For reasons that are as mystifying as they are surprising, Ben Roethlisberger never was the same after returning from rib/shoulder injuries that caused him to miss three games. Sure, the season got off to a shaky start with a pick-six that effectively ended the opener in Denver. But, in the next seven games, he was as productive and efficient as any point in his career and developed into the best third-down passer in the league. Still, his season will be defined by two damaging throws when it counted most -- the overtime interception in Dallas and the inexcusable pick in the final seconds against the Bengals, both of which ended the game. Even what appeared to be the biggest spark of the season -- Charlie Batch's second-half performance in Baltimore -- was wasted with a listless effort one week later against San Diego.
The attempt to run the ball more efficiently failed somewhat miserably when the Steelers averaged 3.7 yards per rush after averaging 4.4 yards in 2011. And they never had a run longer than 34 yards after having three of 56 yards or longer a year earlier. The best point of the season was when Jonathan Dwyer (2) and Isaac Redman (1) combined to have three consecutive games of 100 yards rushing, something that hadn't been done since 2007. After that, they rushed for more than 100 yards as a team just once in the final eight games. It did not help that Rashard Mendenhall missed the first three games of the season and seven of the first nine recovering from injuries. Nor did the discipline and one-game suspension that resulted from fumbles in Baltimore.
There might not have been a more disappointing and underachieving unit on the team than this. Mike Wallace looked more like a possession receiver for much of the early part of the season and did not endear himself to the fans with several big drops, including a potential game-changer against the Chargers. Antonio Brown finished with five touchdowns after missing three games with an ankle injury, but his season will be remembered for costly fumbles and mental gaffes. Same with Emmanuel Sanders, who had two inexplicable fumbles at midfield on plays that proved to be significant. The lone exception was tight end Heath Miller, who was selected to the Pro Bowl after leading the team with 71 catches and eight touchdowns.
After a solid start, the line became disjointed and ineffective because of injuries. The unit lost guard Willie Colon and right tackle Marcus Gilbert to season-ending injuries and No. 1 pick David DeCastro spent the first 11 games on the designated injured-reserve list after winning the right-guard spot in training camp. Even Gilbert's replacement, rookie Mike Adams, missed the final five games with injury. But there were several positives. Left tackle Max Starks was the only lineman to take every snap and was arguably their best player up front. Rookie right tackle Kelvin Beachum turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the season. And protecting Batch in Baltimore with center Maurkice Pouncey at left guard was a performance for the ages.
Judging the defensive line mostly needs to be done collectively, not individually, because of the nature of the defense and what the linemen are asked to do. And, collectively, the Steelers finished No. 2 in the league against the run after allowing just four teams to run for more than 100 yards. And they were leading the league in fewest runs of 20 yards or more (4) until the Cleveland Browns had two in the final game, one on a fake punt. Individually, nose tackle Casey Hampton played well enough after coming back from ACL surgery that Steve McClendon never played much after a very good training camp. And end Brett Keisel tried to make up for a lack of pass rush with a team-high 40 pressures. But among the biggest disappointments was the lack of development of former No. 1 pick Cam Heywardp>
The team's 3-4 defense is built around the ability of the outside linebackers to generate pressure on the quarterback, and that didn't happen in 2012, whether because of injuries or ineffective play. Both former Pro Bowlers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, missed three games because of injuries and combined for only 10 sacks -- less than half of what they averaged the previous four years together. The lack of pressure was partly responsible for the lack of takeaways (20) and interceptions (10). Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons led the team with six sacks and 132 tackles, and also had key interception returns against Kansas City and the Browns. But, other than Jason Worilds, there is a significant lack of depth that needs to be addressed next season.
This unit consistently graded out higher than any other position, which is no surprise considering the Steelers led the league in pass defense for the second year in a row. There were several reasons, chief among them the drastic improvement of cornerback Keenan Lewis, the steady play of safety Ryan Clark and the stability brought by veteran Will Allen when he replaced injured safety Troy Polamalu for six games. Yes, the secondary suffered against the Chargers and the Cowboys without cornerback Ike Taylor and because of injuries to Lewis and Cortez Allen. And the cornerbacks had only three interceptions, two by Allen. But, in this era of pass-happy football, you're doing something right when you can hold seven consecutive quarterbacks to fewer than 200 yards passing.
It is not the fault of special teams that the offense never converted any long returns into points, including a 68-yard kick return and a 62-yard punt return against the New York Giants. But it is their fault when penalties, a consistent theme early in the season, negated touchdown punt returns of 78 and 72 yards by Antonio Brown. It is their fault when they get fooled twice in a span of four games on fake punts by desperate teams who had nothing to lose. It is their fault that Drew Butler's blocked punt in Tennessee and Brown's fumble in Dallas were significant turning points in those defeats. But kicker Shaun Suisham was a rock most of the season, missing only one field goal until he missed two critical ones in the must-win game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15.
There is no question that extensive injuries to nearly every key player had a significant effect on the team's performance. But their ability to find ways not to win close games was just as pronounced. The offense and defense never managed to jell at the same time. When the offense was controlling the ball and converting third downs early in the season, the defense didn't protect leads and allowed opponents to convert third downs. When the defense turned around in the second half of the season, the offense couldn't score points or convert third downs. But there is no excuse for losing four games to teams with a combined 22 victories, especially the dispirited home loss to the Chargers. Or, with a chance to make the playoffs, lose two of the last three games at home.
GRADE: DSteelers - mobilehome