The Steelers lost their third game in a row on Sunday, which is itself as much of an indictment of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff and players as it is a grim memento of just how quickly and unceremoniously good seasons—perhaps even very good ones—can dematerialize. What intensified the enormity of this loss, though, was that the Raiders, the team who vanquished the Steelers, are not only very bad—they entered Sunday’s proceedings at 2-10—but are actively tanking their season. Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who is in the first year of a ten-year, $100 million contract, has made it flatly apparent that he’s playing the long game by flipping established stars for nebulous draft capital, so at this point it actually behooves him to continue losing games so as to goose his team’s draft fortunes. And the Steelers lost to this team. That feels like sufficient enough of an introduction. Please allow me to distribute stock downs like Oprah Winfrey during her Favorite Things episode: enthusiastically and without hesitation.
Stock down: Mike Tomlin
On the very first play following the two-minute warning, Derek Carr, who threw for 322 yards and completed nearly 75 percent of his passing attempts, rifled a gorgeous pass into the awaiting hands of someone named Seth Roberts. The pass, which nestled its way into a window the size of a postage stamp, gained 39 yards and granted the Raiders a 1st and Goal from Pittsburgh’s seven yard-line. It also produced this image, which deserves a Pulitzer:
(I have never seen someone look as confused as Morgan Burnett (no. 42) looks in this photo, and I’ve never seen an image more emblematic of Pittsburgh’s woes in the secondary over the past four or five seasons.)
This wasn’t an ideal circumstance—the Raiders were down four at this point, so a touchdown would’ve enabled them to take the lead—but the Steelers had plenty of time on the clock (one minute and 52 seconds, to be exact), a pair of timeouts, and a quarterback whose resume is replete with game-winning drives; the Steelers would be fine, so long as Mike Tomlin used one of the aforementioned timeouts to stop the clock. Instead, the clock ticked on, first down to one minute and 16 seconds, then down to 30 seconds, and finally down to 25 seconds, at which point the Steelers spent their first timeout in order to remobilize and draw up what was ultimately the game’s most critical defensive schematic. With 21 seconds remaining, Derek Carrier, a plodding journeyman tight end, caught the game-winning touchdown after demolishing Mike Hilton’s ankles with a vicious crossover. The Steelers voluntarily forfeited a minute and a half because...reasons.
I am the first to admit that I’m not an innately informed football knower, but I am truly at a loss to understand what Tomlin’s thought process was on Oakland’s final drive. Perhaps he sincerely believed that his defense—which, it should be noted, has now allowed long, gradual, game-winning touchdowns to the opposition in each of its past three games—was going to prevent Oakland’s offense from punching the ball in with seven yards to go and four downs to get there? Alternatively, perhaps he surmised the Raiders would score very quickly, which is a reasonable assumption given that Oakland’s first five plays of that drive netted 68 yards. Regardless, that Tomlin ended Sunday’s proceedings with one timeout still in the holster is coaching negligence, and he deserves the myriad scathing rebukes to which he’s being subjected.
Stock down: The guys responsible for covering Jared Cook
Oakland’s offense, which was hand-picked from a trash heap of unwanted component parts, amassed more than 350 yards against the Steelers. Once again, the Steelers made the confounding decision to routinely deploy L.J. Fort in coverage, most notably against Jared Cook, which turned out about as well as you can expect things to go when you stick a depth linebacker on the opposing team’s foremost offensive player. However, Fort is a linebacker, and linebackers are not generally well-known for their coverage acumen. Safeties, on the other hand, must be apt pass defenders, and Morgan Burnett, a safety masquerading as a dime linebacker, was also responsible for guarding Cook and was thoroughly abused in the process. Morgan Burnett is bad!
Stock down: The guys responsible for making the guys responsible for covering Jared Cook cover Jared Cook
Much like the Los Angeles Chargers did in a win over the Steelers a week ago, the Raiders relentlessly attacked the middle of the field, which was enabled in part by them finding matchups they liked. You’d think that one week after watching Keenan Allen stockpile 15 receptions and 140 yards against a sub-package linebacker the Steelers coaching staff would implement a different strategy, but alas, they did not.
