Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Steelers History Rebounding From of Poor Opening Weeks

The Steelers dismal season-opener against the Tennessee Titans exposed many of the problems the 2013 Steelers carried into the season. The greatest of these was a lack of depth on the roster, which was brutally evident when Maurkice Pouncey's injury totally derailed the effectiveness of the offense. This was the third consecutive season opener that the Steelers dropped, but the first time they had dropped a season opener at home since 2000. Despite the dismal performance and terrible offensive numbers (195 total yards), the Steelers have had worse season openers. Looking back over the last 20 years of Steelers football, there were 3 season opening performances that were worse offensively than the 16-9 snoozer against Tennessee.


The worst performance of the last 20 years came in the 1994 season. The Steelers entered with high expectations, coming off a 1993 season where the Steelers went 9-7 and beat out Miami for the last Wild Card spot where they lost in overtime to the AFC West Champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys were the two-time defending Super Bowl Champions and rolled into Three Rivers with Emmitt Smith in the prime of his career. Smith ran over, around and through the Steelers for 171 yards on 31 carries. The Steelers never got close to Troy Aikman while the Cowboys defensive front dominated the Steelers line, sacking Neil O'Donnell 9 times. On the whole, the Steelers offense was held to 126 total yards. All was not lost in 1994. The Steelers rebounded to a 12-4 season and reached the AFC Championship game. We won't talk about how 1994 ended.


The Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys. Rather than expose himself to the Three Rivers crowd after throwing two picks in the Super Bowl, Neil O'Donnell left in free agency and signed with the Jets. Many remember this game as the one where the Steelers had no idea what they were doing at quarterback. Three QBs were used in this game due to injuries: Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak, and Kordell Stewart. Jerome Bettis and Erric Peagram combined for 101 yards on the ground but the passing game managed only 107 and lost an additional 21 yards on 4 sacks. The Steelers managed only 187 total yards, one of only two times in 1996 (the other was also against Jacksonville) they were held under 265 yards of offense. The Steelers rebounded from this slow start to finish 10-6 and edge out the Jaguars by a game for the division crown. The Steelers would go on to fall to the Patriots in the Divisional round of the playoffs and the Jaguars would make an amazing run to the AFC Championship Game where they also fell to the Patriots.


The Cowboys show up once again in the opening day disasters. The Steelers two worst offensive performances in the last 20 seasons came against Dallas. In 1997, the Steelers had handed the reigns of the offense over to Kordell Stewart and he was ineffective against the defending NFC East Champions. Kordell threw for only 104 yards and was sacked 3 times for 15 yards. The only touchdown of the game came in garbage time in the Fourth Quarter after the Cowboys had built a 37-0 lead on the back of 4 touchdown passes by Troy Aikman. The defense was able to contain Emmitt Smith, holding him to just 2.6 yards per carry, but gave up almost 300 passing yards, over half of them to Michael Irvin. The Steelers managed only 174 yards of total offense, their second worst performance of the last two decades. The Steelers turned things around quickly as Kordell gained experience and were only held under 265 total yards in one other game en route to an 11-5 season where they won the Division title. The Steelers season came to an end in the AFC Championship Game when John Elway and the Broncos built a 24-14 halftime lead and held on to win 24-21 thanks to a third down completion to Shannon Sharpe with 2 minutes to play.


The last home opener at Three Rivers was my freshman year of high school. I was in the band and we performed at halftime. That was the most exciting thing that happened in this game. Kent Graham was mostly ineffective at quarterback and Richard Huntley led the team in rushing. After starting the season 0-3, Graham was benched in favor of Kordell Stewart who went 7-4 as a starter in 2000. The team finished 9-7, missing the playoffs by just one game. The Steelers managed only 223 total yards in the season opener, their second lowest total of the year.


The Steelers haven't fared too well when playing the Jaguars on opening weekend. The Steelers took a 3-0 lead at the beginning of the second quarter before Jags WR Jimmy Smith simply took the game over. Over the Jags next two drives he compiled 4 catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. The Jaguars would add another after a Steelers fumble and carry the 21-3 lead into halftime. Smith finished the game with 8 catches for 126 yards. The Steelers managed 281 yards of offense with Kordell Stewart accounting for 181 through the air and 31 more on the ground. The Steelers did not let this opening week setback derail their season and went 13-2 over the rest of the year, winning the Central Division title by three games over the Ravens. They would go on to beat the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs but fall to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game where Tom Brady was injured and Drew Bledsoe came in and led the Pats to victory. The Patriots also benefited from a Special Teams meltdown where the Steelers allowed a punt return for a touchdown after a penalty nullified a 64-yard punt by Josh Miller and a blocked field goal that New England returned for a touchdown.


