To the casual observer, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be in total disarray through the first four weeks of the season, in reality, it is much worse than that. Despite possessing more talent on offense than virtually every team in the NFL, even without Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers cannot score consistently and the defensive slide into mediocrity shows no sign of abating any time soon.
While it might seem obvious to expect many of these issues to be fixable, improvements will only occur when Pittsburgh changes what they are doing, and the message coming from players and coaches right now suggests a group in denial about the issues that plague them.
Deluded about the quality they possessed on the roster at inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier sidelined, Tyler Matakevich was a more than capable replacement fans were told. To date, Matakevich has not seen a single snap on defense this season. The Steelers barely seemed to look at the free agent market beyond Jon Bostic and passed over every available prospect in the NFL draft in favor of a safety ranked by most as a Day 2 selection at best.
Derwin James has been the NFL's highest graded rookie safety by a comfortable distance so far this season. pic.twitter.com/VoxqM2yf5a— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 3, 2018
It is telling that Matthew Thomas might be the best option on the roster to replace Vince Williams if he cannot play on Sunday, but equally disturbing to acknowledged that the rookie will probably not see a snap on defense in Week 5. When Matakevich drops into coverage against a tight end or running back against the Atlanta Falcons, Steeler Nation should be forgiven for weeping.
If rumors about attempts to trade Le’Veon Bell are actually true, then someone in the organization deserves to be fired for squandering the opportunity to move the player when they actually had some leverage. The only value Bell offers to any team by this point in the season is Pittsburgh and if the front office had not been so naive about Bell’s plans for 2018, they might have actually dealt with the problem sooner.
The Steelers star running back gave more than enough warning signs that he would not be arriving at team facilitates in time for Week 1 and the organization ignored all of them. While Mike Tomlin and his staff can insist they do not pay attention to what their players post on social media, they may want to start doing so. They clearly cannot afford to ignore all the noise surrounding the team, however much they want to pretend it doesn't exist.
Through the first four weeks of the season, Pittsburgh has failed in virtually every way imaginable, but those inside the building seem relatively unfazed. Citing previous poor starts as a sign they will turn it around, or blaming phantom penalties on offense for their woes, both players and coaches alike seem unwilling to accept the obvious truths.
Ben Roethlisberger talks about improving on offense for this week's game against the Falcons and more. pic.twitter.com/9HsZZ87IqE— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) October 3, 2018
Swapping Todd Haley for Randy Fichtner was meant to reinvigorate the offense, so far it looks like they have taken a step back. The offense believed they could live without Bell and had all the confidence in the world in James Conner, but the former Pitt product has carried the ball an average of 11 times a game in the last three weeks.
The team being behind in games has played a factor in that to be sure, but there have also been countless opportunities to run the ball the coaching staff have ignored.
Steelers certainly could use Le’Veon Bell. Steelers rank last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (43.3) and yards per rush (2.8) since Week 2, and their 19 rushing yards in Week 4 were their fewest in a game since 1970.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 1, 2018
Ben Roethlisberger has been a streaky quarterback for much of the last two years, but all is forgiven when he takes a holiday during training camp and Antonio Brown goes AWOL as a consequence. Tomlin remains confident the duo will find their footing soon enough, simply because it has been there before. Rest time is clearly not an issue with Big Ben taking a day off from practice every Wednesday, but maybe working on their chemistry should be taking priority right now.
Joey Porter has been given a host of top draft picks to turn into pass rushers, yet T.J. Watt currently looks as equally likely to wash out as all the names that came before him. Insanely doing the same thing and expecting different results isn't just a paraphrase of a famous Albert Einstein quote, it is the Steelers’ mantra as of late. The fans feel like this too watching your outside linebacker play too Joey.
Joey Porter is all of Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/Ie4BfkCc6P— Benstonium (@Benstonium) October 1, 2018
While someone has finally noticed that Artie Burns is no longer the promising rookie he once appeared to be, it is laughable to think that a player like Coty Sensabaugh is one of the names they would turn to. A player who couldn't get off the bench in 2017 is suddenly thrust into the mix in a bizarre rotation of three options at the position the coaching staff believes will produce a starter.
Communication issues and problems with tackling have plagued this defense for years, but here we are watching the same struggle unfold each Sunday in 2018. Stephon Tuitt has vanished entirely this season and Cameron Heyward’s repeated calls for his teammates to step up continue to fall on deaf ears.
There is little point relying on the veteran free agent signings of the past few years either, given most of them are perpetually injured. Joe Haden, Vance McDonald and Morgan Burnett may well be able to elevate the play of the team, but that would require them to stay healthy. The team openly discusses the disappointing play of the punter and then allows the winner of the camp battle to leave for another team and Jordan Berry continues to be a detriment.
Ultimately, not all of these issues should negate the fact that Pittsburgh is capable of performing at a high enough level to win games, and a turn around of sorts should still be expected. The Steelers should be able to stack enough wins to paper over the cracks and convince the front office they have things headed in the right direction, just enough so we can all be back here again next year in the same predicament.