As he began his postgame press conference, Ben Roethlisberger had already accepted the fact that his 15th NFL season — all with the Steelers — was over, even if the door wasn’t totally slammed shut just yet. That would happen a few hours later, when the Colts defeated the Texans in the final game of the regular season.
After a 7-2-1 start, the 2018 Steelers lost four of their final six games, missing the playoffs by a half game after the Ravens, led by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, rallied to win the AFC North after a 4-5 start. While the Steelers put together a mini late season rally (they put together home wins over eventual champion Patriots in Week 15 before defeating the Bengals in Week 17), Pittsburgh’s four-game losing streak earlier in the year was too much to overcome.
“We got a little spoiled because we went to a lot of Super Bowls early, right?” Roethlisberger said to a group of reporters at the end of the 2018 season. “We kinda thought we were gonna do it every year, or every other year, or every third year. It’s not that easy. Look at teams that have never been there, or how long it takes teams between Super Bowls or playoff runs. We could be spoiled here, but as players, we still strive for that every year.”
Before he left the podium to begin his offseason, Roethlisberger said that he believed the Steelers’ Super Bowl window hadn’t closed. But less than 48 hours after his press conference, reports started to surface about Antonio Brown’s desire to play for another team. Two months later, Brown was gone, traded to the Raiders for third- and fifth-round picks. Le’Veon Bell, a two-time All-Pro running back, also left town, signing a lucrative deal with the Jets after sitting out the entire 2018 season. Roethlisberger would also go through a transition, missing all but two games of the 2019 season with an elbow surgery. And while his teammates made a gamely run at the playoffs, the Steelers eventually ran out of steam and healthy bodies, falling just short of the playoffs for a second straight year.
While Big Ben’s championship window may still be open, the end of the 2018 season was the end of the “Killer B” era in Pittsburgh, an era that produced a slew of memorable moments but failed to produce the franchise’s seventh Lombardi Trophy. Despite fielding a roster filled with Pro Bowlers, All-Pros, and a few future Hall of Famers, the Steelers ultimately played the role of AFC bridesmaids to the Patriots, who tied Pittsburgh with six Lombardis won in February of 2019.
But now that Tom Brady has left New England, it appears that the Steelers’ Super Bowl window is still ajar. And, after last season’s success on the defensive side of the ball, the thought around Pittsburgh is that as long as Big Ben and his teammates are able to stay relatively healthy, the Steelers should be a legitimate threat to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIV.
This article, however, isn’t about the future. It’s about the past decade of Steelers football, and revealing the six reasons why Pittsburgh is still in search for Lombardi No. 7.
6. Not enough outside help
Five times, the Steelers entered Week 17 needing a win and outside help to make the playoffs. The only time they received help was in 2015, when the Bills upset the visiting Jets to give Pittsburgh the final playoff seed. The Steelers responded by upsetting the Bengals in the wild-card round before nearly upsetting the eventual champion Broncos in the second round.
The other four times, the Steelers weren’t as lucky. After falling just short of the playoffs in 2012, the 2013 Steelers needed a Week 17 win over Cleveland and a Chiefs victory over the Chargers. While the Steelers took care of business at home, the Chiefs missed what would have been the game-winning field goal to send the game into overtime. Philip Rivers ended Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in overtime, leading the Chargers on a game-winning drive while clinching the AFC’s last playoff spot.
In Week 17 of the 2018 season, Pittsburgh needed a win over the Bengals and a Browns win in Baltimore. While the Steelers once again took care of their business, the Browns’ comeback bid fell two points short. The Steelers’ playoff hopes were officially extinguished when the Colts and Texans did not tie each other during the last game of the regular season.
If the NFL’s new playoff format existed at the start of last decade, Pittsburgh would have made the playoffsin the 2010s. While each of those teams had its flaws, there’s a legitimate chance that the ’13 or ’18 teams could have made it back to the Super Bowl. The 2013 Steelers, after an 0-4 start, finished with an 8-8 record that included a 6-2 record during the second half of the season. The ’18 Steelers boasted the league’s top leading passer, the best receiving duo in the NFL, and an offense that scored a franchise-record 53 touchdowns during the regular season. Neither team, however, had the chance to make their case in the tournament.
No wonder Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, which will go into effect in 2020.
While the Steelers won 19 of their 21 games against the Bengals during the 2010s, one of those losses, Cincinnati’s Week 16 win in Pittsburgh, contributed to the Steelers missing the playoffs that season. Most of the Bengals’ damage against the Steelers was due to the injuries sustained by several key players during those games.
In Week 17 of the 2014 season, Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee after getting hit by Reggie Nelson. The injury would keep Bell, the team’s MVP that season, out of Pittsburgh’s wild-card game against Baltimore. Bell’s absence was greatly felt, as the Steelers mustered just 17 points while dropping their first-ever playoff game to their archrival.
