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Tim Benz: An airing of grievances for a wildly disappointing Steelers season

Tim Benz
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) sits with teammates along the bench in the second quarter an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Driskel recovered the fumble. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It seems pointless to do our usual Steelers “Airing of Grievances” column after that drab 16-13 win over a patchwork version of the Bengals in the 2018 finale.

This season is over for the Black and Gold. So breaking down that game in our usual fashion feels like small potatoes.

A few “Feats of Strength” to make ourselves feel better? OK.

Newly signed Matt McCrane nailed all of his kicks. James Washington made a nice play on a reboot of his infamous “Flying Circus” catch attempt against the Broncos. Eli Rogers had seven catches in a spot start for Antonio Brown. T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward combined for three sacks.

Aside from that, throughout the game against Cincinnati, the Steelers played like a team that knew the Ravens were going to win.

Even though they almost lost.

Boy, would the roof have collapsed on Mike Tomlin if that had occurred. Imagine Jeff Driskel had pulled a Ryan Mallett and engineered a meaningless win for his club on the North Shore as the Browns were pulling off a stunning comeback in Baltimore?

That didn’t happen. But it almost did. The Steelers eked out the “W.” And that Baltimore defensive unit fended off a second-half comeback with a C.J. Mosley interception on a fourth down late in their game. They held a lead in the fourth quarter.

Those are things the Steelers didn’t do in Oakland. Or New Orleans. Or Denver. Or at home against the Chargers.

“That hurt more,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “It’s the same type of situation that we have been in all season. And C.J. makes a big-time splash for that defense. And they came out on top. We had opportunities to do that. But we didn’t ever seal the deal. We’ve got to go in with the mindset that we have to make the play instead of waiting for someone else to make a play. That’s got to be the way it is.”

So let’s start our “Airing of Grievances” for the whole season right there, as it was summed up in that agonizing duality expressed by Dupree.

The Steelers’ archrival came up huge on defense to claim the division, while the Steelers defense often hemorrhaged leads to blow what appeared to be a secured playoff slot just a month or so ago.

The Steelers began the year with a kick-in-the-crotch tie in Cleveland. They ended it with a kick-in-the-crotch loss by Cleveland.

As the Steelers running game went awry at times late in the season, the Ravens became a ground-and-pound machine over the last few weeks.

And the circle of NFL life is complete.

“It makes me mad,” Heyward said. “We put ourselves in this situation. Looking for others to do our job. It’s frustrating. As a leader of this group, it’s unacceptable.”

Join the club, Cam. All of Pittsburgh is mad like you are. A city-wide grievance is that a typical Mike Tomlin-era trait manifested this year in an extremely costly way. Yet again, the Steelers are out of the playoffs because they lost to or tied teams that are significantly worse than they are. They went 1-2-1 against the Browns, Raiders, and Broncos. Those teams are a combined 17-30-1. And this year isn’t unique.

• In 2009, the 9-7 Steelers lost to four sub-.500 clubs and missed the playoffs via tiebreaker.

• In 2011, a 12-4 season ended in the playoffs against an 8-8 Denver Broncos team quarterbacked by Tim Tebow.

• In 2012, the 8-8 Steelers were the last team left out of the playoffs. Along the way, they lost to Tennessee, Oakland, and the Browns. None of those clubs was better than 6-10 that year.

• The 2013 Steelers were the last team eliminated from the playoff bracket at 8-8. Only two of their eight losses that season were to clubs (New England and Cincinnati) with a record better than .500.

On top of that, Tomlin’s teams suffered home defeats in the 2014 and 2017 playoffs. And they were a Matt McCrane career day away from suffering one of the ugliest home defeats in Heinz Field history Sunday.

Tomlin teams play down to the level of competition. Anyone trying to deny that is just carrying water for the club. Pure and simple.

Allow me one last grievance.

The rest of the AFC isn’t that good. We’ve spent all of December basking in the reality that the Patriots are finally slipping. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are starting to look old. Bill Belichick’s cauldron may finally be out of evil spells. But you know what? They still might claim the conference crown.

Of all the years Pittsburgh could’ve won in Foxborough, this could’ve been it. However, the team’s negligence in so many other areas prevented that dart from even being thrown.

That’s a grievance worth airing for the next eight months.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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