run in the playoffs. Last year’s team had no answer when Bell went down, this year’s team has DeAngelo Williams. Also, the AFC was a war zone last year compared to this season, and while you certainly don’t take any opponent for granted, it is tough to be scared by any of the Steelers conference foes right now, except perhaps the Patriots due to the Bill Belichick–Tom Brady factor.
So don’t lose heart, not yet. This team has been here before, and risen to the occasion many times. Yes, things look bleak because the Chiefs and Texans and Colts keep winning and the Steelers are constantly up-and-down, but there are five weeks left for all that to change. In fact, if history is any indication, Tomlin and co. have the rest of the AFC right where they want them.