Big plays, surprising losses a toxic pattern for Steelers



What happened in Oakland in the first 19 seconds last Sunday, when Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor faked a handoff to Darren McFadden, when LaMarr Woodley instructively crashed from his left outside linebacker position, when right guard Mike Brisiel pulled and linebacker Lawrence Timmons and safety Ryan Clark followed, when Troy Polamalu couldn’t escape the block of wide receiver Rod Streater, when Pryor ran through a hole 17 yards wide and sprinted 93 yards untouched for the longest run ever by an NFL quarterback, should not really have come as a surprise.

This was history revisited for the Steelers, something that has occurred too often in seasons of disrepair when big plays and bad losses conspire to produce a non-playoff year. It happened in 2009, it happened in 2012 and, after seven games of this season of historically bad proportion, it is happening again, right in front of their disbelieving eyes.

Disturbing and stunning as it was, Pryor’s record run was merely a reminder of similar big plays that have turned recent seasons sour. After two futile series and six plays that gained 4 yards, the Steelers fell further behind to the Raiders, 14-0, with 71⁄2 minutes remaining in the first quarter. They were on their way to a 21-3 halftime deficit and an eventual 21-18 defeat to a team that had only two victories and had not won following an off week since 2002.

Three weeks earlier, against a winless team that was playing without its starting quarterback, the Steelers lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-27, in London after falling behind, 17-7, in the second quarter. That deficit was created by a 70-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings and a 60-yard touchdown run by Adrian Peterson.

“You just basically got to go out and not allow big plays, that’s basically the whole thing,” cornerback William Gay said. “That’s basically what started it. If we get caught in a bad situation when we take the field, we got to put the fire out, is what we call it. Things like that, if you accomplish that in the first half, they don’t start fast.”

But that hasn’t happened.

Fast starts by the opposition are nothing new. It could happen in today’s 4:25 p.m. game in Foxborough, Mass., against the New England Patriots (6-2), even though Tom Brady and the Patriots offense haven’t displayed the same firepower as recent seasons.

That, though, would be understandable.

The problem for the Steelers has been starting slow against bad teams, i.e., teams with losing records that rank among the bottom feeders in the league.

When Mike Tomlin missed the playoffs for the first time in 2009, the reason was three losses in a five-week span to the Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, teams that combined to win only 14 games that season. A victory against any one of those teams would have put the Steelers in the postseason.

Last year, the Steelers missed the playoffs again by one game with losses to the Raiders (4-12), Browns (5-11) and San Diego Chargers (7-9). Those defeats, coupled with the losses to the Vikings and Raiders this season, reveal a troubling pattern:

The Steelers tend to start slow and allow big plays in games in which they should be the decided favorite. Those deficiencies can be attributable to many things, but the most culpable would appear to be a lack of intensity, if not preparation, to start the game.

“The biggest thing is, when you get to losing, the thing that has to happen as much as talking about starting fast is, you have to believe you can come back,” said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, a studio analyst for CBS Sports. “Look at Denver coming back [against Washington last week]. You have to be able to respond and have the belief you can come from behind. When you don’t do it, it’s like anything else — it starts to be ‘Here we go again,’ and you start to lose the game. That’s what you have to break.”

Here is a look at the eight annoying defeats since 2009 that have crippled each season and a synopsis of what happened in each game.

Nov. 22, 2009

Kansas City 27, Steelers 24 (OT)

The 2-7 Chiefs jumped to a quick 7-0 lead when Jamaal Charles returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, energizing the home crowd and leading to an upset win against the Steelers, who were 7-3. The Chiefs won one more game the rest of the season.

Dec. 6, 2009

Oakland 27, Steelers 24

Two weeks after losing to the Chiefs, the Steelers lost at home to the 3-8 Raiders, who scored 21 points in the fourth quarter with the help of a 75-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski to Louis Murphy. The Raiders won one more game the rest of the season.

Dec. 10, 2009

Cleveland 13, Steelers 6

Capping a horrid five-game losing streak, the Steelers were listless and disinterested in the bitter cold in Cleveland, falling behind, 13-0, in the second quarter and never managing anything other than two Jeff Reed field goals. The Browns came into the game with a 1-11 record.

