Barely a month ago, the Steelers were 6-2 after winning five in a row -- beating the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos -- and were well positioned not only to win the AFC North but to take another run at a Super Bowl title. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying a career year statistically, the defense was as nasty as ever and the team had the look and attitude of a champion.
Then, somehow, it all got away from the Steelers. Blame it on Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith being hurt. Blame it on a delayed Super Bowl hangover, blame it on overconfidence, blame it on a lack of preparation, blame it on an inability to close out close games. Right now, there's a whole lot of blame to go around in Pittsburgh.
"People are going to question what has happened to this team, and I really can't say," Ward said. "I don't know. You are going to find out a lot about this team in the last three games. We will figure out who is going to quit and who is going to go out and continue to fight."
The Steelers experienced several late-season collapses like this during the midpoint of former coach Bill Cowher's career. After reaching the AFC Championship Game three times in a four-season span, the Steelers went 7-9 in 1998 after starting 7-4 and 6-10 in 1999 after being 5-3. However, they rebounded to go 13-3 in 2001 and 10-5-1 in 2002.
Now, Cowher's successor is involved in his first crisis in his three seasons as coach, one that seems likely to result in changes in personnel, his coaching staff and, perhaps, philosophy. Tomlin promised changes before the Browns game yet made very few; perhaps he's waiting for the offseason -- and it will be here soon enough -- to make them.
Figuring why the Steelers give up so many long kick returns would be a good start. They have allowed four kickoff-return touchdowns, compared to 10 by the other 31 NFL teams combined.
"We, as a group, have to come together and continue to go out and fight these last three games," Ward said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press