Did Troy Polamalu's play date in the snow Sunday with the Miami Dolphins remind you of an old movie with an unhappy ending that you've watched time and time again? He showed flashes of brilliance and made a highlight-reel play, diving and soaring through the air to score a third-quarter touchdown after returning an interception. But, in the end, he made too many mistakes for a once-proud, but now-shattered defense that allowed way too many points again in yet another hurtful loss.
Doesn't that remind you of the Steelers' season as a whole? Great plays trumped by a few too many blunders. The latest sad result was a 34-28 loss at the winter wonderland that was Heinz Field. The Steelers are 5-8. There is no hope for the playoffs.
If the season were a movie, it would be X-rated.
OK, I'm old. NC-17.
Certainly, it hasn't been suitable for viewing by anyone who loves good football.
"That's kind of how it's been, you know?" Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery asked, rhetorically. "We make some plays here and there, but not enough."
It looked as if the Steelers would win after Polamalu made one of the biggest plays, intercepting an attempted pass from Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill to wide receiver Brian Hartline. On the Dolphins' first series, Polamalu had dropped an easy interception at the Miami 35 that he might have been able to return for a score. This time, he held on, returning the pick 19 yards, leaping to get over the goal line and holding the ball over the pylon with his left hand. It was another in a long line of incredibly athletic moments by Polamalu that could get him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Short term, it gave the Steelers a 21-17 lead and energized the Heinz Field snow globe.
It's fair to wonder how many more times we'll get to see the magnificence of Polamalu. It's not likely he will be back next season unless he agrees to a huge pay cut.
"Anybody in my position with my responsibility could have made that play," Polamalu said. "What does it mean? We lost."
The Steelers surely did, thanks, mostly, to their defense coming up small again. It couldn't hold that lead, giving up a 40-yard pass to tight end Charles Clay, who beat cornerback Cortez Allen, on the Dolphins' next possession, setting up a touchdown. The defense later failed to protect a 28-24 lead, allowing a 55-yard run by Daniel Thomas that put the Dolphins in position for Clay to make it 31-28 with a 12-yard touchdown catch. Polamalu and Allen missed tackles on the touchdown play. It was Polamalu's second missed tackle of the game.
"I just didn't get him down," he said. "I was trying to get the ball out. I've got to get him down."
Polamalu also took partial blame for Thomas' long run.
"I've got to get to my run gap. I missed my run gap there."
Giving up big plays is the one thing the Steelers defense has done consistently. The run by Thomas was the 11th play of more than 50 yards by an opponent this season. That's a ridiculous number. The defense also allowed a 48-yard run by Tannehill in the first quarter that set up a field goal. It's no wonder the Dolphins had 181 rushing yards. The Steelers finished with 84 with a long run of 9 yards by Le'Veon Bell.
"I thought we could have tackled better," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Tomlin acknowledged his defense was so bad on this day that it made him go for it with his offense on a fourth-and-10 play from the Steelers 10 with 2:33 left and the team trailing, 31-28. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was stopped 2 yards short after a scramble up the right sideline. Ordinarily, a punt would have been the prudent thing with the Steelers having two timeouts left plus the two-minute warning. But, as Tomlin noted, "We hadn't done a great job of stopping them in the second half so we weren't ensured of getting the ball back."
So the game came down to the Steelers looking for a miracle finish. On their final play, Roethlisberger threw to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, starting a sequence of laterals that went to Cotchery to Bell to offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, who appeared to score the winning touchdown but was ruled out of bounds at the Dolphins 12.
As much as the Steelers wanted the touchdown and the win, they knew the harsh truth: They didn't deserve either on this wintry afternoon.
"When you're counting on Marcus Gilbert handling the ball at the end to win, you haven't done what you're supposed to do," safety Ryan Clark said.
"That's on us as a defense."
On Polamalu, to be sure.
On all of 'em, really.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.