Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Poor effort with much on the line

Wednesday, December 21, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is sacked by Aldon Smith #99 of the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

As he and his Steelers teammates sat in virtual blackness in their locker room in the massive toxic dump that is San Francisco's Candlestick Park in those tense moments Monday night before a big game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he kept thinking the same thought.

How does this happen in a professional stadium?

Funny, isn't it?

A lot of us had a similar question after watching Roethlisberger and the Steelers play poorly from start to finish and literally stumble to a punishing 20-3 loss to the 49ers.

How does this happen to a professional football team when its season is on the line in so many ways?

Explaining the stadium blackout -- two, actually -- is easy. Candlestick was a hideous place when Joe Montana was throwing touchdown passes to Jerry Rice. Today, it's nothing less than an enormous embarrassment to the NFL.

But explaining the Steelers' lousy effort is much more difficult. They lost so much more than just a game. It's not as if their season is finished; they qualified for the playoffs Sunday with fortuitous losses by other would-be playoff teams. But they were playing for first place in the AFC North Division and the No. 1 seed for the conference playoffs and all of the wonderful benefits that go with each accomplishment. They got big breaks Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans lost.

At the risk of two gross oversimplifications and fully realizing two weeks remain in the regular season:

• Beat the 49ers, go to the Super Bowl.

• Lose to the 49ers, forget about the Super Bowl.

Other than that, it wasn't that big of a game.

"We've done it on the road before," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton insisted afterward. He was talking about the team's march to Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season. It won playoff games at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver to get there, the first time a team had taken such an arduous path to the ultimate game.

But that was then.

This is now.

These Steelers are very good at home, their 6-1 record the proof. They beat the New England Patriots at Heinz Field with relative ease. Their only loss was to the Ravens, who had to go 92 yards in the final 2 1/2 minutes to beat them. They are averaging 24.7 points at home and giving up 11.4. Roethlisberger has thrown 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions at home and been sacked 15 times. His passer rating is 107.1 at home.

It's easy to make a case for the Steelers going to their fourth Super Bowl in seven years if they win their division and get the No. 1 or even the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

But these Steelers are ordinary -- at best -- on the road, their 4-3 record the proof. They lost to the three playoff-bound teams they faced on the road -- Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco -- and really weren't in those games. They barely beat lightweights Indianapolis and Kansas City on the road. They are averaging 16 points in away games and giving up 19.7. Roethlisberger has thrown seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions on the road and been sacked 23 times. His passer rating is 78.2 on the road.

It's almost impossible to imagine the Steelers making it to the Super Bowl as a road playoff team.

Let's go back to Hampton, not just on the loss to the 49ers but on the difficult challenge facing the Steelers. To win the AFC North and get at least one home playoff game, they must beat the St. Louis Rams Saturday at Heinz Field and the Cleveland Browns Jan. 1 on the road. They also must hope the Ravens lose at home Saturday to the Browns or at Cincinnati in the final game.

"Everything we did, we did it to ourselves," Hampton said. "We can't cry about it."

It's easy to blame Roethlisberger's bad ankle for the loss to the 49ers. Clearly, his mobility was limited. He threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and finished with a passer rating of 52.3, his worst of the season. He was sacked three times.

"We were moving the ball," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We just weren't finishing drives. We were turning the ball over."

Who am I to argue?

Tomlin made it clear he didn't think Roethlisberger's ankle was a factor in the loss. He said he had no second thoughts about starting him and never considered taking him out during the game. He did acknowledge you might disagree with one or both of those decisions.

"We don't live in our fears," Tomlin said. "We live in our hopes ... We won't apologize for it."

I have no problem with that thinking.

I like it and respect it, actually.

This loss wasn't just about Roethlisberger, his ankle and the offense's worst point production of the season. "It was a losing performance by us," Tomlin said. "We just didn't play very well."

The Steelers defense wasn't even close to as effective as the 49ers defense; it didn't get a sack or force a turnover. "If we want to be a great defense, we've got to do better than that," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.

The special teams were outplayed by the 49ers special teams. Punter Andy Lee -- a former Pitt player -- did his job better than anyone on the field, finishing with a silly-good 49.2-yard net average on six kicks and forcing the Steelers to start their drives, on average, at their 15. "We were working on long fields," Tomlin said.

All of it made for a very long night.

"We came to the West Coast and we got our butts whipped," safety Ryan Clark said.

Here's the worst part:

The sting from that whipping figures to last for a long time if the Steelers don't get to play home football in January.

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