It reminds me a little of the 1980 season. The Steelers, fresh from two Super Bowl victories in a row, won their opener at home. Business as usual. (It was also one of only two Steelers games I've seen in the stadium in my life.) But the 1980 season went downhill from there, and a Monday Night defeat late that year kept them from even being in the playoffs.
And that's how this year started: a first game victory that looked a lot like the Super Bowl victory. And it's been downhill from there, at least for the next two games. But only time will tell if this is a team that has passed its peak, or if this is more like 1976, when a still-great team was swamped with injuries.
What the Steelers have this year is a combination of key injuries--especially to Troy Polamalu on defense--and either inexplicably bad play or just bad luck. They lost late to Chicago on a defensive breakdown and two missed field goals in the fourth quarter by one of the best kickers in the league. They lost in Cinncy thanks to two missed catches in the end zone, a route mistake that led to an interception that ended in a touchdown, and the inevitable defensive miscue.
Though they are back home Sunday, the Steelers are not in great shape versus San Diego. Polamalu is still out, now running back Willie Parker is either out or playing hurt, and the backfield is otherwise hurt or confused. With a safety who is getting burned regularly, the pass rush is more tentative, and they're facing a good throwing quarterback with a superior running back at his side. It doesn't look good.
It's only the fourth game, and injuries to key players are more important at the end of the season and in the playoffs than at the beginning. But there's always the possibility that this isn't going to end, and that it's a snakebit season.
So it hasn't been a great couple of weeks. To avoid the panic-inducing political sites, I was doing my evening sweep of sports sites, especially the Post-Gazette's Steeler page. But not this week. It was more nerve-wracking and panic-inducing than even Huffington Post.
It didn't help that Penn State, Pitt and West Virginia all lost last week as well. USC came back to form, but that's about it. But last night West Virginia looked good winning, and tonight Pitt looked even better. They have two freshman running backs who are fun to watch, and have a real future. So we'll see.
Update: I guess this is why they still play the games. No one predicted that with the absense of Willie Parker, second year running back Rashard Mendenhall would finally have his breakout game, running for more than 160 yards, two touchdowns, and making crucial first downs on the last drive when the Steelers were dangerously close to blowing another game in the fourth quarter. At one point they improbably led the Chargers 28-0, and held on to win 38-28. Division leader Baltimore lost, and with the next two games against weak opponents, suddenly the Steelers season doesn't look so snakebit.
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