What Killed the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season?

By Ivan Cole

As has been noted in these spaces before, the off season can evolve its own strains of hysteria concerning the state of a team. I think Art Rooney II got it right when evaluating the season—he pointed out that a 13-3 record signifies a very good year. For a fan base that measures success in Lombardi Trophies it is easy to dismiss the regular season as meaningless. But as Rooney noted, few teams can point to many instances when they have done that well. I would add that nearly a third of the schedule was played against eventual playoff teams, so the record was not a cheap or inflated achievement.

This highlights a disquieting, even disturbing truth about the game: Ultimate success often hinges not upon big problems. As often as not, one event, a game, even just a play or two can determine the outcome of entire seasons. What follows is one person’s opinion of what derailed the Steelers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2017.

Losing Shazier

The mantra of injuries being a part of the game is a familiar one for most involved fans. It is the rare circumstance in the NFL when compensating for injury isn’t part of the competitive equation. However, we all also understand that all players aren’t equally valued in this regard. It is regarded as an accepted truth, for example, that the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season ending injury would be catastrophic, and one most believe to be competitively un-survivable. In reality this isn’t always true, as turned out to be the case with the Philadelphia Eagles’ loss of Carson Wentz. I would suggest that given Pittsburgh’s immense reservoir of offensive talent it is conceivable they could have successfully pushed through the loss of Ben.

For a Steelers defense that was talented but also young and deficient in experience, depth and cohesion, the loss of its quarterback, Ryan Shazier, had a more devastating impact. Like Ben, the loss is of a generational talent of outstanding and diverse abilities whose absence virtually guarantees a downgrade of the team’s capabilities regardless of who replaces him.

What seems to also be forgotten is that Shazier’s replacement, Tyler Matakevich was also injured, though less severely, later in that same contest against the Bengals. Though he was still a contributor to special teams play, Matakevich was not available for inside linebacker duties for the remainder of the season. One way we can translate this in a manner that we can understand its impact: There was a period of time during the divisional playoff game against the Jaguars, and one of the most potent running attacks in the league, where none of the inside linebackers who had been on the 53 man roster in 2016 (Lawrence Timmons, Shazier, Matakevich and Vince Williams) were available for play. To expect the level of play to remain relatively constant is to take the Standard is the Standard business too far.

Antonio Brown’s injury

Not much has been made of this, but taking AB out of the equation was very fortuitous for New England, and may have been as much a factor as any that the game remained as competitive as it did. But even if you assume it would have made no difference earlier, it would have certainly changed the equation after the Jesse James debacle. Eli Rogers, the player targeted for Ben’s final intercepted pass, may not have even been on the field if Brown had been available, and wouldn’t have drawn as much attention.

League Meddling Part One

We know what was the most outrageous thing that came from the league office that impacted the Patriots game, but it was probably not the most important. That would be the one game slap-on-the-wrist suspension given Rob Gronkowski. If you recall, Gronkowski was involved in an incident where he pummeled Buffalo defensive back Tre’Davious White in what was described at the time as a post-whistle cheap shot. For that offense, the Pats tight end received what I and many others believed to be a very lenient one game suspension.

For the sake of comparison, during the same period JuJu Smith-Schuster delivered a hard, blindside block on, unarguably, the dirtiest player in the league, Vontaze Burfict, and taunted him for good measure. Let me reframe this. A rookie wide receiver beat up a linebacker known for dirty play during the course of a play, and for good measure punked (taunted) him. Smith-Schuster was also suspended for one game.

In my view the Gronk offense was far more egregious, and if it had been committed by anybody but Gronk, and maybe a handful of others, would have resulted in a multiple game suspension. As matters unfolded, Gronk’s light punishment meant that he was available for play when the Pats met the Steelers. Fortunate.

I am comfortable arguing that, absent Gronk, it would have difficult for New England to be competitive with Pittsburgh. This, along with the Brown injury, would have made the next issue not a thing at all.

League meddling Part Two

This, of course, would be the theft committed surrounding the Jesse James touchdown. Something that is not really being viewed as a particularly controversial position anymore, especially as the league has now definitively moved to clean up the rule regarding the action.