Bell would sustain a more severe injury the next time the two teams faced off in Week 8 of the 2015 season. In the second quarter, Bell was tackled from behind by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, suffering a torn MCL that ended his season. While the Steelers lost that game to drop to 4-4 (marking the last time Cincinnati has beaten the Steelers), Pittsburgh would finish the season with a 10-6 record before facing the Bengals in one of the nastiest football games in recent memory.
While Pittsburgh escaped Cincinnati with a playoff victory, they lost Antonio Brown, who was concussed by Burfict near the end of their 18-16 victory. The injury would prevent Brown from facing a Denver defense in the second round that he torched to the tune of 16 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns a month earlier, when the Steelers overcame a 27-10 deficit to defeat the Broncos at home.
Burfict also caused damage to Roethlisberger’s right shoulder, which many thought would hinder his effectiveness heading into Denver for the divisional round. While Big Ben still managed to throw for 339 yards against the league’s top defense, the loss of Brown and Bell proved too much to overcome, as the Steelers’ promising season came to an abrupt end.
Less than a year later, the Steelers were putting the finishing touches on their come-from-behind victory in Cincinnati. But Pittsburgh was unable to leave the Queen City without another significant injury. On the game’s final drive, Big Ben hit tight end Ladarius Green — a 2016 free agent acquisition who battled through injuries before showing his potential during the team’s string of late-season victories — for a 28-yard gain. Green, who had an injury of head injuries dating back to his years with the Chargers, suffered a vicious blow to the head near the end of the play. Green, who was released by the Steelers that ensuing offseason, has not played another down in the NFL.
Another significant injury to a Steelers player played one of the biggest roles in why Pittsburgh didn’t win a ring this past decade, but you’ll read about that a bit later.
4. Martavis Bryant
Kevin Colbert has drafted a slew of talented receivers during his 20-year run with the Steelers. Colbert appeared to hit another home run when he selected Clemson’s Martavis Bryant with the 118th pick in the 2014 draft. Bryant, a 6-foot-4 and 210-pound physical specimen, made an immediate impact with the Steelers, catching eight touchdowns (on just 26 receptions) as a rookie while averaging 21.1 yards per reception. Bryant ended his 2015 season on a high note, making an incredible touchdown catch in Pittsburgh’s wild-card win over the Bengals before catching nine passes for 154 yards (while also recording a 40-yard run) in the Steelers’ second round playoff loss to Denver. With Bryant blossoming into a star, and Brown and Bell returning from injuries, the 2016 Steelers were poised to make a Super Bowl run.
The mood surrounding the ’16 Steelers changed just months later, when Bryant was suspended for the year after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. With Bryant gone, the Steelers lacked a formidable receiver that could properly complement Brown, who suffered a considerable decline in catches and receiving yards that season. While Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton had their moments (along with Sammie Coates, who was off to a solid start to the season before multiple hand injuries derailed his season and career), Pittsburgh wasn’t able to mask the void left by Bryant when they arrived in New England for the AFC Championship Game. With the Patriots focusing on Brown, and with Bell leaving the game early with a groin injury, Pittsburgh’s offense was woefully out-matched by the Patriots who turned a tight game into a 36-17 blowout.
Pittsburgh’s loss was a team loss. The Steelers’ secondary, another reason why Pittsburgh didn’t win a seventh ring this past decade, was torched by Brady, who threw a then-franchise playoff record 384 yards and three touchdowns. Bell’s injury also hurt, along with the outside distractions created by Brown following his Facebook Live snafu following Pittsburgh’s playoff win over the Chiefs. But the biggest issue was the team’s lack of a second weapon beside Brown, a void that was never closed.
Bryant returned to the team in 2017 but was not close to being the player he was before his suspension. Bryant made things worse by demanding a trade during the season, an action that prompted a one-game suspension. While Bryant played well following his suspension, he failed to realize his potential, leading to the Steelers trading him for a third-round pick during the 2018 draft. Bryant lasted just eight games with the Raiders before being suspended yet again by the NFL. He did not play professional football in 2019.
3. Ryan Shazier’s injury
It’s hard to put into words how devastating Shazier’s injury was to the Steelers, both from a football and as well as from an emotional standpoint. The team’s first round pick in the 2014 draft, Shazier had developed into arguably the NFL’s best inside linebacker. He had also established himself as an unquestioned leader of the team, the quarterback as well as the heart and soul of the Steelers’ defense. After years of playing second fiddle to their offense, Pittsburgh’s defense, led by Shazier, wasn’t taking a backseat to anyone in 2017. Their play had just as much — if not more — of a role in Pittsburgh’s 9-2 start as their offense, as the Steelers’ 2017 season had a championship feeling heading into the team’s Week 12 game in Cincinnati on Thursday Night Football.