The Steelers got their shot at revenge on New England for the AFC Championship Game just 8 months later. Kordell Stewart threw interceptions on the Steelers first two drives, the second of which Tom Brady converted into a touchdown. The Steelers tied the game on a Hines Ward touchdown, The offense didn't do much the rest of the game and Brady broke open a 10-7 halftime lead with two third quarter touchdown drives. The Steelers scored a meaningless touchdown at the end of the game when Kordell Stewart scrambled for a score as time expired, making the final tally seem closer than the actual game. The Steelers were held to 283 yards of total offense, which sounds good in relation to some of the other numbers in this article. However, it was the second-lowest of the 2002 season and one of only two games where the Steelers (who finished 5th in the league in total offense) were held under 300 total yards. Tommy Maddox replaced Kordell Stewart under center in Week 3 against the Browns and led the team to a come-from behind victory that sparked a 10-3-1 finish to the season, resulting in a division title. The Steelers rode Maddox to an epic comeback against the Browns in the first round of the playoffs before falling to eventual Tennessee and Academy Award Winner Joe Nedney in Overtime in the Divisional Round.


The Baltimassacre. The "old and slow" game. Call it what you like. The Ravens came out with a zone blocking scheme and handed it to the Steelers. We won't even talk about this game. The Steelers did manage 312 yards of total offense, but 7 turnovers derailed any possibility of scoring points. The team was able to shed this game and rally for a 12-4 finish, coming up just short of a division title after losing the tiebreaker to Baltimore. This sent the team to Denver for the first round of the playoffs where they fell to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.


Despite the score, this one was actually much closer. Peyton Manning made his return to the NFL and picked apart the Ryan Clark-less Steelers secondary for 253 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Steelers were able to keep the game close and had the ball down by 5 with 2 minutes to go. However, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception to Tracy Porter that was taken back for a touchdown and that was all she wrote. Ben was sacked 5 times and the Steelers offense managed 284 total yards, their lowest output of the first half of the season. The Steelers were riding high at midseason with a 6-3 record before Ben Roethlisberger was injured against Kansas City and the wheels came off the wagon. After Charlie Batch led the Steelers to victory in Baltimore, the team needed only two wins in the final four games to reach the playoffs, but went 1-3 and missed out on the postseason.

Now we come to 2013. The Steelers fell to the Titans 16-9 and managed only 195 yards of total offense, their fourth-lowest output in the last 20 years. However, when we look at the other recent opening day defeats, the Steelers season is far from dead and buried. The Steelers have lost season openers in 8 of the last 20 years. All but one of those (Denver in 2012) were sound defeats where the Steelers were clearly the inferior team. Despite that, The Steelers have not finished below .500 in any of those 8 seasons, won Division titles in 5 of them and reached the playoffs 6 times.

Season Result
1994DAL 26, PIT 912612-4Division Champs
1996JAX 24, PIT 918710-6Division Champs
Lost Divisional Round
1997DAL 37, PIT 717411-5Division Champs
2000BAL 16, PIT 02239-7Missed Playoffs
2001JAX 21, PIT 328113-3Division Champs
2002NE 30, PIT 1428310-5-1Division Champs
Lost Divisional Round
2011BAL 35, PIT 731212-4Lost Wild Card Round
2012DEN 31, PIT 192848-8Missed Playoffs

The obvious difference between the past 8 opening week losses and the 2013 loss is the caliber of opponent. The Titans are without a doubt the worst squad that the Steelers have suffered an opening week loss to during this time. This Steelers team will be hard-pressed to add to these success stories given the injuries that were suffered to Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote, but this is not a team or an organization that turns over easily. All hope is not lost. The road won't be easy, but the Steelers have shown in the past that they are capable of rebounding from being soundly defeated in the opening game of the season. 

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