In a game eerily reminiscent of their playoff loss to Jacksonville at Heinz Field last January, the Pittsburgh Steelers fell behind the Kansas City Chiefs 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and then saw their comeback effort fall short, suffering their first loss of the young season by the score of 42-37. Near the end of the first quarter, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked and coughed up the ball which, after squirting crazily through a scrum of players, was returned by KC Defensive End Chris Jones for an apparent touchdown. But a defensive holding penalty against the Chiefs nullified the play which, at that point, would have given the Chiefs a nearly insurmountable 28-0 advantage. Pittsburgh got the ball back and began an impressive second-quarter comeback which knotted the score at 21-21 by halftime.
At the start of the third quarter, all of the momentum — plus a raucous home crowd — seemed to put the Black-and-gold in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, in the second half, the Steelers’ defense continued to display its utter inability to stop — much less slow down — Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense. The defense surrendered a pair of too-easy TD drives in the third quarter, plus yielding what proved to be the winning score on a Mahomes-to Tyreek Hill TD pass at the beginning of the fourth quarter. In fact, the only semblance of effective defense shown by the Steelers on Sunday afternoon was a fourth-quarter safety, when they trapped Kareem Hunt in the end zone following Jordan Berry’s 59-yard, coffin-corner punt.
Details of this disappointing defeat will be examined in depth by the BTSC staff, but the focus here is on some of the more general concerns which this loss raises about the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers. When we discuss the ‘Good Steelers’, we’re typically talking about Big Ben and his uber-talented offense — a group which, once it finds its rhythm, no NFL defense can stop. But whatever the ‘Good Steelers’ were able to achieve on the gridiron at Heinz Field on Sunday, the ‘Bad Steelers’ more than nullified.
We also know this alter-ego of the Black-and-gold only too well. They’re the road warriors who too often appear not to have disembarked from the airport shuttle bus until sometime during the second quarter — or perhaps even the second half. Without them, backup QBs such as Ryan Mallett and Mike Glennon might never have realized their dreams of glorious, upset victories. In their absence, Tom Brady’s career stat line would be hugely diminished and the Steelers’ kick-return game might be executed more often without the traditional hail of yellow flags.
On Sunday at Heinz Field, these bad guys mostly showed up on defense, as the Chiefs’ offense moved the ball at will throughout the game, thereby ensuring that even the Steelers’ spirited comeback ultimately would be in vain. Pittsburgh’s secondary and linebackers were absolutely shredded by Mahomes, Watkins, Kelce, Hill and company. Tackling continued to fall well below the line for the Black-and-gold throughout the game, and even players you wouldn’t normally expect to name as culprits, such as Vince Williams and Mike Hilton, got into the ugly act. Bud Dupree not only failed to pressure Mahomes throughout the game, but he had considerable trouble anticipating snaps. To be fair, though, not all of the bad guys on the field were lining up on the defensive side of the ball.
The fact that the Steelers’ offense appeared to be sleepwalking through a majority of the first quarter was nearly identical to the way they had begun their devastating playoff loss at the hands of the Jaguars last January. On Sunday against the Chiefs, Roethlisberger was sailing passes over his receivers’ heads throughout much of the opening quarter, while the Steelers’ offense started the game with two consecutive 3-and-out possessions. Berry had two consecutive sub-par punts in the opening quarter, including the first one which was returned 48 yards by De’Anthony Thomas to set up Kansas City’s initial TD. Chris Boswell missed not only a 49-yd FG attempt in the opening quarter, but he also blew an extra-point kick in the second quarter following Ben’s TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Perhaps most troubling of all, right in the midst of the Steelers’ determined comeback charge, Antonio Brown once again allowed his emotions to get the best of him. Brown was caught by the TV camera fuming along the sideline and yelling at his OC, Randy Fichtner. No. 84’s tirade most likely involved the fact that Smith-Schuster and Jesse James each were in the process of doubling Brown’s receiving production for the game (James had 5 catches for 138 yards and Smith-Schuster had 13 catches for 121 yards, compared to Brown’s 9 catches for 67 yards). But given the magnitude of this loss, coming at this early stage of the season — plus the background noise of Le’Veon Bell’s ongoing soap opera — there scarcely could have been a worse time for Brown to lose his cool. Furthermore, as porous as the Steelers’ defense was on Sunday afternoon, it’s quite unlikely that either Bell’s presence or a more representative performance by Brown would have made any difference in the outcome.
In the aftermath, Steelers Nation and the front office were left to ponder some unsettling realities about this team which are only heightened in the loss to Kansas City. First and foremost, as good as the Steelers’ offense might be, it’s clearly not good enough to strictly be a high-functioning unit in spurts. Nor is it good enough to compensate for a Swiss-cheese defense that cannot stop opponents. Furthermore, it cannot win consistently when it compiles only a measly 33 total yards rushing and 2.5 yards per carry.
The NFL is chock full of talented, young quarterbacks like Mahomes and speedy receivers such as Sammy Watkins, Hill and Travis Kelce. If this defense doesn’t soon start making some stops — not to mention grabbing more than just the occasional takeaway — a bunch of teams in the league definitely could whip these Steelers on any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday — including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their upcoming opponent in the Week-3 game next Monday night in central Florida.
Secondly, it’s clear from yet another faltering, regular-season start that the Steelers obviously aren’t talented enough to go through an entire training camp and preseason schedule without properly preparing their starters for games that count. After two games of the regular season, this team definitely still has some significant kinks to work out — especially in terms of Roethlisberger’s coordination with some of the newer additions to his receiver corps, the defense’s overall coverage schemes, tackling and the uncertainties surrounding punting and special teams.
As they prepare for Week 3, and despite the few bright spots that emerged from the gloom of Sunday’s loss, the Pittsburgh Steelers currently resemble anything but a dominant NFL team. Instead, they’re starting to take on the look of one of those lower-tier NFL teams that invariably can be found citing different excuses each week for failing to win. By the time September runs its course — and after the Steelers have faced Tampa Bay and Baltimore in consecutive night games — we’re going to have a very good idea about where this team is headed in 2018. As things now stand, the picture isn’t particularly promising, mainly because those narrow decisions which had gone into Pittsburgh’s win column in 2017 have, so far, been going into other columns this season.
While there’s still plenty of time, of course, for the Black-and-gold to turn things around, their overall profile at present speaks of a team which hasn’t improved markedly from last year and which might still be nagged by some of the very same internal distractions which have frustrated them in the past. The next two night games might very well be crucial in determining whether or not this team remains as the serious NFL contender we’d like to believe them to be.