I think it’s safe to say that, following their 26-14 loss to the despicable Baltimore Ravens, any positivity—or, perhaps more accurately, any waning ambivalence—about this iteration of the Pittsburgh Steelers is sufficiently exhausted, gone like snowfall in the summertime. The myriad issues plaguing this team are tangible and rooted in certitude, and the weeks ahead don’t look particularly forgiving. Here’s the schedule; two games remaining against Cincinnati, games at New Orleans and Jacksonville, home dates against New England, Atlanta, San Diego, Carolina, and the suddenly very capable-looking Cleveland Browns. Let’s say 10 wins assures you a spot in the AFC playoffs. The Steelers are currently 1-2-1; find me 9 more wins on their schedule. The way this team is playing, I certainly can’t.
Pittsburgh’s loss to Baltimore didn’t expose any new flaws, but it did exacerbate the severity of the existing ones: the secondary is an unmitigated, DEFCON-1 disaster; the offensive line is keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright, but they are doing James Conner no favors in the running game; the coaching has been utterly galling, and every member of the staff with the authority to make actual decisions of consequence continues to draw up the most confounding and byzantine schematics imaginable.
This is the part where I’ll pause to mention that, hey, it’s only Week 5, and the Steelers are certainly a team that’s rebounded from cold starts in the past (in 2016, a year in which the Steelers advanced to the AFC Championship game, they started 4-5). Thus, a lot of the forthcoming narratives are obviously very reactionary and possibly very short-sighted and may ultimately look ridiculous in retrospect. With that said, let’s get to business:
Stock down: Big Ben
Roethlisberger played an exceptional game against Tampa in Week 3, which he largely replicated during the first half against Baltimore. He moved the ball between the 20s effortlessly, picking apart an extremely proficient Baltimore secondary with a metronomic onslaught of short and intermediate passes. Near the end of the first half, he orchestrated a quintessential Ben Roethlisberger drive, which he punctuated by throwing a laser-beam touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on a broken play to tie Sunday night’s proceedings at 14-all. It was a drive that, pragmatically speaking, the Steelers needed (they were down eight points at the time), but more importantly it was one that temporarily placated the concerns of a dispirited fanbase. As long as Ben is doing Ben things, maybe we’ll be alright, etc.
Well, things were not alright. Ben followed his 225-yard first half by throwing for just 50 yards collectively in the remaining two frames, guiding the Steelers to a grand total of three first downs in six second-half drives. Frustratingly, Pittsburgh’s longest second-half drive lasted about two and a half minutes, and four of their drives generated two or fewer yards, which allowed Baltimore to dominate the second-half time of possession and feast omnivorously on the Steelers’ abhorrent defense.
Such a futile offensive showing can’t be entirely attributed to any one man, including the quarterback, but the truth of the matter is that Ben, by Ben’s own admission, didn’t make some plays that he probably should’ve made. He sailed one third down pass that wasn’t even in the same zip code as his intended receiver, and he missed a wide-open Brown on another. (Whether or not Brown ran the wrong route on this play is beside the point; it’s a play that, two years ago, Ben and Brown make ten times out of ten).
It’s important to note, however, that the Steelers wouldn’t have scored any points against Baltimore without Ben Roethlisberger, let alone been in a position to potentially win the game. Despite his rough second half against the Ravens, Ben’s been sharp all season (sharper than usual, in fact, as his 1,400 passing yards through four games is a career high and puts him on pace for around 5,600, which would be a single-season NFL record—even if he doesn’t ascend to these unparalleled heights, it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to eclipse the 5,000 yard mark the ways things are going) and it’s clear that the Steelers are going to have to rely on him heavily if they hope to achieve any kind of success this season.
Stock down: James Conner, the runner
Conner’s doing just fine catching the ball and he looks like a proficient blocker, too, but his monstrous 135-yard rushing effort against Cleveland in Week 1 looks increasingly like an aberration rather than a harbinger of things to come. While it’s true that Conner’s paltry rushing totals over the past three weeks (17 yards in Week 2; ~20 yards on his first 11-12 carries in Week 3; 19 yards against Baltimore) are largely attributable to his inconsistent usage rate (he has 32 carries over his past three games, which is just one more than he amassed in Week 1 alone), his inconsistent usage rate may be attributable to the fact that he’s not a major threat in the rushing game.
