The Pittsburgh Steelers had a terrific season. Despite enduring quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension to begin the year, the club started 3-1. Upon his return, they won nine of their next 12 games, finishing with a 12-4 mark, the AFC North crown, and a first-round playoff bye. They knocked off the rival Baltimore Ravens in the (aptly-named) divisional round of the postseason, then disposed of the New York Jets in the conference championship, punching a ticket to their third Super Bowl in the last six seasons. Finally, safety Troy Polamalu took home his first Defensive Player of the Year Award. It's been a great year - and certainly a better one than any of us could've expected after Pittsburgh's tumultuous offseason. (Given the challenges head coach Mike Tomlin had to face and the season he produced in spite of them, he was an epic snub in the press's Coach of the Year selection, not receiving a single vote.)
But the Steelers lost in the Super Bowl. And with the defense getting old, it feels like the window for Pittsburgh to capture a third title with the same core of guys is starting to close. Disappointing? You bet. And while I could write a book-length feature on what went wrong in XLV - oh, the epic poetry I could pen about Roethlisberger's two telegraphed picks! - I'm sure there are plenty of stories out there that have already given their best doom and gloom reenactment of the game.
So instead - being the optimist that I am - I'm going to focus on what went right for the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Yes, there's plenty of blame to go around for their loss, but let's acknowledge the Steelers who impressed on the biggest stage in football:
You might think he doesn't belong in this optimistic article, given his fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter (video), but the fact is, Mendenhall was the most important offensive weapon for the Steelers. (And just really quick, about that fumble: it's tough to blame Mendenhall too much for it. He (unfairly) developed a reputation early in his career as a fumble-prone back (statistically, he's not), then adjusted his mechanics. If you watch the replay, you'll see that he was holding the ball high and tight, just like he's coached. It reminded me of Heath Miller's crucial fumble in the team's regular season loss to the New Orleans Saints. Despite Mendenhall protecting the ball, Clay Matthews was expecting another counter to the right, a play that torched Green Bay earlier in the game, and drove his shoulder right into the back's elbow, jarring the ball loose. The point I'm trying to make is that the play was less about Mendenhall dropping the ball (figuratively, literally) and more about Matthews making a savvy read and a brutal hit.)
I pointed out before the game that for all the love the Green Bay Packers defense receives in the press and elsewhere, they're not very good against the run. Mendenhall didn't disappoint, logging 63 yards on the ground at 4.5 yards per carry. What's more, he did it every which way you can. The bread and the butter of the Steelers running game was pulling guard Chris Kemoeatu right, but Mendenhall also produced on tough dive plays, and he bounced some outside when necessary, using his speed to beat Packers defenders. Now, I'm not one of the many Bruce Arians haters out there - I think he's done a great job this season, particularly in the playoffs, when he was especially aggressive and unpredictable - but I do kind of wonder why the Pittsburgh offensive coordinator only fed his back 14 times, given the success he was having on nearly every touch. (Granted, backups Issac Redman and Mewelde Moore were also productive, adding another 32 rushing yards - 6.4 yards per carry.) Maybe Arians was trying to exploit some individual matchups in the passing game once Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson had to leave the game with an injury. And of course, some of the pass-run disparity can be chalked up situational factors (two-minute drills, etc.). But still, Pittsburgh's pass-run ratio was almost exactly 2:1, if you omit Roethlisberger's scrambles. (You might even say it was greater than 2:1, if you consider that the scrambles were originally passing calls.) That seems a little backwards to me, given the Packers' obvious deficiencies against the rush.
The Offensive Line
I could probably write individual accolades for Chris Kemoeatu (who pulled right across the formation on what seemed like every huge Mendenhall run), backup center Doug Legursky (who I hope gets a chance to compete for a starting spot at right guard next year and who performed admirably in place of rookie Maurkice Pouncey, despite a ton of analysts saying he would do just the opposite) and tight end Heath Miller (who simply manhandled Clay Matthews on the edge and took the outside linebacker out of the game more often than not). But the fact is, this was a total team effort by a much maligned unit. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers did drop more guys into coverage than I (or the Steelers) expected he would, often opting to rush three or four instead of bringing the zone blitz against Pittsburgh's injury-riddled front. Nonetheless, that still makes Roethlisberger vulnerable to coverage sacks, so the fact that the line only allowed one quarterback takedown is extremely impressive and speaks to the prowess of Pittsburgh offensive line coach Sean Kugler.
While the box score doesn't really show it, Woodley had a terrific game on Super Bowl Sunday. True, he didn't record the 2.5 sacks I was hoping for, but Woodley still took advantage of his matchups against rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga and tight end Donald Lee. In passing situations, he consistently bull-rushed his man back towards Aaron Rodgers, forcing the Packers quarterback to throw off his back foot or across his body, compromising his accuracy. It seemed like the only incompletions Rodgers threw on the night transpired when a) his receivers dropped perfect passes (thanks, Jordy Nelson!) or b) Woodley collapsed the pocket on third down, forcing a three-and-out. While it feels a little bit like Pittsburgh's defense got torched, it's tough to be dissapointed with their performance - giving up 24 offensive points to one of the best offenses in the league - given the field position Green Bay enjoyed after Pittsburgh's turnovers. Woodley was a huge part of that. One of the biggest stories of the Steelers' offseason will be how the front office handles Woodley's bizarre contract situation. Here's to hoping they can keep him around. Woodley finished with three tackles and one sack in Super Bowl XLV.
Veteran Wide Receivers
Antwaan Randle El only made two catches in the game, but they were significant, highlight-worthy grabs: a drive-sustaining reception on third down and a 37-yard catch (video) at the height of his jump to start Pittsburgh's two-minute drill at the end of the half, down 21-3. The first drive ended prematurely thanks to a terrible Roethlisberger interception, where the quarterback stared down his slot receiver the whole way, but the second ended in points, as Hines Ward caught an improvisatory 8-yard touchdown. Randle El also scored Pittsburgh's last points of the day on a brilliant two-point conversion call from Arians. Roethlisberger lined up in the shotgun, faked the draw to Mendenhall right, then scrambled left, tossing the option to Randle El (video), who ran all the way across the formation, beginning with pre-snap motion. The conversion reduced the Packers' lead to three, giving Pittsburgh hope down the stretch.
Ward, for his part, had a huge game, as well, catching seven passes for 78 yards, including the aforementioned touchdown. He also had four Pittsburgh first downs. Second-year speedster Mike Wallace was also productive, although not in the way Steelers fans have become accustomed to enjoying. Instead of catching a deep bomb (Roethlisberger missed him egregiously on one such play, actually overthrowing Wallace, which is quite a feat) or taking a drag route way down the field for a YAC-heavy gain, Wallace made his money underneath, catching nine balls for 89 yards (9.9 yard average). Wallace hauled in two receptions for first downs and one for a score. The rookie wideouts, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who had played impressively all postseason, didn't really show up in the Super Bowl. They combined for just three catches and 18 yards, and Brown ran the wrong play on third down, when he would've been open at the sticks on a curl route. That said, the Steelers receiving corps was most impressive, especially given Green Bay's depth at cornerback.