Have you guys ever seen the movie Final Destination? If not, the synopsis—spoilers included, just in case it’s been sitting in your Netflix queue, or something—is as follows: A brooding contingent of angsty teens are set to embark on a trip to Paris; shortly before their plane takes off, the most angsty teen of the bunch has a startling premonition in which the plane crashes, killing everyone aboard. (If memory serves, the plane doesn’t so much “crash” as much as it “suddently vaporizes while airborne,” but that’s neither here nor there as far as this analogy is concerned.) Therefore, said teen freaks out in the cabin, leading they and their friends to be removed from the flight. Sure enough, the plane departs and blows up, just as the angsty, brooding teen predicted.
What they angsty teen didn’t envision, however, is that his death—and his friends’ deaths—was preordained; he was supposed to die on that flight. Though the teen did craftily evade Death, Death is resourceful and cunning, and Death always gets his pound of flesh. So, instead of dying instantly and painlessly aboard a doomed aircraft, the angsty teen and his classmates are killed off one-by-one in hilarious and inexplicable ways: one teen asphyxiates after slipping in a wet bathroom and getting tangled in a clothesline; another teen ultimately makes it to Paris, only to be killed when a billboard crushes him; one rude teen tells another teen to “Drop dead!” and is immediately demolished by a speeding bus. It’s all absurdly ridiculous and yet they made at least four sequels.
The Pittsburgh Steelers remind me of the angsty teens who met their fates in Final Destination. Last week against Jacksonville, the Steelers committed myriad atrocities on both sides of the ball but nevertheless survived, staging a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback and defeating the Jaguars on what was essentially a walk-off touchdown by Ben Roethlisberger. It was a game the Steelers probably should’ve lost.
This week, in a 24-17 loss in Denver, the Steelers played well enough to win, but saw drive after drive killed off in hilarious and inexplicable ways. Here, in no particular order, is a list of calamities that befell the Steelers on Sunday:
- Xavier Grimble fumbled what should have been a touchdown out of the back of the end-zone, which is by rule a touchback, canonically a turnover, and is in all seriousness the dumbest infraction in the NFL’s rulebook.
- James Conner punctuated gorgeous 23-yard catch-and-run with a fumble, which safety Darian Stewart recovered at Denver’s 21-yard line. The Broncos scored the game-winning touchdown on their ensuing drive.
- Ben Roethlisberger overthrew a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster on the first play of the second half. It was virtually the same play in which Ben and JuJu connected for a 75-yard touchdown against Carolina a few weeks ago.
- This one is subject to come conjecture: Ben either slightly overthrew James Washington after Washington absolutely torched his defender, or Washington amplified the difficultly of a routine-ish play manifold by needlessly diving. I think it was more the latter, but, regardless, it was a missed opportunity for a potential touchdown.
- Chris Boswell’s first field goal attempt of the game was blocked.
- Broncos corner Chris Harris stalled a promising Steelers drive by intercepting an errant pass.
- The Steelers concluded Sunday’s game by drawing up and implementing one of the most arcane, byzantine offensive schematics you’ll see in a professional football game:
The Ben Roethlisberger INT in the endzone at the end of a big regular season game, just like last season.pic.twitter.com/EDqjbql8hm— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 26, 2018
This was an RPO that looks like it was designed by Picasso. It was bad! There are no variations of the above-embedded clip in which Antonio Brown is open; the absolute best case scenario for this play is that Bradley Roby, who was covering Brown, smacks the ball to the ground and gifts the Steelers a 4th and goal. The worst case scenario—the giant billboard falling and rendering your corporeal existence to mashed bones and liquefied organs—is the defensive tackle feigning blitz only to leak toward the goalpost, enveloping the game-sealing pick in his meaty fingers.
Now, it’s true that, after any game, you can create a neatly-curated register of the disastrous occurrences that led directly to your favorite team’s downfall, but the Steelers’ misadventures felt especially pronounced, almost as if some unseen malevolent entity was orchestrating the proceedings. Thus, I’ll chalk Sunday’s loss up to Death collecting his debt. Stock report!