In the first quarter, Shazier remained on the ground after making what appeared to be a routine hit. It didn’t take long to realize that Shazier wasn’t OK, as teammates quickly surrounded their fallen teammate. Minutes passed before a stretcher came to get Shazier, who had lost feeling in his lower body.
Visibly shaken, the Steelers rallied from a double-digit deficit to defeat the Bengals. They rallied again the following week, defeating the Ravens on Sunday Night Football while clinching the AFC North for a third time in four years. The Steelers, via FaceTime, shared a locker room celebration with Shazier before delivering a division champion shirt and cap as well as the game ball to his hospital room later that night.
While the Steelers managed to finish the season with a 13-3 record, the loss of Shazier was evident. After holding eight of their first 11 opponents to under 20 points, Pittsburgh allowed over 20 points four times during their final five games. And while the loss of Shazier was bad enough, the Steelers lacked depth at inside linebacker. They were forced to re-sign Sean Spence, who hadn’t played since being released by the Colts that October. Without Shazier (or a capable backup), the Steelers’ defense was torched by Rob Gronkowski during Pittsburgh’s back-breaking loss to the Patriots in Week 15, a loss that continued the team’s downward trend following Shazier’s injury.
Shazier’s absence was not only felt in Pittsburgh’s eventual playoff loss to Jacksonville, it continued to be felt throughout the 2018 season. As general manager Kevin Colbert admitted last offseason, the Steelers didn’t do enough during the 2018 offseason to replace Shazier, opting not to draft an inside linebacker and instead signing veteran Jon Bostic. Colbert and company did not make the same mistake last spring, trading up in the first round to select Devin Bush, who enjoyed a standout rookie season while evoking memories of Shazier.
Two and a half years removed from his injury, Shazier has enjoyed success, physically as well as personally and professionally. He can now walk and run under his own power. He married his longtime girlfriend last offseason and has welcomed the birth of his second son. Shazier has delved into several business ventures while also returning to school at the University of Pittsburgh this past fall. Shazier has also remained with the Steelers, serving the team in an unnamed role. He was recently placed on the team’s reserve/retired list for the 2019 season, which allows him to financially remain with the team without it counting against the salary cap.
While so much of Shazier’s story is one of incredible triumph over tribulation, it’s hard not think about how the 2017 Steelers’ season would have unfolded had Shazier not sustained his tragic injury. The Steelers may very have realized their dream of playing in the Super Bowl, with Shazier probably taking home the Defensive Player of the Year award, an award he was in the running to win before that night in Cincinnati.
2. The Jesse James play
One of the most famous non-catches in NFL history (right up there with Mike Renfro’s play in the ’79 AFC Championship Game and Dez Bryant’s controversial play in the Cowboys’ second round loss to the Packers), Jesse James’ overruled touchdown catch prevented the 2017 Steelers from defeating the Patriots in a crucial Week 15 game that ultimately determined which game won home-field advantage.
Had James “survived the ground,” the Steelers would have beaten the Patriots, secured home-field advantage and would have hosted the Titans (who upset the Chiefs in the wild-card round) in the second round. Instead, the Patriots faced the Titans (a team the Steelers pummeled in Week 8, 40-17), while the Steelers were forced to host the Jaguars, who mauled Pittsburgh by three touchdowns back in Week 6. It wasn’t much difference three months later, with Jacksonville sprinting out to a 28-7 lead before the Steelers knew what hit them.
While Pittsburgh’s offense eventually responded, the Steelers could not climb out of the hole, a hole that was largely created by the team’s lack of depth at inside linebacker. Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette bullied the Steelers with three touchdown runs, while Blake Bortles took advantage of an outmatched secondary.
Instead of representing the AFC in Super Bowl LII, the Steelers watched New England play in their third Super Bowl in four years. The next season, Pittsburgh watched as the Patriots matched them with six Super Bowl wins. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Steelers played the Patriots to an even draw during their two regular-season meetings during that span. While New England was clearly the better team in 2016, you could argue that the Steelers, at least as far as talent is concerned, was every bit their equal during the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl runs. That talent, however, didn’t result in championships, something New England was able to achieve while putting the finishing touches on their dynasty.
History should show, however, that they received a little bit of help along the way. Just ask Jesse James, who is now playing for former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in Detroit.
1. Unnecessary drama
The Steelers’ talent created a slew of national headlines throughout the deadline. Unfortunately for them, Pittsburgh’s off-field drama also created plenty of national news that likely contributed to the team’s shortcomings.
Where there were several culprits here, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell consistently created the most unwanted attention for a team that prides itself on doing things the right way. Yes, both players put up astonishing numbers during their time in Pittsburgh while helping the Steelers win a ton of games. They were also extremely fun to watch while becoming fan favorites.
