As the final seconds ticked down on the game clock in a silent and largely emptied Heinz Field on Sunday night, Steelers Nation worldwide received the unhappy message that last Monday’s near collapse during the second half in Tampa hardly had been any fluke, but a precursor of more serious problems in store for the Black-and-gold. After staging another second-quarter rally which knotted the game 14-14 at halftime and raised fans’ hopes for an important victory over their divisional arch-rivals, the much-hyped Steelers’ offense once again went completely dormant for the entire second half — allowing the Baltimore Ravens to snatch a surprisingly easy 26-14 victory.
But if not for a couple of Baltimore errors, this game easily could have been over by halftime. In the first quarter, Joe Flacco overthrew a wide-open Michael Crabtree on a play that should have been a certain TD — which would have made the score 21-0. Then, in the second quarter, with the Ravens knocking on the door for another TD, Alex Collins coughed up the ball at the 2-yard line after a hit by Sean Davis, and the fumble was recovered by Terrell Edmunds. Had the Ravens also converted these scoring opportunities, instead of a tie at halftime, the score would have been 28-14 in Baltimore’s favor. Thus, even during the brief portion of the game when the Steelers appeared to be competitive, that appearance was deceiving.
For as much as the Steelers’ offense challenged the Ravens after returning to the field following halftime, they might just as well have gone home for the evening. During the third quarter, the offense stalled three consecutive times and had to punt the ball back to Baltimore. Then, early in the fourth quarter, the offense stalled yet again, punting the ball back to the Ravens with 10:17 remaining in the game. At that point, Baltimore simply rammed the ball down the defense’s throats, killing nearly seven minutes on the clock and culminating in a Justin Tucker field goal that extended Baltimore’s lead to 23-14.
With time elapsing on the Steelers’ next-to-last possession, Ben Roethlisberger’s late throw across the middle — providing a room-service interception for Anthony Levine Sr. — somehow served as the fitting exclamation point for this defeat which likely will go down as one of the most disappointing in the franchise’s history. After passing for 224 yards in the first half, Roethlisberger finished the game with only 274 yards passing, along with an anemic 5.8-yard average per pass. Furthermore, Flacco out-dueled Ben in quarterback rating to the tune of 109.5 to 72.5. In fact, throughout much of the second half, Ben hardly seemed to be on the same page as his receivers — throwing the ball too high, too low or behind them.
First-quarter report card
After having their hopes raised by halftime — then cruelly shattered as the final quarter wore on — the chorus of boos the Steelers received from their departing home crowd was well-deserved. Viewed as a whole, it’s reasonable to say the Steelers ought to be given a failing grade after Week 4. Their offense only showed up for about one out of four quarters on Sunday night — hardly adequate to win any games in the NFL these days, regardless of opponent. And perhaps surprisingly, this defeat cannot be laid at the feet of the defense, because the Ravens were limited to four field goals during the second half. Had the Steelers’ offense performed anywhere close to the lofty preseason expectations of their fans, the Black-and-gold should have been able to score in the 30s and win the game. But alas, the Steelers’ offense virtually (and inexplicably) disappeared for the entire, final 30 minutes of play.
With four games and the first quarter of the 2018 regular season in the books, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Steelers truly are a team in trouble. Although tight end Vance McDonald continued to show that he’s a valuable weapon (provided he’s able to stay healthy), Roethlisberger seems to be out of sync with most of his receivers. For much of the game, Ben seemed never to quite be sure exactly where his receivers were going on the field or how they’d run their routes. It’s also painfully obvious that Ben hasn’t had enough experience in game situations working with players such as James Washington and Ryan Switzer. These players still haven’t been fully integrated into the offense.
Realistically, though, we cannot expect much from an offense that produces only 19 rushing yards in an entire game, plus a 5.8-yards-per-catch average. And given the tendency of the Steelers’ offense to utterly disappear for substantial portions of games, how can we have any confidence at this point in the Black-and-gold as a playoff or Super Bowl contender?
With Week 4 in the books now, it’s no longer premature to make judgments about where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand in their 2018 quest. Based on what we’ve witnessed so far, the Steelers are a team which, despite having a roster chock full of athletic ability, cannot seem to forge this talent into a cohesive whole. And it seems the longer Pittsburgh remains a perennial playoff contender — but without claiming another championship — the farther away the team slides from that goal.
With one quarter of the season finished, Pittsburgh has only a single victory — against a Buccaneers team that was flattened 48-10 by the Chicago Bears on Sunday. In Weeks 5 and 6, the Steelers will first face an Atlanta Falcons team smarting from its last-minute defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals — followed by a trip to Cincinnati to take on Andy Dalton and Company. If the Steelers’ current devolution continues, and if things don’t markedly improve on both sides of the ball, it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that this team might be sitting at 1-4-1 by the time Week 7 rolls around.