You know that thoughtless, unwanted present that ruins Christmas for everyone? The one that prompts awkward conversation and probing questions? Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers delivered one hell of a disappointing early Christmas present to their fans yesterday, all wrapped up in ghastly black and orange tiger print paper, losing 13-10 to Cincinatti. Another lacklustre offensive performance, combined with numerous mistakes and errors in execution left the Steelers and their fans on the outside of the NFL Playoff bubble looking in for only the second time in Mike Tomlin's six-season tenure. The club must now beat Cleveland - not as certain an outcome as you might think, given the Browns' 20-14 victory in Week 12 - to avoid their first losing season under Tomlin.
Falling from 6-3 to 7-8 by losing 5 of 6 games is always going to be disappointing. It is the manner in which the Steelers have dropped the last 3 games in a row, effectively slamming the Playoff door in their own face, which is particularly difficult to understand. With victory over the Ravens in Week 13 with Charlie Batch under center, they had a 7-5 record, Ben Roethlisberger back and games against the 4-8 San Diego Chargers and (at that stage) 6-6 Dallas Cowboys (no longer 'America's Team' according to Roethlisberger, as if anyone outside of Dallas still thought they were!) up next. Sitting pretty, right?
Well, no, as it turns out. I won't dissect the embarrassing nature of the San Diego loss - others have already done that. I won't even talk about Todd Haley's play-calling against Dallas. What I will do is try and look at how the Steelers managed to lose yesterday. Because that's what happened. On the Steelers.com LIVE post-game show, Tunch Ilkin said that 'more games are lost than won in the National Football League, and if that was ever a truism, it manifested itself in the Pittsburgh Steelers.' He couldn't be more right about yesterday. Despite a gorgeous 60-yard TD toss from Ben to Antonio Brown and generally solid play from the returning Rashard Mendenhall, the offense was provided with numerous opportunities to score points and win the game, but repeatedly failed to capitalise.
The defense turned in a dominant performance overall. Andy Dalton had a sub-60 QB rating and was sacked six times; A.J. Green was held off the scoresheet; Bengals' RBs had 14 yards on 16 carries; Cincinatti converted only 25% of third downs. And Cortez Allen...well all Cortez Allen did was force three turnovers all by himself, including this spectacular play. There's only so much the defensive unit can do to keep an offense in a game, and turnovers are the best way to do so. Allen provided three chances for #7 and the offense to score. So, gladly accepting these timely seasonal gifts from the D, the offense promptly wasted them. The first two Bengals' turnovers, the Pittsburgh went three-and-out and punted. After the third turnover, they drove 13 yards...and punted. Points scored off turnovers: Zero.
The biggest waste came when, after Allen's first pick, the ball was on the Cincinatti 32, within range for Shaun Suisham. Next came the all-too-predictable one-two punch of Jonathan Dwyer up the middle on 1-10, and Jonathan Dwyer up the middle on 2-6. Bear in mind this would have given Suisham a very makeable 45-yard attempt if there was no gain on the next play. Then, inexcusably, came exactly the sort of play that has made Steelers fans curse for the last goodness knows how long. Third down, in field-goal range, looking for an opportunity to keep driving for a touchdown, pass play called. This can mean only one thing: Roethlisberger goes down under the not-inconsiderable weight of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Brilliant. The one totally unacceptable result, forcing a punt when starting 32 yards from the goal-line.
Now, Roethlisberger may not have been responsible for that sack - the pocket collapsed around him faster than a Pirates season after a 19-inning loss - but he was certainly at fault for letting Cincinatti have opportunities to score. Which of course they did. Bengals points off turnovers: 10. Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit, but Ben could hardly have been more generous without gift-wrapping the ball. He certainly hand-delivered it to Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson. Hall was apparently invisible standing right next to Heath Miller - the only receiver Roethlisberger even glanced at on the play - when Roethlisberger filled his stocking with a pick-six. And somehow, Ben was so into using Air Mail to deliver his gifts that he managed to badly overthrow Mike Wallace - not once, but twice - the second pass landing in the waiting arms of Nelson. Dalton then hit Green for a 21-yard gain - one of the few times the defense were caught out - allowing Josh Brown to slot over a 43-yard field goal to win it, delivering the Bengals to the post-season, and the Steelers to the naughty list.
And all of this even ignores that somewhere between Greg Warren, Drew Butler and Suisham, the special teams unit botched a 24-yard field goal when the score was 7-0 Bengals. Add on to that the fact that on 28 first down plays, Haley elected only to pass ten times. Hardly a balanced attack, especially when averaging only 3.1 yards-per-carry AND that a first down or touchdown was had when a set of downs started with a pass play on seven of those ten occasions. Todd Haley seems to be using only a couple of pages from the playbook. Perhaps Roethlisberger had a point?
In his post-game presser, Tomlin admitted that the team hadn't executed as well as he would have liked and that he knows that saying so 'sounds like a broken record'. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if you keep losing due to poor execution, then isn't it up to the coaching staff to do something about it? If, as he says, the coaches take full responsibility for it, then it's time to change the record, Mike.
And on that happy note: Merry Christmas!