Or maybe none of this is true and Pittsburgh’s coaching staff is totally botching game plans, I don’t know. It’s understandable that Conner wasn’t utilized early in Weeks 2 or 4, as the Steelers faced multiple-possession deficits in the first quarter of both contests and therefore were forced to abandon the ground game and resort to fast-paced passing attack, but the Steelers didn’t feature him later on once they’d closed these gaps. Against the Ravens, this glaring lack of utility proved critical, allowing John Harbaugh and his ilk to drop millions of defensive backs and linebackers into coverage instead of expressing even fleeting interest in defending the run. There was no run to defend!
Le’Veon Bell is set to return after Pittsburgh’s Week 7 bye. Honestly, thank God. Conner is a nice player, but even the most resolute Le’Veon Bell hater can’t possibly argue that Conner is a better backfield option. On Sunday, Cris Collinsworth remarked that a contender in the market for a rental player could benefit mightily from acquiring Le’Veon Bell. I am convinced that, on paper, the Steelers have the look of a contender, so I am strongly in favor of renting Le’Veon Bell for the second half of the 2018 season. Boo and hiss all you want; if the Steelers do manage to turn things around and make a run at the playoffs, Le’Veon Bell will be a big reason why.
Stock up: Vance McDonald
Vance McDonald, a walking bank vault with a strong, perfectly square jaw, ran right the heck over Tony Jefferson, leaving Jefferson’s corpse strewn haphazardly on the turf. He also caught all five of his targets for 62 yards, proving once again that he’s a consistently reliable target—aside from, you know, fumbling in his own team’s end of the field, thereby essentially gifting the Ravens additional points—and an integral component of the passing attack. Heeeeeeeaaaath.
Stock...meh: The offensive line
This outfit is doing a fine job keeping Roethlisberger’s jersey pristine, but they’re failing to do anything in terms of facilitating the ground attack. Of course, this could all change once Bell returns to the lineup. Virtually the same group of guys have been blocking for Bell for going-on two and a half years, so maybe it could be reasonably argued that, like, they’re used to blocking for a certain kind of running back and that taking said running back out of the mix impacts their continuity (it’s worth noting, too, that David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, and Ramon Foster have all dealt with injuries this season) and in turn impedes their ability to block for a different running back, or something. I don’t know. I’m just fumbling for answers that make sense.
Oh God, speaking of fumbling for answers, here’s a horrifying thought: what if the issues that have befallen Pittsburgh’s offense this season are occurring because savant Todd Haley left? What if the reason the Steelers offense was so efficient, so dangerous, and so multifarious is because Todd Haley is not an uncommonly adept play-caller, but a genius one? What if Todd Haley was what was keeping the Steelers in the Super Bowl hun..[Glass crashes. A dank fog envelopes the room. An overwhelming scent—one that reeks of sulfur and burnt hair—imbues my nostrils. A towering demon rushes me. He’s wearing cargo shorts and a puka shell necklace. He grabs me and stuffs me in the passenger side of his lifted H2 Hummer and drives to Tequila Cowboy and lights me on fire].
Stock that’s reached a previously-unthinkable nadir: The secondary
I think ripping on Joe Flacco is maybe a little played-out, but it’s still very surprising—and alarming!—when he throws for 350 or more yards against your favorite team, as he did against the Steelers Sunday. And it could’ve been significantly worse! Flacco overthrew Michael Crabtree on a play in which Crabtree could not possibly have been more wide-open that assuredly would’ve yielded a touchdown—assuming Crabtree didn’t drop the pass, which is a valid and fair concern—and Joe Haden made a pair of remarkable plays to prevent the diminutive John Brown from scoring a pair of 50-something-yard touchdowns.
If you’re keeping track at home, the Steelers have now surrendered 400 or more yards in three consecutive games, with the vast majority of those yards being accounted for by opposing quarterbacks. Coty Sensabaugh is one of the five worst cornerbacks in the entire NFL and, as of this writing, he’s arguably the third-best cornerback on the Steelers. This is our reality.
The Ravens ate against Pittsburgh, and they ate well. Eleven players registered at least one catch on Sunday, which is flatly ridiculous. Something called Nick Boyle caught three balls, man. This is getting out of hand.
What’s clear is that the Steelers secondary can stop no one; not Joe Flacco, not Ryan Fitzpatrick, and not Patrick Mahomes. These dudes have all been playing above-the-line football this season, but none have yet exhibited the same sustained excellence as, say, Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, Drew Brees, or Matt Ryan, all of whom loom large on Pittsburgh’s schedule in the weeks ahead. Ryan and the Falcons, who have scored 30 or more points in their past three games, visit Heinz Field this Sunday, so realistically things are shaping up to get considerably worse before they get better. Should be fun!
