Granted, injuries took their toll this year -- as they do every year for every NFL team -- but players who were asked to be the "next man up" failed to meet The Standard. It's safe to say this team underachieved. It may be conceivable, however, that this squad actually over-achieved in some respects: In other words, this edition of the Steelers just wasn't very talented.
The biggest disappointment? There were so many. For Joey Porter's Pit Bulls, however, one telling aspect about this team -- the one that stood out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake (credit: Raymond Chandler) -- for us, the one telling thing, the major disappointment was this:
Too many of the younger players displayed a sense of entitlement. They "displayed" instead of played. Too many of them -- some of whom have enjoyed occasional flashes of success -- played as if they'd arrived -- when in actuality, they haven't accomplished anything of substance or duration. The perception here is that too many of the 2012 Steelers failed to understand what it takes to succeed consistently in the NFL, let alone what it means to be a Steeler. They seem to have no clue.The play of some of these guys suggested that their expectation was that just because they had some modicum of success at major NCAA programs like Georgia Tech (Jonathan Dwyer), Missouri (Ziggy Hood), Florida (Chris Rainey), Texas (Curtis Brown), etcetera, that they would be given a free pass in the NFL. It doesn't work like that, and certainly not in Pittsburgh.
Just ask retirees Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, James Farrior, Chris Hoke, DeShea Townsend, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, etcetera, and the list goes on and on. This is not to say there was no leadership on the 2012 Steelers: Some of the veteran players like Ryan Clark, Larry Foote, Heath Miller, Max Starks and others, no doubt, did what they could. Others probably could have done more.
Most certainly, however, too many of the young guys just didn't step up their game, and they didn't seem to appreciate what it means to be a Steeler. Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall come to mind. Mendenhall quit on the team. Wallace too often appeared sullen and disinterested. Those two are gone.
Jonathan Dwyer was given a golden opportunity -- he was handed the starting job at running back -- and fumbled it away, figuratively and literally. Chris Rainey found there is a big difference between the SEC and the NFL.
Others probably just aren't very talented and may be hard-pressed to make the team next year: Ryan Mundy is a relatively young guy who had every opportunity to establish himself and just couldn't do it. Baron Batch couldn't stay healthy and flubbed the few opportunities he had. We root for these guys and want them to succeed, so it's frustrating to see them struggle, but even they must be wondering whether they will be in the team's plans for 2013.
Two key veterans who'd previously achieved real success also failed to play up to their own standards and expectations -- and probably injuries had something to do with that -- but still, Lamarr Woodley and Maurkice Pouncey were big disappointments.
On defense, age and injuries may or may not have caught up with James Harrison and Troy Polamaulu. Nose tackle Casey Hampton has been done for three years. Larry Foote might be at just about his past-due date, although he played valiantly, and the same could be said about Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Will Allen -- those guys aren't getting any younger. On offense, ditto Max Starks, who was probably the most reliable and steady of the offensive linemen. Heath Miller may never be the same.
On the bright side, Keenan Lewis played extremely well for the most part, as did Ramon Foster, Kelvin Beachum and Antonio Brown before he got hurt.
Byron Leftwich should be gone. Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams still have to establish themselves, if they can stay healthy.
Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward haven't shown anything to speak of, but Hood had more than ample opportunity and did next to nothing to indicate he may ever become a disruptive force on the front line. He was largely ineffective. He was drafted in 2009.
Players drafted after Hood that year include: DE Connor Barwin (2/46, to Texans); RB LeSean McCoy (2/53, to Eagles); and OT Sebastien Vollmer (2/58, to Patriots). In hindsight, Barwin certainly would have been a better selection at Hood's position. Yet knowing that Pitt's LeSean McCoy could have been in a Steelers uniform these past three years? Ouch.
Because he didn't get much playing time and he was only in his second year, Cameron Heyward gets a pass, more or less, but you have to wonder about the 2011 first-rounder (31st overall). In light of Hood's lackluster performance, why didn't Heyward get more playing time? Maybe the Steelers simply took a flyer on that draft pick and reached for a player that was rated only the tenth-best at his position that year. Yes, you'll recall he was the 10th defensive end taken in his 2011 draft class -- the tenth! -- and, well, you just have to wonder.
The Steelers' depth chart has Heyward behind Brett Keisel, but one would think he would have gotten some of Hood's playing time in any case. He's been slow to develop, and players drafted after him have certainly been more productive.
In retrospect, the Steelers would have done better to draft defensive end Jabal Sheard out of Pitt (now a starter with the Browns, and playing well) or -- all together now, seriously -- quarterback Colin Kaepernick or even Andy Dalton. All were available when the Steelers selected Heyward, as were the following players: OLB Brooks Reed (2/42, to Texans); OLB Justin Houston (3/70, to Chiefs); G Clint Boling (4/101, to Bengals); CB Richard Sherman (5/154, to Seahawks).
In 2012, Jonathan Dwyer proved only that he can't carry the load. Ike Redman can't seem to stay healthy.
And Ben Roethlisberger seemed to lose his fourth-quarter magic, and he hasn't shown much of that since losing in the Super Bowl to Green Bay. Instead, this year, he found ways to throw late interceptions and lose games (Denver, Dallas, Cincinnati). Too often, he simply didn't do enough. Yes, he got hurt. Again. Yes, he rushed back from injury too soon. Again. He hurt the team by doing so, and the coaches allowed it.
And, once again, Roethlisberger's teammates named another player as Team MVP. This season, it was Heath Miller; in 2011, it was Antonio Brown. Doesn't that say something?
To a large degree, the coaching staff failed to find solutions when needed. The NFL's 26-ranked running game failed badly. The defense tackled poorly, didn't instill fear in anybody, and it certainly didn't confuse veteran quarterbacks Peyton Manning in Denver, Carson Palmer in Oakland, Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee, Phillip Rivers of San Diego, or Tony Romo in Dallas. All year, the pass rush rush was lacking, and the defense had a stunning but frustrating inability to take the ball away.
Talented, well-coached teams -- good teams -- do not lose to teams such as Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland, Dallas and San Diego (in Pittsburgh in December, no less).
And the special teams were awful, all things considered -- too many penalties, missed tackles, a blocked punt, sporadic kick coverage, mental gaffes, etc.
Decisions must be made. The Steelers hold the 17th pick in April's NFL Draft. A talent infusion is needed, and an attitude adjustment, as well. Much needs to be done to reverse the descent and avert a free fall. This team can either go up or down. Let's see what they do.