|Bad ending: Jets, Jaguars losses key to Steelers' downward spiral|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 06 January 2008 14:30|
Maybe it should also be recalled as the season they couldn't beat the Jets, too.
The Steelers began to unravel after being upset by the Jets 19-16 in overtime on Nov. 18, beginning an inescapable downward spiral in which they went from having a 7-2 record to losing four of their final five.
They barely made the playoffs with a 10-6 record, only to lose to the Jaguars at home for the second time in 21 days in an AFC wild-card game Saturday night. They trailed 28-10 in the fourth quarter, staged a frantic rally to go ahead 29-28, only to lose 31-29 on Josh Scobee's last-minute 25-yard field goal.
``Nothing really soothes the feeling we have right now,'' Tomlin said.
The comeback, had it been successful, would have been the greatest fourth-quarter escape in NFL playoff history. Instead, the Steelers made another sort of history, becoming the first team in the franchise's 75-season history to lose twice at home to the same opponent in a single season.
That they did so in successive home games only made it worse. The Steelers beat only two teams with winning records (Cleveland and Seattle) and found a way to lose to the Jets (4-12), Ravens (5-11) and Broncos (7-9). They also nearly lost to Miami (1-15), winning 3-0 in the closing seconds in ankle-deep water at Heinz Field on Nov. 26.
As a result, a Steelers team that looked to be, until midseason, on a level just below the Patriots (16-0) and Colts (13-3) instead proved to be barely good enough to win the AFC North. The Browns ended with the same record as the Steelers, but didn't make the playoffs because they lost twice to Pittsburgh.
Offensively, Ben Roethlisberger (club-record 32 TD passes, 11 interceptions) accomplished a major turnaround by producing one of the best seasons statistically by a Steelers quarterback, despite being sacked 47 times plus six more in the playoff game.
Roethlisberger was exceptional during the fourth-quarter comeback Saturday, leading three TD drive in 8 1/2 minutes, but only after he threw three interceptions during a first-half flashback of his miserable 2006 season.
Willie Parker was the NFL rushing leader with 1,316 yards, and in position to become Pittsburgh's first NFL rushing champion since 1946, until he broke his right leg Dec. 20 in St. Louis.
Parker joined defensive end Aaron Smith (torn biceps), offensive tackles Marvel Smith (back) and Max Starks (knee), safety Ryan Clark (spleen) on the sidelines during the final weeks, a string of injuries that eventually cost the Steelers their running game and their run defense.
``We never like to make excuses, but we did (lose a lot of starters),'' Roethlisberger said. ``We lost some key players and it definitely hurt us. We've been pretty fortunate during my last couple of years here to avoid a lot of those major injuries and this year it got us.''
Special teams were a season-long problem, even after Tomlin devoted more time to them during training camp than any head coach in club history.
The playoff game was a perfect example; the Steelers drove 80 yards on their opening possession to take a 7-0 lead, only to allow Maurice Jones-Drew to undo all of their good work by returning the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the Steelers 1.
Now that the first season of the post-Bill Cowher era is over, the Steelers figure to undergo a major offseason facelift.
Left guard Alan Faneca, a Pro Bowl player the last seven years, could get far more money elsewhere as a free agent than Pittsburgh is willing to pay him at age 31.
Even if Faneca puts last year's failed contract talks behind him and re-signs, the offensive line is certain to get plenty of attention in the April draft. Those 53 sacks in 17 games, and the 43 yards rushing the Steelers managed Saturday night, show why.
``If this was my last game with Alan Faneca, it was an honor and privilege to be his quarterback and I love him to death,'' Roethlisberger said.
Outside linebacker Clark Haggans is also expected to leave what statistically was the league's leading defense via free agency, with rookie LaMarr Woodley (six sacks) ready to take his place.
Also gone? Maybe the grass field that was one of the Steelers' strongest selling points when they pushed for Heinz Field's construction 10 years ago. The sodden turf was a mess during the final month of the season, and artificial turf may be on the way.
All the defense's problems seemed to begin when safety Anthony Smith made his ill-conceived guarantee of a Steelers win Dec. 9 at unbeaten New England. The motivated Patriots won 34-13, and the Steelers wound up allowing 16 offensive touchdowns in their final five games.
Curiously, Tomlin's rookie season ended the same way Cowher's did in 1992, with an opening game playoff loss at home. Until this season, the seven Steelers teams since 1992 that began the playoffs at home won their first game.
``We fell short of our ultimate goal,'' Tomlin said. ``I'll leave the evaluation and grades (to everyone else).''
And, if anyone is wondering if the Steelers play the Jaguars again next season, they do. This should be a relief to their fans: The game is in Jacksonville.