Ben Roethlisberger threw five extremely distracting interceptions—a single-game career high, in fact—in a distracting 30-9 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a bad game. If you watched it, you already know that. If you didn’t watch it, the next 1,200 words should be more illuminative:
Expectations: Stock down
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense isn’t very good. More accurately, it hasn’t been very good thus far. For the first quarter of the season, the general ineptitude of Pittsburgh’s offense has largely been attributed to. . .rustiness, maybe? I’m not totally sure. No one seems to be, frankly. Internally, the Steelers have taken the “we’ll figure it out eventually” approach, which is just peachy, especially given how they rebounded from a 4-5 start last season to win the AFC North.
The peachiness of this disposition is further exemplified by the chaotic nature that has so far characterized the 2017 NFL season. The Steelers lost at home, humiliatingly, to a team playing in its third consecutive road contest, one of which was a loss to the New York Jets (who, in fairness, are inexplicably locked in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East). Nevertheless, the Steelers are 3-2, and certainly still well-positioned to contend in the AFC, if not win the whole darned conference altogether.
The Steelers have struggled, yes, but so have other AFC heavyweights. The New England Patriots, overwhelming preseason Super Bowl favorites, look just as lost on defense as Pittsburgh does on offense. The Oakland Raiders, another trendy Super Bowl front-runner, have been atypically stagnant. The Tennessee Titans, who were penciled in as contenders by virtue of playing in the AFC South, are 2-3 and down a healthy Marcus Mariota. The Kansas City Chiefs, the team currently at the vanguard of the conference, are incredibly talented, but hardly have the look of an untouchable world-beater.
With all of that said, though, the wait-and-see mentality is a risky proposition. The Steelers literally had no margin for error during the second half of the 2016 season, needing six consecutive wins and a borderline transcendent performance from its big-3 in the final 12 minutes of their Week 16 matchup against Baltimore to punch their playoff ticket. The Steelers are obviously talented enough to turn things around and live up to the understandably lofty expectations placed on the offense. But based on what they’ve demonstrated so far this season, it’s probably fine to be a little nervous.
Play calling - Stock down
Entering Week 5, Jacksonville ranked first in the NFL in pass defense and last in run defense. Recognizing this dichotomy, the Steelers called somewhere in the ballpark of three dozen passing plays over the course of the first 40 or so minutes of Sunday’s game. Conversely, the Steelers called just over a dozen running plays. Le’Veon Bell is just as perplexed as you.
Game-planning is an inherently fluid artform, I get that. But it became strikingly evident very early in Sunday’s game that Jacksonville’s secondary is a legitimately fearsome group. Perhaps a more run-heavy game plan might have been more prudent.
Also, what’s with Todd Haley dialing up a double-move on 3rd-and-goal from Jacksonville’s two yard-line? Even Pete Carroll would be like, “buddy, run the ball.”
Mike Mitchell, Chris Hubbard, and Mike Tomlin - Stock down
Trailing Jacksonville in the fourth quarter, Mitchell delivered a bone-vaporizing hit to Leonard Fournette. The only problem is that Fournette, a locomotive with a beard, had picked up 12 yards prior to coming head-to-head with Mitchell. Despite being down a possession at home to a seemingly inferior opponent and despite having just surrendered first-down yardage on said play, Mitchell popped up and did a celebratory dance. Many people didn’t like that fact that Mitchell lauded his own personal achievement, but I’m a contrarian. I’m glad he celebrated. Mitchell has missed so many tackles this season that every successful one from here on is worth celebrating. So party on, champ.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully the following photograph of Chris Hubbard accurately describes his performance:
Mike Tomlin, meanwhile, made two of the worst coach’s challenges you’ll ever see, and I’m hardly being hyperbolic. The latter challenge—the one in which an Antonio Brown-bound pass very clearly hit the ground—was presumably a product of desperation but, importantly, it occurred with the Steelers down a pair of touchdowns and plenty of time on the clock.
Antonio Brown - Stock up
Imagine if Brown went to the media and complained about Ben throwing five interceptions. Imagine how local media would tear him to pieces if he even hinted that he was frustrated by Ben’s performance. Imagine the comments you would see on this very website.
Anyyyyway. . .Brown caught 10 passes for 157 yards, retaking the NFL league in both categories. At age 29, Brown is playing the best football of his career despite playing in an offense that has lacked any semblance of continuity up to this point. The outlook is decent.
The secondary: Stock up
These fellas are playing out of their minds. Through five weeks, the Steelers rank first in the NFL in pass defense and are one of only two teams who haven’t allowed a passing play of 40 or more yards. The secondary will face is biggest (and debatably first) test of the season this weekend against Kansas City, so we’ll get good sense of how good this unit is seven days from now.
Run defense: Stock neutral
Fournette’s 90-yard touchdown run in garbage time makes the Steelers’ performance against the run look considerably worse than it actually was. Without that touchdown, the Steelers allowed a still-not-great 141 rushing yards, but held the tandem of Fournette and Chris Ivory to fewer than four yards per carry, which is pretty good.
Pittsburgh’s primary issue was its inconsistency. Steelers defenders made a number of stops behind the line of scrimmage but permitted an almost equal number of 10-12 yard bursts. During one stretch, for instance, the Jaguars called 12 (!) running plays in a row, which culminated in Fournette’s first touchdown of the afternoon. At a certain point, a tendency becomes a hallmark, and it’s pretty clear that Jacksonville isn’t gonna count on Blake Bortles to beat anyone.
Game ball - Jalen Ramsey
Fournette is a monster, but Ramsey might already be one of the five best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
He threw five interceptions, you guys. Five. Statistically, Week 5 was Roethlisberger’s worst game EVER, and it was just the latest installment in what has been a mostly terrible season for the future Hall of Famer to this point.
Make no mistake: the Steelers’ defense is absolutely doing what it needs to do for the team to be successful. The offense has simply been unable to match the defense’s acuity, which is due in no small part to Roethlisberger’s poor play. Roethlisberger has acknowledged as much but, aside from some vague self-deprecation, he hasn’t provided any answers. Whether its age-induced regression, a particularly frightening cold spell, or something else, it’s evident that Roethlisberger hasn’t been himself. If the season ended today, he’d retire.
I think he’ll give the team six more months. Therefore, we’ll set the retirement index at 9.