Following their worst performance in recent memory, the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers are left to wonder what happened this season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been asking that same question for weeks.
The Steelers will try to rebound from a dismal game and keep their hopes for a winning season alive when they host the last-place Buccaneers on Sunday.
There were certainly no guarantees that the Steelers (4-7) would repeat as Super Bowl champions, but few could’ve predicted that they would be in danger of a losing season. Pittsburgh won its final four games last season to get to 11-5 and earn the last spot in the AFC playoffs, but even wins in each of its final five games would make it only 9-7, a record that wouldn’t likely be good enough to get them into the postseason.
“You have to learn to deal with it,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “The longer you’re in this business, the higher the expectation levels become. Certainly for our team and the expectations that we had, it becomes trying. It tests you. I think it becomes very revealing as well. It has a way of separating the conditional friend from the unconditional.”
Consecutive wins over New Orleans and Cleveland gave the Steelers hope that perhaps they were poised for another late-season run, but an ugly 27-0 loss at Baltimore on Sunday showed just how far they have fallen.
Pittsburgh was shut out for the second time this season and dropped to 1-5 on the road. The nine sacks the Steelers allowed matched the most they’ve permitted since the NFL officially recognized the statistic in 1982, and their 21 rushing yards were their fewest since 1982.
“We didn’t show up,” receiver Hines Ward said of the Steelers’ worst shutout loss under Cowher since a 27-0 defeat to the then-Los Angeles Rams in 1993. “We fell behind and guys had their heads down. That’s very uncharacteristic for us. When we fell behind, we started pressing and we couldn’t get anything going.”
The biggest reason for Pittsburgh’s lack of success can be traced to an inordinate amount of turnovers.
Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 19 interceptions in 10 games this season after throwing only nine in 12 games in 2005. Pittsburgh is last in the NFL in with a minus-12 turnover ratio.
All that’s likely left for the Steelers is to avoid the embarrassment of going from a Super Bowl champion one season to last in the division the next. They are one game ahead of last-place Cleveland in the AFC North.
Pittsburgh would have to win at least three of its last five games to finish 7-9 and avoid matching the team’s worst record under Cowher, the 6-10 marks of 1999 and 2003.
Despite his club’s situation, Cowher doesn’t expect his players to give up and look toward next season.
“The bottom line is doing what you think gives you the best chance to win week to week,” he said. “People talk about wanting to prepare for the future and looking ahead. The best way to do that is win games and create that mindset and mentality. You can’t jeopardize any game just to develop somebody else. You don’t know what your team is going to be like a year from now.”
The Steelers will be without Ward and safety Troy Polamalu—two of their top players—Sunday. Ward will miss one game and likely two after undergoing left knee surgery Monday to remove bone fragments. Polamalu is out with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Tamp Bay (3-8) endured another poor offensive performance in a 38-10 loss at Dallas on Thanksgiving, its fourth defeat in five games.
After opening the game with an 80-yard touchdown drive, the Buccaneers crossed midfield only once more and finished with 211 total yards.
Tampa Bay has scored 47 points in compiling an 0-5 road record. It’s averaging 12.9 points per game overall, with only Oakland, at 12.0, averaging fewer.
With games left against Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle, the Bucs could be headed for their worst season since they finished 3-13 in 1991.
“Just stay positive and keep fighting,” running back Cadillac Williams said. “Coach (Jon) Gruden says, ‘These are the trying times.’ Everybody goes through them. What are you going to do in these bad times? As young players, and (all) the players on this team, we’ve just got to keep fighting.”
The Steelers are 5-1 against the Buccaneers, including a 17-7 victory in the most recent meeting Dec. 23, 2002. This is only Tampa Bay’s second visit to Pittsburgh, the first since 1983.