Steelers' collapse is a team-wide endeavor

By Mark Kaboly, Daily News Sports Editor
Sunday, December 13, 2009
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It's the question that everyone is asking: What's wrong with the Steelers?

"That's the million-dollar question," said linebacker James Farrior after the Steelers lost their fifth consecutive game Thursday that all but knocked them out of the playoff race just months after winning a record sixth Super Bowl.

So what is wrong with the Steelers?

How did they go from winning a Super Bowl, starting the season 6-2 and being labeled the best team in the NFL after beating the Denver Broncos on the road, to the team that lost to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland in one disastrous stretch?

Well, that's the problem. Nobody knows the answer.

Farrior doesn't. "If somebody knew that answer, I think we would be doing better," he said.

Hines Ward doesn't. "I have no idea. I really don't have an answer."

Casey Hampton doesn't. "If I could explain to you how we are losing and what is going on, we wouldn't be losing."

Reigning defensive player of the year James Harrison? No clue. "I am going to tell you what everybody else is telling you: I don't know."

Even the men who are paid to come up with such answers on television broadcasts are at a loss for words.

Former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, an NFL analyst for ESPN, breaks down hours and hours of film per week on each team, yet he's also baffled by the Steelers' demise.

"I have no idea," Dilfer said. "It's mind-boggling. I'm frustrated because I take great pride in how I study film and what I look for and trying to be ahead of the curve, and I was dead wrong on them."

Indications point toward the culprit stemming from overconfidence after winning a Super Bowl title in 2008.

"We have to realize that we are not the '08 Pittsburgh Steelers," safety Ryan Clark said.

Even so, they played like the '08 Steelers for the first half of the year. At the midway point, they were 6-2 with two fluky road losses to Chicago and Cincinnati. Publications such as Sports Illustrated were picking them to play in the Super Bowl and wondering whether they'd lose another game.

Five weeks later, the Steelers are 6-7 and all but out of the playoff hunt.

"We have the same team as last year," Ward said. "How do you win a Super Bowl one year and not make it and lose five straight the next year?"

Not being able to pinpoint the problem has been extremely frustrating to the players.

"When you go to work every day, you feel like you put all the effort that you need to, you study tape and do all the little things that go into the work week and when you come out and play, it just doesn't happen," Farrior said.

Each phase of the Steelers' game can be blamed for the collapse.


Despite projecting to have a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in nearly a decade, the offense has been lacking at times.

The unit has rarely been able to put games away. The Steelers gained 258 first-half yards but managed only 13 points in a Week 3 loss against the Bengals. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an interception returned for a touchdown, and Limas Sweed dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone a little bit later.

The offense failed to score a touchdown the next time the Steelers played the Bengals, struggled in the red zone against the Chiefs and didn't score a touchdown against the Browns' 32nd-ranked defense.


When your defense gives up five fourth-quarter leads, the unit that was No. 1 in the NFL two consecutive seasons has become an enigma.

The defense is still ranked in the top five in the league but has failed to make critical plays in crucial situations.

"Right now, the difference between this year and last year is we're not making those plays," veteran defensive back Deshea Townsend said.

The Steelers allowed Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Oakland and Baltimore to score on the final drive of the game to win.

"We are not getting it done," Hampton said. "It is what it is now. We know how to win, but we just are not doing it."

Injuries to Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith could be a reason. Smith has missed the past eight games, and Polamalu has missed two four-game stints in which the Steelers are 2-6.

"Yeah, those are hard losses to overcome," Dilfer said. "That doesn't explain why you only score six points against the Cleveland Browns. That doesn't explain why it takes you four quarters to score against the Raiders. It doesn't explain a lot of other issues."

Special teams

Bob Ligashesky's unit has contributed a lot to the losing streak and fall from grace. Jeff Reed missed two field goals in a Week 2 loss to Chicago, but that paled in comparison to the kick coverage unit giving up touchdown returns in four of five games during midseason.

It got so bad that two weeks ago coach Mike Tomlin signed two veterans off the street, Corey Ivy and Rocky Boiman, and put them right on the field.


Tomlin started his third training camp in curious fashion by giving veterans days off much more than usual. He then gave the team the entire bye week off, raising even more eyebrows.

Last week, he made a public comment about making changes with a veteran, Super Bowl-winning roster, then did not follow through on his proclamation.

"Mike Tomlin has to accept a lot of the responsibility,"'s Vic Carucci said. "His team seemed to lose interest in the past few weeks, and especially (Thursday) night."

The Steelers have three games left on the schedule against three playoff-caliber teams. Although the Steelers are not in an ideal situation, three wins and a whole bunch of losses by Jacksonville, Baltimore, Miami and the New York Jets could land them in the playoffs.

Anything less than that will keep the Steelers on the sidelines for the postseason.

"This is like a bad dream," Hampton said. "It's unbelievable, man."

The Terrible Timeline

A chronological list of some reasons that may have caused the Steelers' fall from grace this season:


Third receiver Nate Washington and cornerback Bryant McFadden are not re-signed and leave via free agency.

Owner Dan Rooney is nominated by President Obama as Ambassador to Ireland, meaning day-to-day operations will solely belong to son Art II.


Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is faced with a civil lawsuit and sexual assault allegations.


Coach Mike Tomlin runs a noticeably softer training camp than in previous years.


Management ceases negotiations with Ryan Clark, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker and Jeff Reed, each of whom is in the final year of his contract

All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu injures his knee in the first quarter of the season opener and misses four games.


Defensive lineman Aaron Smith injures his right shoulder and is sidelined for the rest of the season.

Reed is arrested for the second time since the Super Bowl, this time for allegedly scuffling with police outside a North Side bar.


Polamalu suffers another knee injury that keeps him out of the lineup for four more games.

Steelers give up fourth kickoff return for a touchdown in five games when Kansas City's Jamaal Charles goes the distance.

Roethlisberger sustains the fourth concussion of his career and misses a game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Wide receiver Hines Ward says locker room is divided because of Roethlisberger's absence from the Ravens game.


Tomlin vows to make changes following a fourth consecutive loss, but the starting lineup remains largely intact in a 13-6 loss to Cleveland Browns.