Monday, December 7, 2009

STEELER SEASON IN COMPLETE FREEFALL



A scant few weeks ago people were pointing to this part of the Steelers schedule and anticipating  easy victories over three of the NFL's worst teams. Instead, so far have the Steelers fallen that they are now only a loss in Cleveland on Thursday night from completing a rare trifecta...0-3 against three of the league's worst teams.

ABOVE LEFT: Seton LaSalle worldbeater, qb Bruce Gradkowski.

This game started out well enough with a long kickoff return by Stefan Logan, but the Steelers could not cash it into anything more than a field goal. Later in the half, Roethlisberger would also throw an interception in the end zone, killing another red zone attempt.

The Raiders, for their part, weren't doing anything great themselves, just "hanging around" since the Steelers were allowing it. With only a 10-6 lead at halftime, this game had a sense of foreboding throughout...and justifiably so, as it would turn out. 

The third quarter was wholly uneventful. However when Pittsburgh boy, Bruce Gradkowski threw a TD pass giving Oakland an early fourth quarter lead, 13-10, you could see the Steelers offense react as though it had been hit with a cattle prod. After another nice kick return by Stefan Logan, Big Ben led the offense down the field, highlighted by a long catch and run by Santonio Holmes. Rashard Mendenhall then punched-in the ball in a determined run giving Pittsburgh the lead once again, 17-13.  But soon thereafter, the offensively-challenged Raiders suddenly had found themselves again. The Steelers secondary, resembling a sieve more than a defense, allowed another Gradkowski-led score "lowlighted" by a 75 yard pass and run to Louis Murphy, giving the Raiders the lead once again, 20-17.

Not to be deterred, Big Ben marshalled yet another drive downfield, highlighted by another long pass play to Holmes complete with a Hines Ward-style, earhole wipeout block by wide receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace actually took out two defenders at one time, thus allowing Santonio to tack on another 20 yards. Hines Ward then beat a defender at the line of scrimmage and caught a beautiful pass in stride in the end zone giving the Steelers a spirited 24-20 lead.

Unfortunately for the Steelers though, they had to once again rely on their suddenly-anemic defense to save the game and as has happened so many times this year, they simply could not do it.

William Gay was knocked unconscious by Ryan Mundy when Mundy inadvertently crashed into the unsuspecting Gay's face. Gay's head bounced violently across his shoulders and there were a few moments where there was even a concern that Gay might have suffered a serious neck injury.

The Steelers defense, kneeling, holding hands in a circle, said a brief prayer for their teammate who moments later sat up, then got to his feet. For those who have been calling for Gay to be benched, his replacement, rookie Joe Burnett showed why he hasn't been playing. In one of the worst drops in league history, he  let the world's easiest interception ever drop pathetically to the ground, thus giving Oakland another chance. 

With only 15 seconds now left to play, Gradkowski, looking like his next stop will be Canton, hit Murphy again with an 11 yard pass this time and the winning score. This completed yet another horrible collapse by the Steelers once-proud defense. This unit is playing without Aaron Smith, Troy Polamalu and last year's starting cornerback Bryant McFadden. However, these fourth quarter collapses have been so pervasive this season that it has  led to questions about conditioning, particularly among the defensive backs. After allowing the Raiders a total of six points during the first three quarters, this latest roof cavein accounted for 21 points in the fourth.

While you can't take anything away from gutsy Pittsburgher Bruce Gradkowski, the Steelers secondary has suddenly turned into the league's "perfect tonic for whatever ails your offense." The defense's slide, while shocking, should be surprising to no one. In a league where there is no such thing as a secret, everyone knows that the Steelers are very vulnerable in the secondary. All you need to do is hang close until the fourth quarter when they can't seem to cover anyone anymore.

The loss caps off a completely horrible sports week for Pittsburgh. Just consider these headlines:

FORMER PITT COACH, FOGE FAZIO DIES AT 71

PITT LOSES HEARTBREAKER TO CINCI, 45-44

PENGUINS DROP GAME TO BLACKHAWKS IN OT

STEELERS FOURTH QUARTER COLLAPSE SEALS UP STEELERS FOURTH CONSECUTIVE LOSS.

What could have been another glorious week in Pittsburgh will long be remembered as one of the most disastrous ever.