Obviously, this has not been the type of season that the Steelers (or their fans) expected. As reigning Super Bowl champs with most of their starters returning, the Steelers entered the 2009 season fully expecting to be able to defend their championship. But with only 3 games remaining in the season, the Steelers are effectively eliminated from the playoffs, and have a record that is below .500.
Fans, journalists, and even players are now struggling to figure out “what’s wrong with the Steelers?” Some have offered overly simplified explanations for the Steelers decline. “The Steelers can’t win without Troy”. “The Steelers can’t win with Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator”. “The Steelers have a Super Bowl hangover.” These are just a few of the examples of the many over-simplified explanations for the Steelers’ decline that I’ve heard.
In my opinion, the Steelers decline is far more complex than that. It can’t be attributed to just one factor.
During the off-season, most of my articles are actually multi-part series. By writing multi-part series, it gives me more time to fully explore a topic. However, during the season, the short amount of time between games doesn’t allow me to write many series. But since the Steelers have essentially been eliminated from the playoffs, I am going to begin exploring what happened to their 2009 season. Because there are games that will need to be covered, I won’t be able to write the series in consecutive segments. But between games, I plan to investigate the many factors that have led to the Steelers failed season. In each segment of the series, I will focus on one factor that caused the Steelers failed season.
Factor #1 – Special teams coverage.
We all know that special teams has been a problem for the Steelers for a long time. It was a glaring weakness during the last 3 years of Bill Cowher’s regime. It was talked about over and over, but the problem never seemed to get fixed.
The problem lingered throughout Mike Tomlin’s first year as head coach. After his first season, Tomlin identified it as an issue, and even spent dedicated time working on it during training camp. The problem appeared to have been fixed. Special teams was actually a strength during the 2008 season. In fact, the Steelers’ kickoff coverage unit was the best in the NFL last season, allowing an average of 19.1 yards and no touchdowns.
However, in 2009 the problem re-emerged…with a vengeance.
So far this season, there have been 14 kickoffs returned for touchdowns in the NFL. Of those, the Steelers have allowed 4. That means the remaining 31 teams have allowed a total of 10. So the Steelers have allowed 29% of the kickoffs that were returned for touchdowns in the 2009. That’s pathetic!
The Oakland Raider are the only other team in the NFL that has allowed more than one kickoff to be returned for a touchdown (they’ve allowed two), and 23 teams have not allowed any this season.
Two of the touchdown returns that the Steelers have allowed actually came in games that the Steelers won. So while embarrassing, they didn’t actually impact the outcome of the game. However, the remaining two occurred in games that the Steelers lost. The Steelers lost those two games by 6 points and 3 points respectively. Thus, the return touchdown that special teams allowed ended up costing the team the game in both of these instances.
We can therefore conclude that special teams directly cost the Steelers 2 games.
Special teams probably indirectly contributed to other losses by allowing long returns on kickoffs or punts. But these two losses can be directly attributed to the Steelers special teams.
Part of the problem may have been that the Steelers released Anthony Madison at the end of training camp this summer. Madison had been the team’s top special teams tackler last season. The team seemed to recognize their error, and recently re-signed Madison. However, that change probably came too late to have an impact.
If I were the Steelers players, I would anticipate Mike Tomlin re-emphasizing special teams coverage this off-season, just like he did in 2008. If he doesn’t, then fans can probably expect 2010 to look much like 2009. And that won’t be a good thing.
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