It now comes time for the Steelers to dust off an old game plan, to sit on the knees of their elders and ask them what it was like back in the day. They must harken to a decade ago, to another time when little was left to gain with so many games left in the season.
Their 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field, where there were 13,000 no-shows on a cold, snowy day providing no home-field advantage, left them with a 5-8 record and virtually no chance to earn a playoff spot for the second season in a row.
They last had this kind of record with three games left in 2003 when they finished 6-10, tied for their second-worst season since the 1970 NFL merger. The end of this season seemed set up for them to succeed with three of their final four games at home. But they have now lost three at Heinz Field, as well as the interest of many of their ticket-holders.
Steelers Report: Dolphins 34, Steelers 28
Steelers beat writers Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac talk about the Steelers' loss to the Miami Dolphins this afternoon at Heinz Field. (Video by Peter Diana; 12/8/2013)
Tomlin discusses Steelers' 34-28 loss to Dolphins
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin disusses his team's loss to the Dolphins at Heinz Field Sunday. (Video by Matt Freed; 12/8/2013)
“We still got jobs, we still got games to play,” cornerback Ike Taylor said of the goal for the final three weeks. “Ain’t got no time to be whining and talking about the season, talking about the playoffs. We still got three left. So we got to go out there and show what we can do for these last three games.”
Haven’t their fans suffered enough? They have stayed away in near-record numbers as the Steelers finished the first half of the season 2-6, and now their small comeback try has dissipated with two losses in a row.
“Hurt? Yeah,” Taylor said. “Frustrated, hurt, but when you’re consistent at being inconsistent, you get a 5-8 record.”
The 11-year veteran, who experienced that 6-10 season 10 years ago, said they now must play for “pride and character.”
“It’s going to show on tape,” Taylor said. “That’s one thing that tape is going to do. That tape doesn’t lie. Regardless what the record is, you still have to play football.”
They played entertaining football on Sunday, as did the Dolphins, who enhanced their own playoff chances at 7-6. There weren’t many fans left in the stands to see the final, wacky play that began with three seconds left at the Steelers 26 on a Ben Roethlisberger pass to Emmanuel Sanders, who went first in a stretch of five laterals to and from various teammates.
The play ended with Antonio Brown running the final 67 yards into the end zone, but officials caught him stepping out of bounds at the Miami 12 to end the game. Even had he stayed inbounds, they would have reviewed the play and found that Roethlisberger’s second lateral was an illegal forward pass.
Before that, Roethlisberger broke out of a tie with Terry Bradshaw by throwing three touchdown passes, Nos. 213, 214 and 215 in a back-and-fourth game.
He wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.
“That’s kind of a silly question,” he answered to one query of where the loss ranks in terms of “heartbreak.”
One of Roethlisberger’s touchdown passes went to Sanders for 5 yards to stake the Steelers to a 7-0 first-quarter lead. After Miami shot to a 17-7 lead in the third quarter, the Steelers reclaimed it in lightning fashion. First came Brown’s touchdown that covered 43 yards after a short pass, then a play the Steelers have not seen since the 2008 AFC championship — Troy Polamalu’s 19-yard touchdown on an interception return.
The Steelers led, 21-17, at that point in the third quarter. But Brian Hartline’s 4-yard touchdown reception from Ryan Tannehill put Miami ahead, 24-21. Then came Jerricho Cotchery’s 16-yard touchdown catch to put the Steelers back on top, 28-24, on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Next was the play that helped put the Steelers’ 2013 playoff chances to bed. Miami running back Daniel Thomas ran 55 yards to the 16. Two plays later, Tannehill threw a short pass from the 12 to tight end Charles Clay. Polamalu and Cortez Allen had him in their grasp at the 7, but Clay broke loose for a touchdown that put the Dolphins in front for good at 31-28.
“I thought we could have tackled better,” coach Mike Tomlin said of his team that also allowed Tannehill to run 48 yards on an option play and for Clay to catch another pass for a 40-yard gain.
“That contributed to some of the splash plays, the big run late. Obviously we didn’t do enough in that area. We dropped a couple balls, those types of things.”
The types that have plagued their 5-8 season.
“In games like this, December football, you can’t make mistakes,” said Cotchery, who caught his team-high ninth touchdown pass. “That’s what it boils down to. We had a chance to finish them off.”
It has been a trend for them this season with five of their losses coming by a touchdown or less.
Roethlisberger had another good day statistically, and their ground game, ranked 31st in the NFL going in, had another poor one. Roethlisberger completed 23 of 39 passes for 349 yards, those three touchdowns and no interceptions. But he was sacked three times, one of them causing a fumble that led to Miami’s first touchdown in the second quarter.
“I think the weather early dictated,” Roethlisberger said of a ground game that produced 55 yards on 15 plays in the first half, but only six carries for 29 yards in the second. “We had to run the ball a lot, but we were able to do some good running the ball early. In the second half, it kind of died down a little bit, the snow. So we felt like we could throw the ball.”
Miami, on the other hand, felt like it could run. It was a complete role reversal of how teams from the North and South are supposed to play in the snow and cold. Thomas gobbled up 105 yards on 16 carries and the Dolphins had 181 and a 7.5-yard average.
And when it had to, Miami played good defense.
“It was fun,” Tannehill said of playing in the snow. “It wasn’t too bad. Early in the game, the snow was coming down pretty good. But the ball felt good all day.”
At the end, it was no fun for the Steelers. It hasn’t been much fun all season, particularly at home where the fans are now abandoning them, as well.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published December 8, 2013 1:41 PM