Ten plays that shaped the Steelers' season
By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, December 27, 2009
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The Steelers went into the penultimate week of the 2008 season with a chance to claim home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Today, the reigning Super Bowl champions need to beat the visiting Ravens just to keep their postseason hopes from fading to black.
The reasons for the Steelers' decline have been well documented.
There were injuries to perhaps their two most indispensable defensive players, strong safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith, and that is directly related to the Steelers' inability to protect fourth-quarter leads.
Also, where the Steelers found a way to beat good teams in 2008, they have found a way to lose to bad ones this season.
The Steelers were 6-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2008. This season, they are 2-7 in such games, even though their schedule is not nearly as demanding as it was a year ago.
"Last year, we made the plays at the end of games to put us in that position, and this year we didn't," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We dug ourselves into a hole."
The Steelers still have a chance to dig out of where a ghastly five-game losing streak left them, in part because of the mediocre teams bunched together vying for the two AFC wild-card playoff berths.
Of the seven teams in contention, two are 8-6 and five, including the Steelers, are 7-7.
If the Steelers are unable to emerge from that group, the epitaph for their season will go down as, "Couldn't make a play when they needed to most" — the opposite of what it was in 2008.
"If you go back and look at the games that we lost, most of them we lost at the end of the game, and that's one or two plays," inside linebacker James Farrior said. "A couple of plays we could be right up there where we were last year."
Here is a look at 10 plays that shaped the Steelers' season, in order of significance, and put them in danger of missing the playoffs a season after winning a record sixth Super Bowl:
10. Jeff Reed misses a 38-yard field goal in 17-14 loss at Chicago.
The first of two fourth-quarter misses for the normally reliable Reed came with just under 12 minutes left in the game. Had he made the kick, the Steelers would have taken a 10-point lead.
Reed said after the game that the Steelers probably beat the Bears if he makes that kick or the 43-yarder he missed later in the quarter.
Since that game, Reed had made 19 of 21 field goals, and both of his misses have come on attempts that were longer than 50 yards.
9. Wide receiver Josh Cribbs "wildcats" the Steelers.
The defense had done a good job of containing the Browns' big-play threat in the two previous games he had taken direct snaps against the Steelers.
Not so much when the Browns were facing a third-and-3 in the second-quarter of a bone-chilling game in Cleveland.
Cribbs ripped off a 37-yard gain, thanks in part to shoddy tackling by the Steelers.
That led to the only touchdown in the Browns' 13-6 upset of the Steelers, their first victory over their bitter rivals in Cleveland since 2000.
8. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers lose traction against the Raiders.
On fourth-and-1 from the Raiders' 5-yard line late in the first quarter, the Steelers tried a quarterback sneak.
They probably would have gotten the first down easily had the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger not slipped after taking the snap. Instead, the Steelers turned the ball over to Oakland on downs.
That play set the tone for a game in which the Steelers let the heavy underdogs hang around.
And it bit them in the fourth quarter when Bruce Gradkowski threw three touchdown passes as the Raiders stunned the Steelers, 27-24.
7. Ike Taylor loses his grip in 27-24 OT loss at Kansas City.
It is hard to say what would have happened had Taylor been able to hold onto the interception he appeared to make on a well-defended deep pass in Kansas City.
Here is what happened on the next play after Taylor lost the ball when he hit the ground: Chris Chambers caught a pass on a short crossing pattern and turned it into a 61-yard gain.
That led to a Ryan Succop chip shot, which saddled the Steelers with their worst loss (at the time) in almost two years.
6. Derrick Mason catch keys Ravens' fourth-quarter rally.
After Dennis Dixon gave the Steelers a 17-14 lead with a 24-yard touchdown run, the defense looked like it too would rise to the occasion.
It got the Ravens in a third-and-22 from their own 29-yard-line with a little less than four minutes left in the game.
Quarterback Joe Flacco didn't flinch, and the 17-yard completion to Mason allowed coach John Harbaugh to go for it on fourth down.
Ray Rice's subsequent 44-yard catch and run set up the game-tying field goal, and the Ravens beat the Steelers in overtime.
5. First-quarter kickoff return kelps Bengals sweep season series.
Bernard Scott lasted until the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft. What's more, he wasn't the first player taken from Abilene (Texas) Christian last April.
Yet the little-known rookie turned in the biggest play of the most-anticipated Bengals-Steelers game in years.
After bobbling Reed's kick, Scott slipped through first wave of the Steelers' kickoff coverage team. He didn't stop running until he had reached the south end zone at Heinz Field.
Scott accounted for the only touchdown in a game in which Roethlisberger was uncharacteristically off the mark. The Steelers' 18-12 loss was the first defeat in what would become a five-game skid.
4. Hands betray Limas Sweed yet again.
Sweed appeared to make a sweet catch of a Roethlisberger pass in the Steelers' Sept. 27 game at Cincinnati.
But as Sweed fell to the turf at Paul Brown Stadium, the ball squirted free. Instead of a 34-yard touchdown, the Steelers had to settle for a 52-yard field goal attempt, which Reed missed.
Has Sweed made the first touchdown catch of his career, the Steelers would have taken a 27-9 lead into the fourth quarter. Instead, they left just enough of an opening for the Bengals to break through in the fourth quarter and beat the Steelers, 23-20.
3. Not exactly Miller time.
Anyone who buys into the notion that the Steelers have had some fluky things happen to them can point to the beginning of the second half of their Nov. 22 game at Kansas City.
The Steelers had scored 17 unanswered points and were poised to deliver an uppercut to the reeling Chiefs.
A Roethlisberger pass to Heath Miller in Kansas City territory bounced off the normally sure hands of the Steelers tight end and resulted in a momentum-turning interception.
The Chiefs parlayed the Andy Studebaker pick into seven points, and the sequence completely changed the complexion of the game.
2. Rookie's drop proves costly.
A miscommunication between Gradkowski and Raiders wide receiver Louis Murphy left Joe Burnett in perfect position to end Oakland's unlikely upset bid at Heinz Field on Dec. 6.
The first-year cornerback, however, dropped the pass that looked like it had been thrown to him with 41 seconds left in the game.
Four plays later Gradkowski threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Murphy, giving the Raiders a 27-24 victory.
1. Fourth-down catch helps Bengals end five-game losing streak to Steelers.
Of all the plays the defense has given up in the fourth quarter this season, none may be more vexing than the 11-yard catch Brian Leonard made near the end of the Sept. 27 game.
With the Bengals needing 10 yards on fourth down to stay alive, quarterback Carson Palmer found Leonard in the middle of the field after his primary targets were covered.
Farrior appeared to be in position to make the tackle short of the sticks, but Leonard fought his way for a first down.
Less than 20 seconds later, Palmer capped a 16-play, 71-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell.