BALTIMORE -- This is what happens when a team veers too far away from its roots. This is the reality of life when an identity becomes too muddled with supposedly progressive thoughts. The Pittsburgh Steelersmight end up watching the playoffs from home not because their offense failed them during a 20-17 upset loss in Baltimore on Sunday. It's because they didn't have enough defense to make critical stops at this stage of the season.
The Steelers have one game left to make a case for a spot in this year's playoff field, but that won't be enough to get them in. In addition to a win over the lowly Cleveland Browns this Sunday, Pittsburgh will need a loss by the New York Jets to keep playing well into January. For being in that unenviable position, the Steelers can primarily thank a defense that has been a weaker link than people realize. Those problems became apparent when Pittsburgh traveled to Baltimore and left with one more reason to hate their AFC North rivals.
The story coming out of the loss was that it was impossible to believe the Ravens -- a team that ranked 25th in the NFL in points allowed entering that contest -- could contain an offense that had scored at least 30 points in each of its six previous games. The real microscope should've been pointed at a Steelers defense that surrendered 20 points to a Baltimore squad that had generated 33 total points in its three prior contests.
"We're capable of beating anyone, but we're also capable of losing to anyone, particularly if we lose the turnover battle, and we lost it [against Baltimore]," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said, after his team lost two turnovers without forcing any. "We didn't secure the ball and we didn't get the ball."
The important part of that comment is the last five words: We didn't get the ball. That essentially sums up the problem with the Steelers as they pursue the final available wild-card spot in the AFC. This had been a team that had done a good job of forcing turnovers (Pittsburgh is tied for fifth in the NFL with 26 takeaways) while also keeping people out of the end zone (they're tied for 11th in the league in points allowed, at 20.5 per game). So where was that unit when the Steelers needed it most?
Prior to Sunday's game, the common wisdom was that defense doesn't matter all that much in Pittsburgh these days. The Steelers had become so explosive that there was legitimate talk about how scary they would be if they landed in the playoffs. Nobody would want to enter a shootout with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams, the thinking went. That would be like trying to keep pace with Usain Bolt in a full-out sprint.
All that excitement created an unrealistic view of the Steelers as the playoff race heated up. As much as offenses now rule the day in the NFL, this remains a league in which defenses shine brightest in late December and January. The Steelers had been giving up plenty of yardage -- only two teams in the league allow more passing yards per game than Pittsburgh's current average of 278.2 -- and that was becoming a growing problem. In the six games leading up to the Baltimore loss, four different teams had produced at least 300 passing yards against the Steelers (with Seattle's Russell Wilson shredding them for 345 yards and five touchdowns in a 39-30 loss in Week 12).
Baltimore actually set the tone with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession. Now, it would've been one thing to allow a seven-minute series that early in a pivotal contest to an opponent at full strength. But we're talking about a Ravens team that has been plagued by injuries and was starting a quarterback (Ryan Mallett) who had signed 12 days before the game. Mallett wound up throwing for 274 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers sacked him once.
In retrospect, the Steelers were bound to have a deflating moment this late in the season. They've been fairly mediocre on defense for most of the last three years, and they replaced longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau with former linebackers coach Keith Butler during the offseason. It wasn't that long ago that you could expect the Steelers to finish at least in the top three in the NFL in scoring defense every year (they achieved that feat six times between 2004 and 2011). If they needed a big play, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison or a host of others often were there to make it.
Age eventually caught up with the Steelers, as has the reality that it isn't so easy to keep a good thing going. They still have talented defensive players -- including Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and Cameron Heyward -- but this is a team no longer built around that side of the football. The Steelers have become something closer to the 1980 Chargers or 2001 Rams, teams that thought they could obliterate the competition with offensive greatness and decent defense. That mindset works about once every decade, and the Steelers should know that by now.
Former Pittsburgh great Hines Ward once said that this franchise usually runs into trouble when it forgets the identity that was forged through Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, Joe Greene and Jack Lambert. The Steelers did that in 2003 (when a high-powered passing attack led by Tommy Maddox resulted in a 6-10 record) and they did it again in 2009 (when Roethlisberger's first 4,000-yard season wasn't enough to lead that team to the postseason). After all, Pittsburgh is a town that revels in its blue-collar spirit, and nothing embodies that more than a staunch defense. Sometimes it can be dangerous to become too enamored with a high-flying approach to winning.
Now the Steelers will take out their frustrations on the Brown in this Sunday's regular-season finale. Beyond that, they'll just be praying for good news to appear elsewhere. As Heyward said, "Really, the only thing we can do is prepare for Cleveland. We can't worry about what the Jets do. We put ourselves in this position. Obviously, we need help, [but] all we can do is win next week."
The tough part for the Steelers is knowing that even the most impressive of wins won't matter if the Jetshandle their business in Buffalo. They've found a way to overcome injuries, suspensions and some painfully close defeats. However, the one thing they never quite figured out was how to field a defense that could be clutch with the season on the line. If the Steelers end up sitting at home in January, that's the reality that will sting them the most.