But, you know, even that’s fine. There are only so many players on the roster; someone’s gotta cover the other team’s best offensive player, and parking, say, Joe Haden across the line from Cook would only free up a speedy receiver on the outside, in turn creating a mismatch elsewhere (or worse: force Artie Burns to get a hat [screams]). What’s not fine is the fact that, during Oakland final two offensive drives, the Steelers allowed the Raiders to run 22 plays, burn more than 10 minutes from the game clock, gain 148 yards, and—most critically—score 14 points. I’m of the opinion that, for the most part, professional athletes ought to be held accountable for whatever catastrophes occur while they’re on the clock, but defenders can only be as successful as the guy calling the plays allows them to be; and if the guy calling the plays (or the guy in charge of the guy calling the plays) steadfastly refuses—or is incapable—of making necessary schematic adjustments in critical moments of critical games, it severely caps the defense’s effectiveness.
Stock down: Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt
Dupree had a sack, which was nice, but Dupree and Watt were largely unable to generate any pressure against Carr, despite the unit tasked with safeguarding Carr being bookended by rookie tackles.
Stock down: The offensive line
With James Conner sidelined with an ankle injury, the Steelers platooned rookie utility knife Jaylen Samuels and veteran Stevan Ridley as their backfield. Leaning on secondary runners is generally not a great recipe for success, but it was hardly seen as a serious impediment to the Steelers. After all, the Raiders entered Sunday’s game having allowed somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 rushing yards per game, which is a statistic that honestly sounds made up. Even if Samuels and Ridley didn’t challenge that lofty benchmark, getting north of a hundred should’ve been achievable. They did not. They combined for 32 combined yards on 17 carries, which is obviously disgraceful but is also directly attributable to poor line play, of which the Steelers had plenty. Marcus Gilbert is among the league’s premier right tackles, so that he’s missed most of the season with a frustrating and indeterminate lower leg injury is certainly exacerbating any longstanding issues in the run game (and there’s been issues aplenty; despite Conner ranking among the league leaders in rushing, the Steelers team rushing attack is one of the league’s most impotent outfits), but even without him Pittsburgh’s line is imbued with star power and thus it should be a better run-creating team than what it currently is.
Stock down: Chris Boswell
Not gonna beat this dead horse; just listing it here for bookkeeping purposes.
Stock up: Big Ben
Ben somehow missed yet another wide-open downfield completion, but he was otherwise close to perfect during the two-and-a-half quarters he played. The remaining quarter-and-a-half, which was clumsily navigated by Josh Dobbs, who bore not even a passing resemblance to a functional NFL quarterback on Sunday, served as a stark reminder of how grim things are gonna be around here once Ben finally calls it quits.
Stock up: JuJu Smith-Schuster
This is preposterous:
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the best ballet dancer on earth.pic.twitter.com/TNfElyUFEF— Sporting News (@sportingnews) December 9, 2018
Smith-Schuster caught eight passes Sunday, and maybe two were of the routine variety. No matter how bad things get for the Steelers in the post-Roethlisberger era, it’s encouraging to know that we have another 10 years of elite caliber receiver play to look forward to.
Stock up: Your hot takes
We at Behind the Steel Curtain love hot takes, and rightfully so: We can’t change the outcome of an ugly loss, so emitting blistering takes that are thoroughly suffused with vitriol and contempt is highly cathartic. Please leave some in the comments. The spicier the better. I’ll start: I think the Steelers will make the playoffs, and I think they might actually win a playoff game. Winning two of their final three games should be enough to punch their ticket to the postseason (this was true even before the Raiders loss, though losing to Oakland amplifies the difficultly of this feat considerably), and it wouldn’t surprise me if they upset the Patriots or Saints—or both!—and polish off the Bengals at home in Week 17. Anger and frustration about the Steelers is absolutely warranted and I don’t intend to downplay that, but I don’t know if I can ever recall seeing so much pessimism about a division leader entering Week 15 with complete control of its playoff fate. If the Steelers do hold on to win the AFC North, they’d host the Chargers, who they very nearly defeated last week; should they secure the final Wild Card spot, they’d face that Texans or Patriots, both of whom appear eminently beatable this season. As bad as the Steelers have looked of late, this is a team that’s proven that is capable of hanging with any team in the NFL.
Having said that...
Stock down: The future
In a vacuum, a three-game losing streak isn’t that big of a deal, but that Pittsburgh’s ongoing skid came on the heels of a 7-2-1 start is the kind of astonishing collapse that’ll not only substantiate any existing Fahhr Tawmlin sentiments, but could inspire hordes of impartial fans of the team to demand their pound of flesh, too. The Steelers fancy themselves something of a “model franchise,” one that values continuity and organizational harmony, but, as a devoted Mike Tomlin stan, I’ve never been more unsure about his job status.