— “Steeler Football.”
Mention that to any oldtimer in western Pennsylvania, and it conjures up images from the franchise’s halcyon era. The Steel Curtain defense. Lambert. Mean Joe. Ham. A bruising running attack. Franco. Rocky. Webster in the center of it all.
When the Steelers became the Steelers, back in the mid-1970s, that’s how they did it. For the most part, they’ve adhered to those tenets over the decades, rarely straying from their core beliefs. Hey, it works for them.
But this season, something weird is happening in Pittsburgh. They’re playing “Stee Football.”
Half is missing.
Although the Steelers’ defense remains as strong as ever, topping the NFL in all the major statistical categories, the offense has all but disappeared. Not only are they struggling to find the end zone, but they’re experiencing an identity crisis, raising serious questions about whether the team will be just another one-and-done tease in the postseason.
The Steelers have attempted more passes than runs, and history tells us that’s not conducive to success. They’ve done that three times since 2000, only once finishing with a winning record (2002). In recent weeks, they’ve resembled — dare we say it? — a West Coast offense, with Ben Roethlisberger dinking and dunking.
When a worshiper of the black-and-gold religion hears something like that, he’s liable to gag on his Iron City beer. It’s just not the Steeler way, but the 2008 Steelers have morphed into a controlled passing team.
No doubt, injuries have contributed to the personality change. Roethlisberger is dealing with a sore throwing shoulder, running back Willie Parker has missed half the games and his backup, first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, went down with a broken shoulder early in the season.
But there’s still enough talent on offense to be scoring more often. Roethlisberger, under heavy pressure at times, hasn’t thrown a touchdown in three of the past four games. The Steelers have been involved in the three lowest-scoring games of the season: A 10-6 win over the Browns, a 15-6 loss to the Eagles and an 11-10 victory over the Chargers. (It should’ve been 18-10, but that’s a controversy for another day.)
Interestingly, they reverted to their power-football roots in the game-winning, field-goal drive against the Chargers, and that made Parker one happy runner.
“That’s the drive I really like — just keep calling running plays,” he said. “The defense knows we’re going to run, and they just can’t stop it. That’s Steeler football to me.”
Unfortunately, it was more the exception than the norm, which leads us to the big question: Can the Steelers, currently leading the AFC North with a 7-3 record, win a championship with a no-O, all-D team? Recent history suggests it’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.
The Steelers are ranked 25th in total offense and first in defense, one of the league’s widest disparities since 2000. In 2005, the Bears were 29th and second, respectively — and they lost a divisional playoff game on their home field. It wasn’t until the following season, when their offense improved to 15th, that the Bears were balanced enough to make the Super Bowl.
Thinking of defensive-oriented teams that overcame limited offenses, the two most glaring examples are the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Bucs, both of whom won the Super Bowl.
The Ravens owned a cocky, intimidating defense that finished No. 2 in the rankings, although their Trent Dilfer-led offense wasn’t as helpless as people might remember — it was 16th. The Bucs were No. 1 and No. 24, managing to get by with the pedestrian Brad Johnson at quarterback, but what they did so well — ditto, the Ravens — was force turnovers.
The Bucs recorded 38 takeaways, allowing them to overcome by far the lowest-ranked offense to reach the Super Bowl this century. The Ravens produced a remarkable 49. When you make that many big plays, you’re constantly shortening the field for your offense.
The Steelers don’t play that way. They’re stout, yes, but turnover-producing? No. They’re on a 22-takeaway pace, hardly the stuff of a hellacious, take-no-prisoners defense.
In the end, that could keep them from becoming a truly great team, but they have two things working in their favor, two things the Ravens and Bucs didn’t have.
A big-time quarterback in Roethlisberger, which gives the Steelers a puncher’s chance.
A conference with no dominant offenses. The Brady-less Patriots aren’t the same, and neither are the Colts.
So, yes, it’s possible: In the parity-driven AFC, the Steelers could ride their defense to the Super Bowl. It wouldn’t be exciting football, and it wouldn’t be “Steeler football,” but this could be one of those seasons that defies history. If they do make it to Tampa, they should make the offense pay for tickets.