Steelers Sink to New Low
by Trevor Whenham - 10/12/2006
It was just nine months ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers were the darlings of the national media. They had just won the Super Bowl, Jerome Bettis was on every TV show and in every newspaper and magazine in the country, and Big Ben had the world on a string. Some time between then and week five of this season, however, the bottom dropped out of their world. The team is just 1-3 and they are already a longshot to make the playoffs, never mind to defend their title. They are 1-3 against the spread, and they have failed to cover in their last three games. They haven't really been close, either - falling 6.5, 10 and 11.5 points short in their bids to cover the spread in those last three outings.
The Steelers aren't alone in their post-Super Bowl struggles. The year after they won, Tampa Bay went 6-9-1 ATS, and the Rams posted the same ATS record during their Super Bowl hangover, so the Steelers' struggles aren't unprecedented. They are of concern to backers of the team, however. If the struggles continue it can create a big advantage for bettors looking to fade the champs. There is a very good chance that the woes will continue, too. Here's a look at four major factors why:
The Big Ben Factor - Obviously, any discussion of this team has to begin with the quarterback. Roethlisberger has been, in a word, awful. After missing the first game due to an appendectomy, Big Ben has thrown seven interceptions and no touchdowns in three straight losses. He only had 20 career picks in two seasons coming into this year. His yards per completion has plummeted by 3.3 yards from where it was the last two seasons, and his pathetic quarterback rating of 41.7 is well under half of what it was last year.
You can blame the motorbike crash, the appendicitis, the weak receiving corps or the running game, but the fact is that Roethlisberger is playing very badly and he has to do much, much better if this team wants to win. Or even cover. He looks rusty, he's making bad decisions and he doesn't have the same swagger that has got him to where he is. It doesn't help that his offensive line is struggling to protect him, or that all the time he missed from various injuries has cut into his ability to bond with his new look receiving corps.
If there is a reason to be optimistic, it is that Roethlisberger has never put up huge numbers. He's just won. If he can make better decisions and get his confidence back then it isn't a huge step up from where he is to where he needs to be. The team won the Super Bowl last year when Roethlisberger played a pretty average (at best) game.
The Bus Factor - The way his teammates were talking about Jerome Bettis at the end of last season I was pretty sure that the guy could walk on water. Last year's Super Bowl was more about Bettis in the media than any other Super Bowl had ever been focused on just one player. Even John Elway didn't get as much national attention. His impact was almost certainly exaggerated, but he is unquestionably missed.
It's not just his bruising ball carrying, either, though the team has to miss his ability to pound for short yardage and tough touchdowns. The guy obviously was a huge presence in the locker room, and teammates give him almost unlimited credit for keeping the team sharp and focused. That has been missing already this year, and it will certainly be missed even more if the struggles continue. This is a young team from the quarterback on down, and the absence of Bettis and his perspective could make a tough season even tougher, and uglier. Willie Parker may be missing the Bus, too. Parker is getting four more carries per game and his average is down by a yard per carry. Bettis gave Parker a break and made the tough carries that can wear a back down.
The Cowher Factor - Bill Cowher has been coaching the team since 1992. During that incredible streak -- which is almost unprecedented in modern pro sports -- Cowher has posted just three losing seasons and he has been able to turn the team around each time. This year is different, however. It was unclear until well into the offseason whether Cowher would return to coach the team again. He bought a house in North Carolina that his family has moved into, causing people to suspect that he is almost done with the team. Jerome Bettis caused some controversy when he suggested on TV that Cowher was likely in his last season. If things continue to go badly for the team then Cowher's one foot out the door could be the excuse players need to tune him out.
The Receiver Factor - The running game isn't working as well as it has in the past, and part of the blame has to lie with the receivers. There is no reason to be afraid of the passing game, so defenses can key on the run. Hines Ward is their only polished receiver right now and he is struggling with a hamstring injury that has kept him from playing anywhere near his best. Draft pick Santonio Holmes is incredibly talented, but he is equally raw and long way from being a major factor. Tight end Heath Miller was massive in the first game of the season, but has been invisible since. The team misses Antwaan Randle-El more than they probably thought they would, because he had the ability to make plays and to distract defenses even when he didn't get the ball. Until the receivers step up their game (along with Roethlisberger doing better at getting them the ball, of course) this team will not win a meaningful number of games.