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Steelers’ offense melts down, hanging the defense out to dry in 30-9 drubbing

In Sunday’s horror film at Heinz Field, repeated red-zone failures plus five interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger doomed Pittsburgh.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that most surely will live in infamy among the annals of Pittsburgh’s pro football lore, the Steelers’ offense proved beyond any reasonable doubt that its performance issues run far deeper than ever imagined at the start of the 2017 regular season. Totally wasting a spirited effort by the Black-and-gold defense which, prior to the third-quarter meltdown by Ben Roethlisberger, had limited the Jaguars to only seven points, Pittsburgh’s offense not only failed to support its teammates on the defense, but totally sunk the Steelers’ ship by handing a pair of easy touchdowns to Jacksonville.

But even before Big Ben uncorked the pair of pick-6 throws on successive possessions to seal Pittsburgh’s doom, his offense already had failed to score a single touchdown for more than half of the game, despite ample opportunity. Finishing this game with an incredible five interceptions, Ben is—for the first time in his otherwise brilliant career—forcing the faithful of Steelers Nation to seriously question whether he and the Steelers’ offense have what it takes merely to earn a playoff berth—let alone reaching another Super Bowl.

Perhaps worst of all, when time expired to end the game—accompanied by an audible chorus of hometown boos—the victorious Jacksonville Jaguars not only had a resounding 30-9 victory in hand—they’d also conducted a veritable clinic for Pittsburgh’s upcoming opponents on exactly how to go about dismantling the Black-and-gold offense. Quite plainly and in its current form, this offense isn’t capable of executing the kind of patient-yet-effective game plan necessary when their opponent largely shuts down the deep-passing game.

Tale of woe

Throughout most of the game, Pittsburgh tried to combine a running attack with dink-and-dunk passing. While this approach was somewhat effective between the 20-yard lines, it continually stalled and—only too often—in the red zone. In fact, the Steelers’ very first drive of the game—highlighted by a 49-yard Roethlisberger pass to Antonio Brown— ultimately would prove typical of the Steelers’ inability throughout the game to convert field position into touchdowns. That initial drive stalled at the Jags’ 11-yard line and they settled for a Chris Boswell 29-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.

Then, the first of Ben’s bevy of interceptions handed the Jaguars a short field—which they promptly exploited, driving the ball downfield for their first TD. Leonard Fournette displayed impressive athleticism for such a large man by launching himself missile-like over the Steelers’ defensive line and into the end zone, giving the Jags a 7-3 lead. Shortly thereafter, Ryan Shazier handed the Steelers’ offense a golden opportunity when he snatched a bobbled ball away from Jags’ receiver James O’Shaughnessy which was ruled an interception by the officials. But of course, Pittsburgh once again had to settle for a 34-yard field goal after stalling at the Jags’ 16-yard line at the end of the first half, making the score 7-6 in Jacksonville’s favor at the intermission.

Just as they’d done a week earlier in Baltimore, things fell apart for the Steelers in the third quarter. Only this time, the results were far more devastating—with Ben’s pair of pick-6 throws handing the Jags an easy and quick 13 points (only 13 because they missed a point-after kick). Then, following yet another Steelers’ drive which stalled at midfield, the Jags moved into field-goal range and tacked on another three points to make the score 23-9.

Fournette’s 90-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter against a by-then gambling Steelers’ defense stacked near the line of scrimmage served only to pad his personal rushing stats while adding an exclamation point to the sad story of Pittsburgh’s meltdown. But even without those additional 90 yards, the Jaguars had rushed for 141 yards, a total pretty close to their impressive, per-game average so far this season.

Remains of the day

The aftermath of this unmitigated disaster will provide an opportunity, however difficult, for the Steelers, their coaches and fans—perhaps for the first time this season—to take an unvarnished look at this team. Despite playing at home in the friendly confines of Heinz Field, and also despite being remarkably healthy going into this game, the Steelers managed not only to lose to yet another supposedly inferior team, but this time they were soundly thrashed by a 3-TD margin.

At this stage, and given the sheer depth of their offensive issues, how can anyone seriously claim that Pittsburgh ought to be favored in the coming weeks, regardless of their opponent? As the late, great rocker Tom Petty wrote in his hit song, this team currently is “free-falling.” The truly scary thing right now is that, in the wake of this debacle, we’ve got no idea how low the bottom might actually be for this team.

In five weeks of play, Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t truly dominated a single opponent on the scoreboard, despite playing a group of teams plagued by serious quarterback issues of their own. The Steelers’ franchise quarterback, who in previous weeks was merely ineffective, now has morphed into a distinct liability. After the entire preseason and five weeks of season play, Ben still appears not to be on the same page with receivers other than No. 84. And because of this issue, he’s tending to force passes to Brown even when he’s double- or triple-covered.

Le’Veon Bell had yet another sub-par outing against Jacksonville, with only 15 carries for 47 yards and 93 total yards (including his 46 yards receiving). Martavis Bryant once again looked nothing at all like the NFL terror he was two years ago—catching only five passes for 21 yards.

Even if we forget about all the stats and chalk-talk, the gut reaction of many to this defeat is one of disbelief bordering on a sense of betrayal. The Steelers’ offense was so awful that, midway through the third quarter, many fans already had abandoned any hope that Pittsburgh could stage a comeback. And the players which most of us had been counting on to come through for the team this season were the same ones whose performances had, once again, fallen below the line.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers have the look of a team suffering the cumulative effects of some key players not performing up to expectations. And when the most prominent offender in this bunch wears No. 7 on his jersey, it’s no secret that the Steelers truly are a team in trouble. With road games in Kansas City and Detroit on tap during the next three weeks, plus a home game with Cincinnati—the Steelers might just as easily find themselves below .500 at the halfway point of the season rather than leading their division. Thus, it’s imperative for them to start getting some of these glaring issues under control.

Steady as she goes

After a train wreck like the one at Heinz Field on Sunday, it’s tempting to find a nearby ledge—or else vow to take up golf instead during the fall and winter. The plain truth is—given the way the Steelers’ offense is playing right now—it’s not a very entertaining product. When you keep waiting week after week for Ben and the offense to assert themselves, but then it never happens, this makes for a disappointing experience.

We can only hope that Mike Tomlin and company will take a methodical approach to fixing what clearly now is broken, and will get this team prepared to play some competitive football in the weeks to come. You certainly don’t panic with a 3-2 record after Week 5.

Most loyal Steelers fans can face losing, so long as it doesn’t become habitual. But what many members of the Nation cannot tolerate is when we catch the foul scent of a team that’s no longer truly competitive. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the nature of the odor wafting through Heinz Field on a dreary Sunday afternoon, as the Black-and-gold walked off of the gridiron in defeat.