Let’s see, the Pittsburgh Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. They showed some promise earlier this season with a four-game winning streak that got them to six wins. Then they lost two straight, including a 20-14 defeat in Cleveland to a woeful Browns team. Now they’re 6-5 and losing their grip on a playoff berth.
Sounds an awful lot like 2009, doesn’t it?
For those who have undergone enough therapy to forget, the 2009 Steelers lost five straight games, including one in Cleveland, after a 6-2 start. Then they finished the season with a too-little, too-late, three-game winning streak and missed the playoffs.
The 2012 Steelers didn’t look like a playoff team Sunday.
The Steelers turned the ball over eight times for the first time since the 1989 season opener, according to Pro Football Reference, when they lost 51-0 at home to the Browns. The Steelers made the playoffs that year, but they didn’t enter that season worthy of the playoffs, and even though they came within a point of the AFC championship game, that 1989 team might have been the worst team ever to make the playoffs.
Good teams don’t commit eight turnovers, and good Steelers teams don’t lose to the Browns. This is the Steelers’ fifth loss to the Browns since Cleveland got its team back in 1999. None of those Steelers teams that lost to the Browns (1999, 2000, 2003 and 2009) made the playoffs.
That doesn’t mean the 2012 Steelers can’t make the playoffs. This doesn’t have to be 2009 all over again. I can’t think of any 6-5 teams that have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
After a loss in Cleveland that’s just as confounding and inexcusable as their loss there three years ago, there’s one sliver of hope: The defense.
The 2009 Steelers, the last Steelers team to miss the playoffs, blew fourth-quarter leads and could not compensate for the loss of Polamalu.
As strange as it sounds, Polamalu is almost a forgotten man this season with the Steelers entering Sunday’s game leading the league in defense. This defense still needs to force more turnovers, one wasn’t nearly enough Sunday. But without Roethlisberger for the last two weeks, the defense has played well enough to keep the Steelers in the game.
It looked like the defense was going to do a lot more than that Sunday. Brett Keisel tipped a Brandon Weeden pass and Lawrence Timmons plucked it out of the air and ran it back 53 yards for a 7-0 Pittsburgh lead a little over a minute into the game.
Then came a three-and-out. The Steelers allowed the Browns (3-8) to convert on just three of their 16 third downs.
This was beginning to look like those vintage 2005 and 2010 steamrollings in Cleveland by eventual Steelers Super Bowl teams.
Then, just like he did when they came roaring back in Super Bowl XLV, Rashard Mendenhall threw a wet blanket on the Steelers’ momentum when he fumbled on the second play of the Steelers’ next possession.
All four Steelers running backs fumbled the ball away. Chris Rainey lost the ball after catching a pass from Charlie Batch with 2:25 left in the game, killing any realistic chance the Steelers had of coming back.
In the final seconds of the first half, Rainey ran into a wall of brown jerseys at the 1-yard line but remained on his feet and dashed to the outside for a touchdown and a 14-13 Steelers lead. The Steelers didn’t come close to scoring again.
Add to the butterfingered behavior of the Steelers’ running backs three interceptions by Batch, who started in place of Roethlisberger. One of those picks came on a tipped ball that Mike Wallace should have had early in the fourth quarter with the Steelers in field-goal range. Another came when Sheldon Brown cut in front of Plaxico Burress, who in his first action in 11 months looked like a car going 50 mph in the fast lane.
The ineptitude of everyone on offense not named Emmanuel Sanders (five catches for 75 yards) and Heath Miller (six catches for 63 yards) left the defense holding the bag all day.
The Browns’ two touchdown drives came when turnovers gave them the ball at the Steelers’ 10-yard line in the second quarter and the Steelers’ 31-yard line in the third quarter. The only Cleveland scoring drive that didn’t start in Pittsburgh territory ended with Phil Dawson’s 32-yard field goal that gave the Browns a 13-7 lead in the second quarter.
When the Steelers’ defense wasn’t asked to put out a five-alarm fire with a squirt gun, it got the job done. Trent Richardson was held to 85 rushing yards on 29 attempts, less than three yards per carry.
After Batch threw an interception with three minutes left, the defense forced a three-and-out to give the offense another chance. Before the defense could take a seat, however, Rainey fumbled at the Steelers’ 40.
The Steelers could have had the ball right back when Larry Foote appeared to rip the ball away from Richardson on the next play, but the play wasn’t ruled a fumble, and the Steelers couldn’t challenge because they had to spend all their timeouts during the previous three-and-out.
Not even the Steelers’ defense is good enough to finagle a fourth timeout.
The defense might actually get some cooperation from the offense next week in Baltimore. According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen via Pro Football Talk, Roethlisberger could be back.
The Steelers sure could use Roethlisberger next week, but I refuse to believe the Steelers are as hapless without him as the Colts were without Peyton Manning last year.
If Roethlisberger’s not healthy enough to play, the Steelers can win if Batch shakes off the rust. They can win if Mendenhall, Rainey, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer can hang onto the football. It might help, too, if Polamalu or Antonio Brown can get back on the field.
If at least some of those things happen and the defense does what it’s been doing for the last six weeks, this won’t be 2009 all over again.