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Why Can’t The Steelers Beat Bad Teams?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost four times this season. Two of those losses came against division rivals Baltimore and Cleveland. That’s understandable because division games are traditionally tough for any team, regardless of records. Their other two losses came at the hands of the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers (still their only victory this year) and the 1-8 New York Jets. And the saddest part is neither of those losses was all that surprising.

Since 2012, the Steelers are 8-10 against teams with losing records at the time they played them. You want an explanation for back to back playoff-less 8-8 seasons, look no further than that. Until they figure out how to correct this habit of playing down their opposition, they’re never going to turn the corner. The NFL is all about parity – some might call it “mediocrity” – where the difference between 10 wins and a playoff berth or 8 wins and a mid-round draft pick is your ability to win the games you’re supposed to win.

Yeah, I know, “any given Sunday” yadda yadda… Justify it any way you like but good teams don’t lose to bad teams, period. They just don’t. When was the last time you remember the Patriots being upset by a winless team?

The Ratbirds aren’t a particularly good team yet compare their performance to the Steelers. I’m using them because of the AFC North teams, they’ve played a schedule pretty close to ours. They also have four losses but three of them came against division rivals – again, regardless of record, division games tend to always be more competitive contests. So regardless of what you think of Cincinnati (personally, I think they’re one of the more overrated teams in football), two losses to them and a shellacking by the Black and Gold are all understandable defeats.

Outside the division, though, is where I want people to how they differ from the Steelers. They also played Tampa and crushed them 48-17.  We blew out the Panthers and so did they, which after watching last night’s game isn’t that big a deal since Carolina is clearly a really bad team. The Ravens other wins come in the form of decisive wins over the two win Falcons and the two win Titans. Their only other loss was against the Colts. I’m some of you diehards are going to point to our crazy win over them as “evidence” in the Steelers’ favor but it really isn’t. Indy is a very good team and there’s no shame in losing to them.

I guess that’s my long-ass way of saying, Baltimore may have the same record as us yet it reflects a really different level of performance. Their four losses came against teams that are at the least some measure of good, whether you go by talent or record. Two of our four losses came against teams that were unquestionably terrible. That’s why they’ll probably end up with 10 or so wins while we’ll be lucky to improve on last year’s 8-8.

My original plan for this post was to discuss why the Steelers continually play down to their opponents but I realized if the answer was obvious, I’m sure they would’ve addressed it already. You can certainly blame Mike Tomlin as losing to teams they shouldn’t has become a hallmark of the Tomlin Era. Yet, Tomlin went out of his way to warn his team not to take the Jets lightly in his weekly press conference last week so it’s not like he was oblivious to the history. It’s always been pretty obvious that he’s a lousy motivator and his players don’t really listen to him so in that sense you can assign him blame although to lay this totally at his door would be unfair.

I’m not a fan of the whole “coaches coach, players play” way of excusing terrible coaching. It’s true to a large extent but at the same time, good coaches put their players and teams in positions to succeed. Still, no amount of coaching in the world can make Willie Gay hold on to an interception he should’ve made or prevent Ben Roethlisberger from launching a hilariously Dalton-esque overthrow into triple coverage that gets picked off. So you can him or blame Todd Haley for the indescribably idiotic idea of playing James Harrison at tight end yet it was those plays that put up an NFL record second 500+ yard passing game and back-to-back 6 TD pass performance for the first time ever.

So it might be the coaches or it might not be. It’s certainly on the players although I find it impossible to believe professional athletes can’t get themselves motivated enough to play well against a bad team. I definitely don’t think any player enters a game thinking, “Well, I don’t care if I throw two picks or drop a couple interceptions.” So it might be on the players or it might not be. 

What I do know is it has to stop at some point. Whatever the solution is, they had better find it and find it quick because it’s literally costing them entire seasons. Of course, the simplest answer just might be “Maybe the Steelers aren’t that good either.” Although when you go on runs like they did at the end of last season or put on performances like they did this year, I have to reject that notion. Something is definitely amiss in Pittsburgh…