During the first half of the 2018 regular season, as the Black-and-gold compiled a 7-2-1 record — taking what once seemed like a commanding lead in the AFC North — it was tempting to overlook the team’s conspicuous flaws and assume that, by season’s end, they’d work out these kinks. But in the wake of three consecutive losses to AFC West opponents, including the latest 24-21 debacle in Oakland, it’s no longer possible to deny a clear and consistent pattern of mediocrity.
Unfortunately for the faithful of Steelers Nation, the Black-and-gold’s current 7-5-1 record is no fluke but — on the contrary — is absolutely indicative of the current state of this team. It’s a record that drops the Steelers into a crowded group of NFL teams no longer controlling their own destiny, but needing help from others to earn playoff berths. At this point, the Steelers’ woes are so obvious and numerous that it’s almost fruitless to focus the blame on any particular player, unit or coach. When the wheels come off of the wagon, as they clearly did in northern California, everyone goes skidding down the highway on their backside, and nobody looks very good.
Regardless of his stats, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t having the kind of year that would be necessary to lead this defensively-challenged team to a championship. Further, as he prepares for the last three games of the regular season, Ben’s physical condition might be more suspect than anytime this year. While Ben sometimes appears unstoppable, just as often, his offense stalls at midfield or misfires in the red zone. And even when Ben stages what looks like a heroic comeback — as he did in the fourth quarter against the Raiders — the Steelers’ defense can’t be trusted to hold the opponent at bay.
Such is the hallmark of mediocre NFL teams — whatever good might be accomplished by one unit of the team is promptly counteracted by the poor play of another unit. As the losses pile up, the organization takes on the look of suspects standing in a large circle, each one pointing a finger of blame at the man standing immediately to his right. If you live in Cincinnati or Detroit, you know all about this losing tradition and the endless cycle of blame.
When the Steelers face the New England Patriots at Heinz Field next Sunday afternoon, we’ll find out whether this very same corrosive mentality also has come to roost in the City of Champions. Given the psychological edge which the Patriots have enjoyed in previous matchups — plus the dicey status of Roethlisberger’s condition — this game has the earmarks of a potential Armageddon on the Allegheny.
What to do?
I don't subscribe to the slash-and-burn approach wherein you simply fire everyone and start over. But some troubling trends have developed on this team which need to be addressed -- and quickly:
1. Too many cooks spoiling the soup: Unfortunately, the Steelers’ 2018 regular season has appeared too much like an extension of the preseason, during which players are continually platooned to determine the starting lineups. Here we are now in December without any clear starter established at tight end or and no solid, No. 3 receiver. Defensively, platooning also has been rampant. Despite this changing cast of players, neither the linebacker unit nor the secondary has panned out.
It’s painfully evident that, despite their recent drafts, the Steelers haven’t solidified their linebacker corps, nor have they compensated effectively for the absence of Ryan Shazier. It’s a basic tenet of sports at any level that a team’s performance largely depends on maintaining reasonable continuity in terms of personnel. But when you need to keep a roster handy just to figure out who’s on the field on any given play, it’s hardly a positive sign. The Steelers need to firm up their starting 22 players and, barring injury, stick with them through thick and thin. Otherwise, efforts on both sides of the ball will continue to flounder.
2. Stop wasting first downs on offense: First down has become practically a throwaway down for the Steelers’ offense in recent years. Ben and Randy Fichtner need to start charting more effective plays in first-down situations, which will help the offense avoid those 2nd-and-long or 3rd-and-long situations often leading to sacks or interceptions.
3. Open up the offense — let it all hang out: Whatever shot the Steelers have to make something of this season depends on maximizing the contributions of their most skilled players. On offense, this probably means a more wide-open approach with even greater emphasis on passing. Unless Ben, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and a “tight end to be named” are playing dominant roles, the Steelers won’t score enough points to stay with the other NFL contenders and advance in the playoffs — even if they manage to qualify (which, at present, is an open question).
But even in the current, dark circumstances, there’s always a ray of hope to be found -- if we look closely enough. In this case, the good news is that few NFL teams are looking very dominant these days. Consequently, if the Steelers can somehow get their foot in the playoff door, they've probably got as good a chance as any other team competing for the big prize. But the performances we’ve witnessed during the past three weeks certainly raise serious doubts that this disjointed team has the capacity to step up and get the job done.