There were several other factors I didn’t include because I believed they were surmountable issues that the team could work their way through. These included Todd Haley’s coaching, the failure of the Ladarius Green experiment, the injuries and adjustments forced on the fly involving Joe Haden and Vance McDonald, Cam Sutton’s injury struggles and Martavis Bryant’s climb back from a year’s suspension.

So, let’s summarize.

The first two items (Shazier and Brown) are simply bad luck, and as such were not failures that could be blamed on coaching, personnel choices, etc. Some may want to push back on Shazier’s playing style, which might be fair. But if you want to travel down that road I would suggest some complicity as to the culture of the game, as well as fan pressure.

While most acknowledge the inevitability and brutal nature of injury at this level of the game, many are, conversely, not very tolerant or compassionate about injured players, particularly if said player is unfortunate enough to suffer multiple injuries, or the effects of any one injury are too long lasting. There is an unspoken cultural expectation that individuals continue to perform through often debilitating injuries. Indeed, the current concussion protocols represent a radical departure from the expectation that players soldier through those symptoms. And it is still the expectation for non-head injuries.

‘China doll’ is a pejorative I suspect most players would do anything to avoid. This often creates a Catch-22 and downward spiral for some players. The ‘knock’ on new linebacker Jon Bostic is his injury history. These kinds of things clearly influence a player’s market value. We have to wonder if the criticisms of Mike Mitchell were tainted by the fact that he was frequently struggling with injuries during his Steelers career. Some wrote off James Farrior prematurely after one season. As it turned out, his play was affected by an injury situation that he had kept under wraps.

These issues were definitely in play relative to Shazier, the consistent ‘yes, but’ applied to a greatly talented player. More than a few have contended that, at the end of the day, Shazier fell prey to his own dangerous style of play, particularly in how it relates to tackling technique. Possible. However, I also recall that Shazier suffered a lower leg injury near the end of the previous game against Green Bay. Could it be that the pressure to perform led to a circumstance that rendered him able to play, but vulnerable to the ability to protect himself properly when making a hit?

As for the last two items? Let’s call them politics. All played a role in the loss to New England. A different outcome might have meant having Tennessee instead of Jacksonville in the divisional round, and then the survivor of Jags v. Pats at Heinz for the AFCCG. A surer path to the Super Bowl? Maybe.

But the important point is that it would be difficult to imagine anything could have been done to avoid or mitigate against the impact of these events. A larger roster that could accommodate more inside linebackers? League officials less likely to risk crossing a still living Dan Rooney? In the final analysis are we just talking about bad luck?

Many thanks to Ivan for this. And to all of you, I apologize for my long hiatus. I started to say “for being MIA,” but after visiting Verdun and the Normandy beaches recently and reading some of the stories of soldiers who died in the D-Day invasion, I’ve vowed to never use that phrase again for something so trivial. If you ever have the opportunity, do go. It’s good to be reminded of the price of liberty.

Between one thing and another I haven’t been in a very good space, or had very much time, for writing. I plan to get back in the saddle in the coming days, with the draft approaching. (Not but what there are also income taxes to do and grandchildren to entertain, so it might not be immediately.)

In the meantime, the Pirates are undefeated as I write this—best record in MLB! And yes, they have actually played some games. Enjoy it while we can—it’s a bit like looking at the lovely wild primroses outside my window. You don’t want to miss the opportunity, because it will be gone soon…

12 comments

  • I think our offense made up for defensive short comings all season long and it caught up to us in the playoffs. We faced a Jaguar team in the playoffs who had already figured out how to dominate our defense even with Shazier on the field. How many games did Ben, AB, Bell and the rest of the offense have to come from behind to win last year?
    The loss of Shazier hurt us the most and it’s dismaying that they had such little depth behind him that they had to bring in Sean Spence, who showed us all why he had been home watching the NFL to that point. We can talk about drafting receivers, TE’s, another RB and Ben’s eventual replacement, but the real urgency is improving this defense if we don’t want to waste Ben’s last few productive years.

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    • Honestly, have a very different view of how the season evolved. The Steelers defense bailed out the Steelers offense for much of the first 8 games. I’ll even include the Lion’s game, where the defense gave up gobs and gobs and gobs of yards, but the Lions I think took 17 shots from inside the 20 and couldn’t score a touchdown. The defense played in near-shut down mode for two halves against Kansas City and Cincinnati.

