And so it ended last Sunday at Heinz Field. There is still a mathematical possibility, or to be more precise, it's not over mathematically, but their hopes to squeeze into the playoffs for all intents and purposes ended last Sunday at Heinz Field.
Those hopes ended on a bitter winter afternoon against an opponent from the topics, and that was just one of the indignities involved for them and the hardcore fans who endured the weather to be there with them.
It has been a season of frustration and disappointment for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a whole bunch of the things that made it so came together in a game against the Miami Dolphins, a game in which the home team held a fourth-quarter lead only to lose, 34-28.
Right there, within those numbers, has been their problem all year. It's not only that the Steelers lost a December home game to a franchise that couldn't win in December in Pittsburgh when it had Dan Marino playing quarterback, but that the Steelers lost a December home game to a team with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback even though it scored 28 points.
Once upon a time, scoring 28 points meant a win for sure. Most times it meant a comfortable win.
That's not the case anymore. It's not that the Steelers defense has become a sieve in terms of the amount of points it allows on a weekly basis, but the Steelers defense has become ordinary. Once upon a time, the Steelers won games, won championships even, purely on the ability and performance of their defense. Too often in 2013 the Steelers defense was something to be overcome, and theirs is not a team built to be able to do that consistently.
Opponents have been making plays against this Steelers defense with frightening regularity all season. Including this loss to the Dolphins, the Steelers have allowed five runs of 50-plus yards and a dozen pass completions of 40-plus yards. Seven of those dozen catches have been for 50-plus yards.
In answer to a recent question about the frequency with which the defense has been allowing big plays this season, Coach Mike Tomlin said, "It's probably a combination of several things, whether you're doing things positively or when you're doing things negatively. It's usually multi-layered. Speed, schematics. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that good plays are drawn up against defenses, and you get caught in a defense that's less than favorable.
"Sometimes it's somebody's guy making a play on somebody else's guy. You look at a guy like Calvin Johnson. I don't care what defense you draw up or who you have back there, he's got a chance to make a big play if it's one-on-one because of the skills he has. It usually is a combination of all of the above."
Giving credit to the other highly-compensated professionals is the tack Tomlin must take, because pinpointing or even acknowledging his own team's inadequacies to answer a question is counterproductive at this stage of a season.
Making a big play in the NFL requires a lot of moving parts, where one little glitch by any of the components involved can sabotage the whole thing, and the only constant in all of these big plays has been that they've all come against this Steelers defense. And as Tomlin said, the cause of big plays is usually multi-layered.
Speed in the secondary has to be an issue. So does what can be described as the unit being toothless, defined as a takeaway drought now in a third straight season. The pass rush hasn't been as potent. Some guys can't make plays, and some others don't. Mix in a few who don't yet understand how, and there is some explanation for why Ryan Tannehill left Pittsburgh after a December game at Heinz Field with a 95.5 passer rating, and why a Dolphins offense that came here ranked in the bottom half of the league in every significant statistical category converted four-of-six red zone trips into touchdowns.
That's the explanation. The tough part will be coming up with a solution.
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