COOK: Steelers, at 4-4, are the definition of mediocrity
You get what you deserve in sports.
I feel comfortable taking that position this morning even after a weekend when Duke lost to Miami on an eight-lateral, 91-yard kickoff return that was botched so badly by the game officials that the ACC suspended the crew for two games. Lost in the postgame hysteria was the fact Miami was penalized an ACC-record 23 times for 194 yards and Duke was penalized five times for 41 yards. If I am Miami, I am not giving the game back.
But this is about the Steelers.
They thoroughly deserve their 4-4 record.
They have earned the designation of mediocre.
Injuries have been a significant part of that. You know all about them, from Maurkice Pouncey's leg injury in the preseason to Le'Veon Bell's knee injury Sunday. Not every team can survive losing its quarterback for 4½ games. The Dallas Cowboys are 0-5 since Tony Romo went down. To the Steelers' credit, they went 3-2 without Ben Roethlisberger if you count the win in St. Louis Sept. 27 when he played little more than half of the game.
There also have been a couple of improbable wins. Mike Vick, in for Roethlisberger, brought the Steelers back twice in the fourth quarter Oct. 12 at San Diego. Who saw that coming? Landry Jones, in for Vick, led the team to four second-half scoring drives at home Oct. 18 against Arizona. I repeat: Who saw that coming?
But it's the mistakes that the Steelers made in their losses to Baltimore, Kansas City and Cincinnati that will haunt them all offseason if they don't make the playoffs, which seems likely now that the great Bell is out for the rest of the season. They turned winnable games into defeats. They easily could be 6-2, if not 7-1.
Stinging losses: The 23-20 overtime loss Oct. 1 to the Ravens still stings. I remember the gloom in the Steelers locker room after that one. It was awful. Somehow, the team managed to blow a 20-7 second-half lead on a night when Ross Cockrell had an interception, Cam Heyward forced a fumble, Sean Spence stopped a fake field-goal attempt, Stephon Tuitt stopped quarterback Joe Flacco for no gain on fourth-and-1 and the defense sacked Flacco five times. That was the night Josh Scobee missed field-goal tries from 49 and 41 yards. It was the night Antonio Brown dropped what should have been a 36-yard touchdown pass from Vick. And it was the night the coaches choose to put the ball in Vick's hands on two failed fourth-and-short plays in overtime rather than give the ball to Bell.
The 23-13 loss Oct. 25 in Kansas City wasn't much better. The Chiefs had lost five games in a row. Jones threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Alejandro Villanueva was beaten for two sacks by linebacker Tamba Hali. Bell ran for 121 yards but had just 17 carries, not nearly enough. Why in the world wasn't he used in short-yardage situations? The defense didn't force a turnover or get a sack. It allowed running back Charcandrick West to go for 110 yards after he had a total of 81 yards in the first six games. The defense gave up a 26-yard pass to tight end Travis Kelce and a 36-yard run by West on consecutive plays in the Chiefs' clinching touchdown drive.
Clock issues: The 16-10 loss Sunday to the Bengals was the worst, if only because of Bell's injury. That's a horrible blow for the Steelers. If Mike Tomlin can guide the team to the playoffs without Bell — the NFL's best running back — he should get coach of the year consideration. Of course, no one was nominating Tomlin for that award Sunday after he mismanaged the clock down the stretch, allowing 30 seconds to tick away before the two-minute warning when he had his three timeouts left. Those were precious seconds the Steelers needed after moving to the Bengals 16 on their final possession.
The clock problems completed a miserable afternoon for the Steelers and wasted a strong defensive performance that included three sacks, interceptions by Antwon Blake and Mike Mitchell, a blocked field goal by Heyward and just 16 points and 296 total yards by the Bengals, two touchdowns and 114 fewer yards than their season's averages coming in. Roethlisberger, in his first game back, threw three interceptions. Martavis Bryant dropped a touchdown pass. The team committed 10 penalties for 91 yards, including inexcusable, post-snap personal fouls by Mitchell and James Harrison. The Steelers deserved to lose based on stupidity alone.
"We are what we are right now," Tomlin said. "We're 4-4."