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      • Totally correct. I remember the Detroit game and it was where people started believing this really was a good defense. With Shazier.

        And Ivan is so right – there are people whose absence can’t be compensated for, unless you have the great good fortune to have a James Harrison in waiting behind Joey Porter. The Eagles had a strangely effective Nick Foles in an offensive plan that made him look really good. Even had Matakevich not been hurt, it’s difficult to see him substituting effectively for Ryan Shazier – and I say this as a big Matakevich fan. He just isn’t similar enough, as Foles apparently was to Wentz.

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  • Good points all, Ivan!
    Somber reflections, Momma. I had a grandfather gassed in WWI, my Dad served in the Pacific in WWII, Marine brother in the ’70s and his Marine son 3 tours in Iraq, so I think I understand. Chin up!

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    • Chin is up : ) However, it does make things like football seem less important. My daughter and son-in-law visited us and he is a WWII history enthusiast, (he had grandfathers in both wars) so we visited lots of museums and sites. I had never really done this, and it is very sobering. My father just missed WWII, although he was in Korea. War is a dreadful thing. 900,000 French soldiers were killed in WWI. That is an astonishing number, and it is no surprise they caved so quickly in WWII – there was hardly anyone left to staff another war. I wasn’t aware that many of the Resistance fighters were women. And when you see stories like that of a soldier who was killed on D-Day on his 3rd wedding anniversary, and his widow asked to be buried next to him in the American Cemetery when she died at age 78, it makes it all so much more real and painful. The American Cemetery, BTW, is owned by the U.S. – the French gave them the site.

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  • Great article as always Ivan. And excellent point about Brown.

    I’d thought, and people had mentioned that the Steelers had never played the Patriots with a healthy Brown, Ben and Bell (Ok, they did in 2013) but I hadn’t really thought of the impact of Brown’s absence at the end of the game. Jeez, you’re right.

    Brown probably makes James less well covered, and hence has an easier route to end zone. Likewise Brown on the field changes the dynamic of the play that led to the dump off to DHB.

    As for the “league interference” I am not as sure. Seriously. I’m glad to see the James rule changed, but I think overall too many Steelers fans are reading too much into it.

    Losing Shazier was catastrophic for the Steelers defense. Now combine that with Mitchell’s injuries, Hargrave’s injuries, and Walton’s injuries (and Tuitt’s injury), and gee, its not so hard to under why Jacksonville ran so well.

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    • They were all healthy when Jacksonville stomped them in the regular season though. Not sure if it is a system/scheme issue, a player issue (poor technique, wrong players) or a combination of all. Obviously not an easy fix.

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      • Bill – that IS a fair point. But the Steelers gave up 5 turnovers in that game as well. Unless you’re playing the Browns in November 2012, giving up 5 interceptions is going to have a ripple effect on the defense. (I bring that up because despite what, 8 turnovers that day the Steelers only lost 20 to 14. People forget that the ’12 defense started weak but finished strong while the offense did the opposite. But I demure.)

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        • True. Very hard to win the game while losing the turnover battle. I had forgotten Ben kept throwing it to the other guys in that game.

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          • Overall, I think you’re on solid ground. The Steelers rushing defense wasn’t great with Shazier in, even if you control for the disaster against Chicago. The Jaguars a good physical team and would have tested the Steelers far more than I think we’d like to admit even if Shazier is at 100% health in the playoffs.

            But losing Shazier this year is kind of like losing Woodson in 1995, except we didn’t have Carnell Lake to shift positions and Myron Bell to take his place. Nothing close.

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  • Great article. I was convinced that James TD overturn was the turning point of the season, but after further review of your article, I’m inclined to think that the ability to play at a high level while injured is what gets teams to their destination. There does not seem to be a magic way of training or playing that can prevent the inevable injury. Shazier being the biggest, along with the others that were hurt, that you mentioned. But this is every teams bugaboo. But I think, we defeat NE with the James TD, beat the Titans, and have a good shot at NE or the Jags. I think Ben would have loved a shootout with the Eagles.

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  • I also think it should be noted in reference to Jacksonville generally that one factor in their ability to play the Steelers so well may have been the return of Tom Coughlin to the fold. Remember that the Jags used to be divisional opponents, and formidable ones at that. They know Pittsburgh well.

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