Like a lot of holiday consumers, the Steelers will be doing a lot of window shopping today, standing on the outside looking in at something they would dearly like – a spot in the NFL postseason.
They are in this position for any number of reasons, none more tangible than an 0-4 start to the regular season that, in retrospect, was foreshadowed by Isaac Redman’s fumble at the goal line in the opener against Tennessee.
And that was only the start. There was poor tackling in London. Chicanery in Oakland. Embarrassing numbers in New England. A dropped pass in Baltimore. A blown lead and wayward toe against Miami. And probably any one of the 11 scrimmage plays of 50 yards or longer that crippled their defense.
As was the case last year, the Steelers need a victory in their final game today against the Cleveland Browns to finish with an 8-8 record, the second non-winning season of Mike Tomlin’s tenure. And, unless something that defies mathematical probability occurs with the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers, they will end up as they did last season — on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin next weekend.
Of course, before any of that matters, the Steelers need to take care of their own business against the Browns, something they didn’t always do early in the season against teams with inferior records. Their 5-2 record in the past seven games suggests they will do so. Their 0-4 record to start the season is a painful reminder that anything can happen.
“I’m not going to look back on it yet,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who needs 247 passing yards to break his own franchise record for most passing yards in a season. “I’m still looking forward because we have this game to play and it’s a big one for us. When that’s over, I’ll look back and reflect more on the season.”
With respect to Roethlisberger’s reluctance, here are the 10 plays that shaped the Steelers’ season and put them in the precarious position they find themselves against the Browns:
1. Daniel Thomas’ 55-yard run vs. Miami
The Steelers had rallied from a 17-7 deficit to take a 28-24 lead against the Dolphins on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery in the fourth quarter. After throwing on nine of their next 11 plays and managing just one first down, the Steelers allowed their fourth run of longer than 50 yards this season when Thomas ran 55 yards to the Steelers 16, setting up the Dolphins’ winning touchdown. “We thought they would try to beat us deep and he just split it,” safety Ryan Clark said. If the Steelers win the game, they, not the Dolphins, have control of the sixth playoff seed. (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
2. Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard TD run
After winning two games in a row to climb out of their 0-4 hole, the Steelers went to Oakland and were immediately ambushed by the Raiders, who jumped to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter. It started on the first play from scrimmage when Pryor faked a handoff to Darren McFadden, fooled most of the defense and went 93 yards up the middle for the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history. “You can’t start a game off like that,” said outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. “You can’t start a game giving up a 93-yard run.” (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
3. Redman’s goal-line fumble vs. Titans
The Steelers hadn’t lost a season opener at home since 2002 and already were off to one of the fastest starts in NFL history when they were awarded a safety on the opening kickoff. They took the ensuing free kick, converted three first downs and faced third-and-1 at the Tennessee 6 when Redman muffed the exchange from Roethlisberger and the Titans recovered in the end zone. Instead of leading 9-0, the Steelers never managed a touchdown until the Titans built a 16-2 lead in the fourth quarter. Worse, they lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season on the eighth play from scrimmage. (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
4. Julian Edelman’s punt return in New England
The Steelers had rallied from a 14-point deficit for a 24-24 tie on a pair of touchdown throws to Cotchery in the third quarter, then fell behind again, 27-24. But their chance for an improbable but resounding comeback against the Patriots ended when Edelman returned a punt 43 yards to the Steelers 34. Five plays later, Tom Brady threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson to make it 34-24 in a game in which the defense embarrassingly allowed the most points (55) and most yards (610) in franchise history. “The big punt return was a significant play,” Tomlin said.
5. Antonio Brown steps out of bounds vs. Miami
In a wild finish to a game that would ultimately shape their playoff standing, the Steelers nearly pulled off the second greatest ending in franchise history when the final play of the game almost resulted in an improbable touchdown. That’s when a pass to Emmanuel Sanders began a series of five laterals that ended with Brown streaking 55 yards down the left sideline, only to step out of bounds with the front portion of his left foot at the Dolphins 12. “That’s one of those plays that you would have liked to have to let it go and then let replay overturn it,” said Roethlisberger, who lateralled the ball to Brown. (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
6. Greg Jennings’ 70-yard TD catch vs. Minnesota
The Steelers had not started 0-4 since the 1968 season and had a good chance to end their losing ways against the winless Vikings in London. But the Vikings, playing with backup quarterback Matt Cassel, jumped to a 10-0 lead in the first seven minutes thanks to a 70-yard catch-and-run by Jennings in which cornerback Cortez Allen missed not one, but two, tackle attempts. It was one of three plays of 51 yards or longer by the Vikings. “I let my teammates down today,” Allen said. (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
7. Emmanuel Sanders’ dropped two-pointer vs. Baltimore
After the Steelers scored touchdowns on their final two possessions in Baltimore Thanksgiving night to cut the lead to 22-20 with 1:03 remaining, Roethlisberger’s two-point conversion pass to Sanders — a back-shoulder throw against cornerback Chykie Brown — went through his hands. The play was out of the same formation as the 1-yard TD throw to Jerricho Cotchery that made it 22-20. “I couldn’t see the ball till the very end,” Sanders said. “But that’s no excuse. I got to make that catch. When it touches my hands I have to make those plays.”
8. Roethlisberger’s first of four turnovers vs. Chicago
In what would become a recurring theme, the Steelers fell behind by 21 points in the first half against the Bears at home, and it started on the third offensive play. Roethlisberger was sacked and stripped of the ball while stepping into the pocket, giving the Bears possession at the Steelers 17. Three plays later, running back Matt Forte scored for a 10-0 lead. It was the first of Roethlisberger’s four turnovers.
9. Jacoby Jones’ 73-yard kick return in Baltimore
The Thanksgiving night play will always be remembered for Mike Tomlin standing in the white sideline box and jumping out of the way during the return, resulting in a $100,000 fine by the league. But the impact was this: The Steelers had just cut the Ravens’ lead to 13-7 on an 8-yard scoring pass to Sanders when Jones returned the ensuing kickoff to the Steelers’ 27, setting up a Justin Tucker field goal. The loss ended a three-game winning streak by the Steelers. (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
10. Roethlisberger’s last-play fumble in London
After fighting back from a 34-17 deficit, the Steelers had the ball at the Minnesota 6 with 19 seconds remaining after Roethlisberger completed six passes for 72 yards. Needing a touchdown to force overtime, Roethlisberger had time for at least two more plays, possibly three, despite not having any timeouts. But, on second down, he was sacked for a 4-yard loss and deliberately let go of the ball, thinking there wasn’t enough time to get off a play. The Vikings recovered with :06 remaining. (Watch the play at NFL.com.)
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com or Twitter @gerrydulac.