Stock down: James Conner
We aren’t here to point fingers in the Stock Report, but it’s worth mentioning that it was a fumble by Conner in Pittsburgh’s Week 1 game in Cleveland that enabled the Browns to close a two-possession fourth-quarter gap, take the game to overtime, and force a tie. This isn’t to say that James Conner is responsible for tying the Browns—he had almost 200 all-purpose yards in the game and scored two touchdowns, so if anything he was responsible for the Steelers almost winning—or that his fumble last week caused the Steelers to lose in Denver (as we’ve established, you can create a neatly-curated register of disastrous occurrences that led directly to your team’s downfall after every game, and Conner’s fumble was but one of many deleterious outcomes); however, the aforementioned plays, coupled with a pair of critical drops in Jacksonville last week, are enough to engender pangs on anxious discomfort deep in the pit of your gut, similar to those caused by a poor report card or by watching Chris Boswell kick field goals back when he had a case of the yips.
(Here’s the part where I should point out that Conner had nearly 100 all-purpose yards on offensive touches, so he still had a pretty solid game despite the fumble and despite being held scoreless since Week 10.)
Stock up: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Smith-Schuster, who was not fast enough to warrant first-round consideration in the 2017 NFL Draft, scored the second 97-yard touchdown of his career on Sunday. Smith-Schuster was the sixth receiver selected in that draft, taken behind the likes of John Ross and Zay Jones, both of whom are TRASH. All told, Smith-Schuster caught 13 passes for 189 yards and the aforementioned touchdown, bringing his season totals in each category to 77/1,055/4. That’s a helluva stat-line for an entire season for a “secondary” receiver. The Steelers still have five games remaining on the schedule, nearly every one of which has the potential to transmogrify into a two-way shootout, which means that Smith-Schuster could very legitimately finish the season with somewhere in the ballpark of 100/1,500/8 despite playing on the same team as Antonio Brown. The Bengals picked John Ross instead of this guy!
Stock up: Antonio Brown
Smith-Schuster is a remarkably gifted young player, but it’s evident that he’s the beneficiary of all the extra attention opposing defenses are paying to Antonio Brown. Brown’s numbers are down this season, but he’ll easily eclipse the 1,000-yard threshold for the seventh time in his career and his sixth-straight 100-catch campaign is still well within reach.
Stock down: Situational offense
Ben’s game-ending pick was bad, but the play was doomed from the onset. I don’t know how, on 3rd and goal with the game on the line, that’s the play call you settle on. Spread them out! Put four or five receivers in the formation, park Ben 10 yards behind the center, and let him sling it. Alternatively, bunch everyone together, but have Ben put his hands directly on Maurkice Pouncey’s butthole, give the ball to Conner, and let David DeCastro lead the way. Or run the exact same play the ran but instead of forcing a lame duck into the fingers of the nose tackle sail it 10 rows deep and live to play another down.
Honestly, I think we’ve grown too accustomed to the Steelers converting these kinds of critical situations into touchdowns. I certainly was already mentally preparing myself for the potential letdown by Pittsburgh’s defense on the ensuing drive after Roethlisberger tied the game at 24-all. So...at least the defense didn’t blow it! Silver linings, etc.
Stock down: Front seven
Denver averaged 5.4 yards per rush and held the Steelers to just a pair of sacks. Not great!
Stock up: Secondary
Despite the proficiency of Denver’s rushing attack and the lack of pressure against Case Keenum, the Broncos finished with only 184 passing yards. Emmanuel Sanders and Denver’s tight ends made a handful of significant plays, but the Broncos’ passing attack was largely held in check.
Stock....: Postseason hopes
The Steelers are currently 7-3-1. Let’s say three more victories secures a playoff spot and that two more victories makes them sweat a bit but still enables them to win a crappy division. The remaining schedule features games against Los Angeles, at Oakland, against New England, at New Orleans, and against Cincinnati (finding three wins on that remaining slate is alarmingly difficult and I’m gonna try not to lose any sleep about it right now; thankfully, Baltimore’s remaining schedule looks nearly as difficult). The Raiders are a sinking garbage barge engulfed in hellfire, but the game is in Oakland, so that’s one loss. But the other games should be interesting! Melvin Gordon is injured, so the Chargers won’t be at full strength; the Patriots look eminently more beatable than usual this season; the Saints look so completely invincible that the Steelers just might have a shot to take them down (also, they’re 3-0 against the NFC South this season, if that matters).
I realize I am very much getting ahead of myself with this but I can’t help but feel like this iteration of the Steelers possesses the all-around talent to make a deep postseason run.