It is possible before tonight ends in Cleveland that the Steelers will have a 1,000-yard rusher, a 3,000-yard quarterback, and a 1,000-yard receiver, with another waiting in the wings.
It is possible that they will have all that, plus a top-five defense, and not make the playoffs.
How to explain it?
"There have been some unusual things happening," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger mentioned.
Indeed. Roethlisberger has 3,145 yards passing. Rashard Mendenhall needs 113 yards rushing to hit 1,000. Santonio Holmes needs 13 yards receiving to reach 1,000 for the first time. Hines Ward, who likely will not play tonight, needs 78 yards receiving to reach 1,000 for the sixth time.
Only once in history have the Steelers had a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. That occurred in 2001 when they went 13-3. Never have they had a 4,000-yard passer, which is well within Roethlisberger's range. Even their time of possession is up, at 32:28 nearly a minute more than last season's 31:29.
Yet, their record stands at 6-6 and they are on the brink of not making the playoffs a year after they won the Super Bowl.
It does not make sense.
"Last year, the ball bounced our way and things happened good for us and we went on to win the Super Bowl," Roethlisberger said. "This year, the ball is not bouncing our way and we are not getting those lucky breaks that are sometimes involved in a football game."
Is that it? Just bad luck and the bounce of the football here and there?
"You look at situational red zone and third-down efficiency, we're just not doing what we need to do," Ward said. "Statistically, yeah, we're putting up numbers, but when we get down in the red zone we're not putting up touchdowns. On third down, we're below average."
Inside the 20, the offense ranks 18th in the NFL in touchdown percentage at 51.2. It ranks seventh in total yards. On third downs, the Steelers rank 16th by converting 39.7 percent of them into first downs. Perhaps, as Ward noted, those two mediocre performances in two vital areas have helped hold an otherwise productive offense down.
There seems to be no one explanation for the Steelers' failure in those two areas.
"I think it's just maybe one guy not being on the same page," said Ward, repeating a reason that is age-old in football. "You look at it: We miss a 'hot' here, a block here. It accumulates. If one guy has a perfect game but messes up in situational football, it becomes huge.
"That's just been the case this year. It's more us beating ourselves than anything. The stats aren't comparable to what we're actually putting up in wins and losses by being an efficient team in red zone and third downs."
Similar missteps seem to afflict the NFL's fifth-ranked defense. The skimpy yards the Steelers have allowed in games (297.3 on average) cannot explain their many fourth-quarter collapses. Opponents have scored 45.5 percent (105) of their total points against the Steelers in the fourth quarter and overtime.
"I guess it's just those last drives that have been getting to us," said safety Troy Polamalu, who will miss his fourth consecutive game and eighth this season with a knee injury.
"We're not finishing," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We're not finding a way at the end to finish games. Bottom line. The main thing is, we're giving up too many big plays. We have to stop that."
The defenders are at a loss to explain why that occurs in the fourth quarter but not in the first three. Last season, opponents produced two pass plays longer than 40 yards; that number stands at seven this season with five games left. Five of those big passes have come during this four-game losing streak.
"It's not the same thing every week, which may be disappointing because it would probably be an easy Band-Aid to cover that mistake," Polamalu said.
The defense also has not fared well in allowing third-down conversions -- ranking 20th, at 40 percent. It also ranks last in the league in fourth-down conversions by allowing seven of nine. However, its performance inside the 20 remains good -- tied for seventh.
That defense has lost four starters from its Super Bowl team, including two -- Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith -- to injuries this season. But as Hampton noted, it does not explain the defense's high rankings in many categories, including points allowed (eighth).
"I don't know," Polamalu said. "I think we're all kind of searching for answers."
The Steelers released quarterback Tyler Palko and signed rookie receiver Tyler Grisham from their practice squad.
There are two reasons for the move: Charlie Batch's broken left wrist has healed well enough to allow him to serve as the No. 3 quarterback, and Ward's hamstring injury -- the least severe, with minor tearing of the muscle -- has not healed well enough for him to play.
Ward and cornerback William Gay were officially listed as "questionable" by the Steelers, who listed Batch and Rashard Mendenhall as "probable." Troy Polamalu was declared out for tonight's game.
For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 10, 2009 5:00 AM