As we push toward the playoffs, Shutdown Corner takes a brief moment to review the seasons of those teams that barely missed the cut. We'll continue this series with the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.
When asking the question of why the Steelers failed to defend their Super Bowl championship by missing the playoffs entirely, there are two types of answers. Start with the simple answer, which is that the team was 4-1 with Troy Polamalu(notes) in the lineup and 5-6 without. There's a lot to that statement -- Pittsburgh's secondary was nothing to write home about in Polamalu's absence and it took until the season finale against the Dolphins before one of their cornerbacks came up with an interception. I thought that Polamalu should have been the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2008, and he may have proven his value just as much in his absence this season.
The long answer, which is a bit more complicated and much tougher to fix, is that Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) ability to deflect pressure and maintain drives under all sorts of heat has hidden a multitude of offensive sins far too long. At some point, the Steelers were going to have to pay the piper. The offensive line wasn't any better than it was in 2008, when it became perhaps the worst line to wear Super Bowl rings. In 2009, the running game was slightly more effective, but also absent too often when the Steelers needed it. This team's reputation and ability has long been defined by tough defense and a dominant, clock-killing running game, and the Steelers had neither of those things in 2009. Rashard Mendenhall(notes) ran for 1,108 yards on the ground, a number that used to be impressive in a 14-game season. Over 16 games, it means 69.25 yards per contest, and he busted 100 yards in a single game only three times.
The real shocker was on the defensive side of the ball. The Steelers had no real answers for the losses of Polamalu and elite end Aaron Smith(notes). James Harrison's(notes) sack total dropped from 16 to 10, but endmate LaMarr Woodley(notes) broke out big-time, ending his season with 13.5 sacks. Inside linebacker James Farrior(notes) is not what he used to be, and there are going to be questions along the front of that 3-4 even when Smith is healthy.
Of course, the biggest issue may be the easiest to repair -- a special teams return unit among the worst in recent memory. At one point, the Steelers had allowed three kick return touchdowns in a four-game stretch, and the total of four kick return touchdowns allowed for the season was twice as much as any other team. The good news is that in 2008, the Steelers had the league's best coverage squad, allowing only 19.1 yards and no scores. These things can change quickly.
Put simply, the Steelers need what all consistently good teams need once in a while -- a simple reset. They have one of the NFL's most able front offices, and a great young coach in Mike Tomlin. They're nowhere near rebuild mode just yet, but it's shocking just how quickly that can happen. If they don't get nimble in a hurry, the Steelers will be on the outside looking in, and this season will look less like a fluke and more like the beginning of the end.