Bell set the franchise record for catches by a running back (twice) while also setting the franchise regular and postseason single-game rushing records. His 167 and 170 rushing-yard efforts during the 2016 playoffs spearheaded Pittsburgh’s run to the AFC title game. While Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis’ place in Pittsburgh’s running back hierarchy is safe, Bell is easily the most versatile running back in franchise history.
Brown, who arrived in Pittsburgh as a sixth-round pick in 2010, is second all-time in franchise history in catches, yards, and touchdowns. He holds the four most prolific receiving seasons in franchise history. He was arguably the league’s best player in 2015 and in 2017. His catch on Christmas Day 2016 propelled the Steelers to a division-clinching win over the rival Ravens. His helmet grab in the 2010 playoffs helped Pittsburgh complete their comeback over Baltimore en route to their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
Those memories and milestones, however, are somewhat marred by the drama and distractions they created during their run in Pittsburgh. Bell served two different suspensions after failing to following the league’s substance abuse policy. He skipped Pittsburgh’s entire 2017 training camp, then needed nearly a month to get himself near his usual form (he never got there that season, despite putting up All-Pro numbers anyways). Bell was also reportedly late for the team’s walkthrough the day before the playoff game against the Jaguars, a game Bell guaranteed Pittsburgh would win beforehand (and don’t think Jaguars players didn’t take notice).
For nearly a year, Bell toyed with the Steelers, saying he would return to the team after holding out yet again over a contract dispute. But Bell never returned to the team, leading to an angry locker room that created even more unwanted attention from both the local and national media.
Brown’s distractions were even more damaging. His issues, which were mostly hidden from most of the public until the very end, threatened the championship culture that permeates throughout the organization’s hallways. Brown constantly challenged authority, lived by his own rules and eventually quit on his teammates during his final regular-season week as a Steeler. Brown then dragged the Steelers through several months of turmoil last offseason, calling out the head coach, quarterback and owner before finally forcing his way out of Pittsburgh.
Brown and Bell’s distractions were momentarily overshadowed by James Harrison’s decision to leave the team after their 2017 loss to New England. Fresh off a frustrating loss to New England, and less than a month after losing Shazier, Harrison, the franchise’s career sack leader and owner of one of the most iconic players in Super Bowl history, left Pittsburgh to join the Patriots, the team that stood as Pittsburgh’s biggest hurdle throughout the past two decades.
Harrison did face Jacksonville in the ’17 playoffs, when the Patriots hosted them a week later in the AFC Championship Game. The then 39-year-old turned in a near-vintage performance, applying several key pressures on Bortles late in New England’s come-from-behind victory. Harrison played his final NFL game two weeks later, retiring after helping the Patriots fall just short in the Super Bowl, a Super Bowl his former teammates in Pittsburgh felt for sure they’d be playing in just a few weeks earlier.
The 2019 Steelers, in more ways than one, helped restore some old traditions. Their defense, thanks to Kevin Colbert’s early-season trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick and the emergence of former first-round pick T.J. Watt, has reclaimed its rightful place as one of the NFL’s best units. A year after being one of the league’s biggest disappointments, the ’19 Steelers were one of the league’s best Cinderella stories, as Pittsburgh, despite a mountain of injuries, were on the inside of the AFC playoff picture with two weeks remaining in the regular season. And while they ultimately fell short of the playoffs, the Steelers pushed the franchise’s run of non-losing seasons to 16, the second longest active streak in the NFL.
In the process, the Steelers also quieted the outside noise, avoiding the drama that had previously hovered over them. Pittsburgh’s leaders, a group that includes Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Alejandro Villanueva, Joe Haden, Watt, and JuJu Smith-Schuster (among others) helped return the Steelers to a team that made its noise on the football field instead of on social media. While they fell short of achieving the simplest of team expectations (making the playoffs), the 2019 Steelers got rid of the drama while putting the emphasis back on the team, which is why Steelers fans, as a whole, consider their team’s most recent season a success.
But 2019, like the rest of the 2010s, is in the past. The focus is on the future and what the players on Pittsburgh’s 2020 roster can do moving forward. If the past is any indication of the future, the Steelers will continue to be competitive as long as Colbert, president Art Rooney II and head coach Mike Tomlin continue to work in concert together. The trio will continue to find and field talented rosters that will include some of the league’s most recognizable stars.
The Steelers will deal with injuries and bad calls they can’t control. There will be some distractions, suspensions and contract disputes. These are certainties for every NFL team, not just the Steelers. But how the Steelers chose to respond and address these challenges this time around, that will be what ultimately determine whether or not Roethlisberger has already seen his last Super Bowl victory parade as a member of the black and gold.