Houston, the Steelers have a problem.
It’s not just your expansion Texans, who Sunday set an NFL standard for offensive futility in a win, netting all of 47 yards in a 24-6 stunner at Heinz Field.
This inexplicable loss was just the latest symptom in a season during which the Steelers have demonstrated the ability to stumble and bumble more often than a record now marked down to 7-5-1 would indicate.
Early in the season, the opposition passed at will. More recently, the Steelers twice have blown 17-point leads in the past five games, yet managed to net a tie and win for all their charity.
Last week, despite dominating Jacksonville 403-226 in total offense, the Steelers needed to successfully defend a late two-point pass attempt by the Jaguars to preserve a 25-23 win.
Now, we get this, a game decided by not one, not two, but three defensive touchdowns by the Texans. Meanwhile, the Houston offense was such that rookie quarterback David Carr sounded almost apologetic.
“We won the football game, 24-6. I should be happy,” he said. “But we didn’t do anything.”
The once-resourceful Steelers, who in past seasons have prided themselves on finding ways to win, now find ways to lose, or at least to keep the opposition within striking distance.
It was a terse coach Bill Cowher who met the media yesterday, rationing his words, sort of the way his defense had rationed yards to the Texans.
Can your team overcome this?
“Sure we can. We have no choice,” Cowher said.
Does losing to an expansion team have an unraveling effect?
“It is a loss. It doesn’t make a difference at this point. We know the situation we put ourselves in and we need to move forward.”
Cowher is something of an expert on losing to expansion teams. He has presided over losses to first-year teams from Jacksonville (1995), Cleveland (1999) and now Houston.
The Steelers eventually went to the Super Bowl following the 1995 season, but the Jacksonville loss was relatively early, in Week 6.
The Cleveland loss, in Week 9 of the 1999 season, dropped the Steelers to 5-4. Before they pulled out of the tailspin, they would lost five more on the way to a 6-10 finish.
Today, Cowher and Co. must ask themselves, are they going to follow the 1999 script or the one from1995?
The players who stuck around to dissect this most unexpected and most unusual loss, were putting on brave fronts.
“I don’t want to laugh, but I can’t do anything but laugh,” said Kimo von Oelhoffen, an end on the Steelers defense that will go down in history as the unit that yielded the fewest yards in a losing effort. “The game came down to three turnovers for three touchdowns. Period. That’s not going to happen for another six years.”
Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox drops the ball and Kenny Wright returns the fumble 40 yards for a first-quarter touchdown. Twice Aaron Glenn jumps short pass patterns, picks off Maddox, and returns them 70 and 65 yards, respectively, for touchdowns in quarters one and four.
When the Texans put away the Steelers with Kris Brown’s 43-yard field goal into the dreaded open end, it’s after losing 5 yards on four plays following a muffed punt by Antwaan Randle El.
As bad as Maddox was on this day, and he was poor, he had multiple drops by his wide receivers, including an apparent touchdown by Plaxico Burress. Maddox was sacked six times as the offensive line struggled. And the Steelers’ ground game, which should have been productive against Houston, was not.
Did we mention that false-start penalties came in bunches?
“It was one of those days where nothing went right as far as the offense,” Hines Ward said.
As for the defense, everything went right, except the outcome.
“If you shut a team out to under 50 yards offense, you think you have a chance of winning at least,” linebacker Joey Porter said. “You think you have a real good chance of winning the game.”
That’s true, except when you’re the Steelers, mired in a season of uncharacteristic struggles.
Optimists will tell you the Steelers still lead their division and control their destiny. They are correct. The Steelers could easily still make the playoffs. But do you really like their chances if and when they get there?