Sept. 23, 2012

Oakland 34, Steelers 31

The winless Raiders, who managed just two touchdowns in the first two games, produced their highest point total of the season against the Steelers. The turning point was a 64-yard touchdown run by Darren McFadden in the second quarter.

Nov. 25, 2012

Cleveland 20, Steelers 14

Playing without injured Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers took a 7-0 lead on an interception return by Lawrence Timmons. But the offense committed eight turnovers (five fumbles, three interceptions), and the Steelers lost to the 2-8 Browns.

Dec. 9, 2012

San Diego 34, Steelers 24

One week after an emotional comeback victory against the Ravens, the Steelers came out listless, fell behind, 13-0, and 34-10, and were embarrassed by the 4-8 Chargers.

Sept. 29, 2013

Minnesota 34, Steelers 27

The winless Vikings, playing with backup quarterback Matt Cassel, jumped out to leads of 10-0 and 17-7 thanks to a 70-yard touchdown pass and a 60-yard touchdown run to drop the Steelers to 0-4 for the first time since 1968.

Oct. 27, 2013

Oakland 21, Steelers 18

Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage jump-started the Raiders to leads of 14-0 in the first quarter and 21-3 at halftime, ending the Steelers’ two-game winning streak.

In every game but one, the common thread has either been a big play early or a fast start by the opponent. Defensive end Brett Keisel talked about both in the locker room in Oakland, and he continued the theme during the week.

They are killing the team, Keisel said, and they have to stop. But how?

“We showed what we can do when we can play with the lead a little bit,” said Keisel, referring to the victories against the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. “We’re a pretty tough team. It’s tough to come from behind the eight ball. We got to do a better job defensively of keeping the ball out of the end zone early.”

‘Start fast and finish strong’

Maybe Keisel, a 12-year veteran, was remembering his early days with the Steelers when Cowher compiled a record of 105-1-1 in regular-season games in which the Steelers had a lead of 11 points or more.

In those days, the Steelers didn’t use the running game to build the lead. They used the run to protect the lead. That’s what they did on the road to their Super Bowl victory in 2005. Cowher’s motto always was, “Throw early to run late.”

“It was always a mantra going in — you want to start fast and finish strong,” Cowher said over the phone. “You wanted to be aggressive and play smart. They’ve had a bunch of big plays. The first play of the game the quarterback [runs] 93 yards. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do, per se, because there’s a sense of urgency with everything you’re doing.”

The Steelers have allowed six plays of 51 yards or longer this season, second most in the league (Detroit Lions have allowed seven). The breakdown: Runs of 55, 60 and 93 yards; passes of 51, 61 and 70 yards. Five of those plays came in the first half. All either resulted in a touchdown or led to a touchdown.

“You just have to really focus on executing on the very first play and being disciplined and falling into your rhythm throughout the game,” Polamalu said. “You got to be very technique-sound and focus on being very technique-sound.

“I’m sure there are a lot of small things that people can do to prepare better, whether getting rest or hydrate better. But I think the easy answer is to focus on what your technique is and focus on that right from the start.”

Coming from behind, even way behind, is certainly not a foreign concept. The Patriots did it last week against the Miami Dolphins, coming back from a 17-3 halftime deficit for a 27-17 victory. The Broncos did it against the Redskins, coming back from a 21-7 hole with 31 points in the fourth quarter. The Cincinnati Bengals did it Thursday night, bouncing back from a 17-3 deficit against the Dolphins to force overtime, even though they lost.

But wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who has played three of his 10 NFL seasons with the Steelers, said that is easier said than done. He compared coming back from a slow start to a basketball team trying to make a run to make up a double-digit deficit: So much energy is expended merely trying to get back into the game that there is little, if nothing, left for the final minutes.

“And it’s not just physical, it’s mental,” Cotchery said. “It’s human nature. Once you get back to where you’re supposed to be, you kind of go, ‘whew.’ ”

But, for the Steelers, they’ve probably spent too much time saying, “Whoa.”


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.

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