They were in this situation – facing an elimination game against the Cincinnati Bengals in the penultimate weekend of the regular season – because their stars had not played like stars often enough. They are in this situation – eyeballing a regular season finale with no chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006 – because their star of stars let them down at the worst possible time.
At this particular NFL outpost, the gospel of "win as a team, lose as a team" long has been preached. But when it comes to assigning culpability for the 13-10 loss to the Bengals that eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention, the defense deserves none. No, this one is on the offense, and because he is the quarterback, this one is on Ben Roethlisberger.
Pointing a finger at one individual and assigning the outcome to him in what is the ultimate team sport typically is some combination of unfair and inaccurate, but when that individual is the quarterback and when the team is built around that quarterback, well, that's another matter altogether.
The Steelers entered the showdown with the Bengals with a 7-7 record, and they were .500 so close to Christmas because they simply were not getting what they needed from their 'A' players.
Even at 7-7, the Steelers were in control of their own playoff fate, and in what amounted to a two-game season, they still even had a chance to win the AFC North Division, which would bring them a Wild Card Game at home. And with this opportunity came with, what for them anyway, was a rash of good health. Most of their stars were available, and those recently returning from injuries had played a few games, which seemed to bode well for their respective units being able find the kind of rhythm that always is a part of success.
Their first opponent during this mini-season was a Cincinnati Bengals team that is the polar opposite of been-there-done-that. This was a franchise that had not made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1981-82, and one that had yet to manufacture back-to-back winning seasons under a coach, Marvin Lewis, now is in his 10th season in the job. That the Bengals played down to those specifications only exacerbates the Steelers' failure in this win-or-stay-home scenario.
For its part, the Steelers defense was up to the task. As this season progressed, the Steelers defense steadily developed the boa constrictor tendencies that gave it a chance in those games where the sacks and takeaways were most rare, and last Sunday against the Bengals the unit was both stingy and larcenous. In the biggest game of the year, the Steelers defense presented its most complete performance of the year.
The offense was the opposite. That last Sunday at Heinz Field was the stage for its worst performance of the season is an easy argument to make, and remember this is the unit that turned it over eight times in Cleveland and punted on each of its first six possessions vs. the Chargers.
(S)ince returning from a shoulder/rib injury for the San Diego game on Dec. 9, Roethlisberger hasn't been the same player, and what is different seems to be less about the physical than about the other components that go into playing quarterback in the NFL.
Once the best third-down quarterback in football, against the Bengals Roethlisberger completed 1-of-8 passes for 11 yards, was sacked three times and intercepted once on third downs. It's the quarterback's job to make plays, and plays need to be made on third downs. Fail to make those plays, add a couple of turnovers, with one of those ending up on the scoreboard, and the quarterback becomes a reason for the loss.
That's what happened against the Bengals. And that's why this loss is on the quarterback.
Read the rest of this column in its entirety in the current issue of Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005, or visit: http://www.steelers.com/news/digest.html