And, in many ways, the dearth of talent in the secondary is negatively impacting the defense as a whole. Like, I don’t think Keith Butler is a particularly, um, good defensive football coach, but he isn’t exactly working with the 2014 Seahawks, you know? Haden notwithstanding, the secondary is butt, which puts a cap on the effectiveness of his schematics. Perhaps Buddy Ryan or Wade Philips could do something useful with this group, but probably they couldn’t. So, while I absolutely believe Butler should assume due culpability for whatever adjective you wanna use to describe the defense, I think it’s important to consider that, oftentimes, the poor guy is left calling the blandest, most conservative plays imaginable so as to avoid putting Artie Burns in a position to get toasted by some speedy wideout or to prevent Cameron Sutton from looking dumbfounded because he forgot how hips are supposed to work. Also, it’s nice to see that the Steelers have found a player in Terrell Edmunds who get dragged upfield by running backs and who inexplicably allows receivers to get behind him when he’s playing deep coverage. It’s like Mike Mitchell never left.
Stock down: Pass rush
Bud Dupree had another nice game, sacking Flacco once and generating fairly consistent pressure, but T.J. Watt was stonewalled by James Hurst and neither Cameron Heyward (who led the Steelers with 13 sacks last season) nor Stephon Tuitt (whose cap hit balloons to $13 million after this season, just saying) have had much of any success rushing the passer Sunday, mirroring a discouraging season-long trend. The only chance the Steelers have to alleviate the woes in the secondary is by consistently rushing the passer; however, maybe the only way to consistently rush the passer is by getting better, more significant contributions from the secondary.
Hot seat of the week: Keith Butler
I sincerely believe that the Steelers could lose 10 or 11 games this season unless something changes on the defensive side of the ball, whether this be some sort of miraculous turnaround or a personnel change. The city is already looking to assess blame to the appropriate parties; it’s only a matter of time before they demand their pound of flesh.
Honorable mentions: Mike Tomlin and Jordan Berry. It’s important to remember that Mike Tomlin has NEVER had a losing season. He’s still a top-tier coach! I think it would take like 13 losses for the Steelers to proceed with canning him.
The guy at your work who sits in the next cubicle over could walk into Heinz Field hungover and clad in his business casual attire and out-punt Jordan Berry.
Playoff hopes: Not good!
The Steelers 1-2-1 record pretty well reflects where they’re at as a team; they’re good enough to hang with just about anyone, but their deficiencies in the secondary and erratic offensive aptitude are just pronounced enough to doom them on a weekly basis. Moreover, if you narrow the scope and really focus your discerning eyes on the first quarter of the season, it’s fair to say that, today, the Steelers are the worst team in the AFC North, a division they were picked to win handily in the preseason. The Ravens looks great in all three phases and appear have returned to their status as perennial contenders, as have the Bengals, who are 3-1 on the strength of a much-improved passing attack and will return arguably their best defensive player this week. I think Football Knowers and Tape Watchers are maybe slightly overrating the Browns, but they’re certainly far from the pushovers they were a year ago. And that’s to say nothing of the remainder of the AFC, which is currently log-jammed with surprisingly competent teams. It isn’t too difficult to envision a scenario in which the Steelers finish this season with double-digit losses.
Still, in spite of their many issues, it also isn’t difficult to envision a scenario in which the Steelers right this sinking ship. The offense is still loaded with talent and the defense does have some genuinely able-bodied players. Sean Davis doesn’t look quite as bad as he did a year ago. To be sure, Jon Bostic has been nothing short of a total liability in coverage, but he’s been an adroit run defender. Morgan Burnett is injured, as is Mike Hilton, so perhaps their returns could aid the ailing secondary.
To reverse their fortunes, I think three things need to happen: the coaching staff needs to figure out a way to get both sides of the ball better prepared so they stop coming out so flat; the defense, particular the secondary, must tighten up; and the offense needs to re-establish its versatility. That last one is really the only one I’m confident can be remedied, as getting Bell back in the lineup should help the run game and increase the variance of the passing attack. The Steelers can win by allowing Roethlisberger to spin the rock 60 times a game, but this is hardly a sustainable model for success.
Week 5’s game against Atlanta will be dangerously close to a must-win, and Week 6’s game against Cincinnati will certainly qualify as such.