A fun exercise to conduct in the aftermath of a bad loss involves analyzing and diagnosing the contributing factors and, if possible, uncovering some things that kind of maybe went right. So, using the Steelers’ 37-42 home loss to the Chiefs as a case study, the bad news is that, duh, the Steelers lost, putting them a game-and-a-half back of the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals [*vomits*]. We watched helplessly and in awe as Patrick Mahomes, who threw six touchdown passes Sunday and now has more touchdown passes through two games than any quarterback in NFL history, jugulated the secondary and linebacking corps with an onslaught of pinpoint throws, completing passes to eight different receivers. Only five of his 28 passing attempts fell incomplete.
But the good news is that the Chiefs, with their bounty of offensive firepower and that superstar quarterback orchestrating the proceedings so beautifully, look like they might be the best team in the AFC and maybe the entire NFL; and the Steelers, despite falling behind 21-0 early and looking utterly discombobulated defensively, could’ve beat them. Let’s dig a little deeper and take stock of some other good news/bad news storylines:
Stock down: Coaching
Here’s an upsetting thing: if you look back to Pittsburgh’s 42-45 loss to the Jaguars (who themselves look like a top-tier contender in the AFC this season) in the AFC Divisional Round last year, the Steelers have allowed 87 points in their past two home games.
Obviously, personnel is a concern; Ryan Shazier isn’t coming back anytime soon, and Joe Haden, probably the second-best player on Pittsburgh’s defense, missed Sunday’s game with a bum hamstring; Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh’s best defender, spent all week on the injury report, and his playing status wasn’t confirmed until about 4 a.m. Sunday morning. But sometimes it’s necessary to peel back the facade and take a good, long look at some of the things underpinning the whole enterprise, because getting punked as bad as the Steelers have gotten punked in their past two home games is a catastrophic systemic failure. That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to direct some ire towards defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
The defense looked as undisciplined and disorganized as its ever looked against Kansas City, biting on play-action and pump-fakes, blowing assignments, and cluelessly milling about the formation without any sort of tangible idea where they were supposed to line up. That last part is particularly telling, as it demonstrates that Butler was simply outfoxed by Andy Reid and his offensive coaching staff. What’s troubling about this is that there were moments against Cleveland last week in which the Steelers players looked similarly confused—on one play, linebacker Jon Bostic literally had his back turned to the ball when the ball was snapped—but they ultimately held strong and looked the part of a championship-caliber unit. The Chiefs are very evidently a step or two above the Browns in terms of offensive aptitude and organizational competency, so some sort of regression was to be expected, but the Steelers' defense that showed up Sunday looked nothing like the one that helped them save some face by escaping a game they absolutely should have lost with a tie. If the defense continues to get gouged in the weeks ahead -- and it just may -- Pittsburgh’s schedule suddenly looks a lot harder than it did two weeks ago—Butler might not survive the season.
I also have a cayenne-hot Mike Tomlin take: opting to punt facing a 12-point deficit with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter was dumb! I’m not opposed to punting on principle (actually I totally am, but I don’t wanna de-legitimize this argument), but in this game, where every Chiefs possession seemed preordained to end with Pat Mahomes firing a missile to a wide-open receiver, turning the ball over on downs and spotting the opposition 45 yards is irrelevant.
It’s important to note here that the ensuing Chiefs drive did not end in points; in fact, they turned the ball over. But that drive did allow Kansas City to burn four and a half minutes from the game clock, which ultimately ended up being a pretty critical chunk of lost time. Never punt the ball against Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and now, apparently, Patrick Mahomes.
Stock down: Pass rush
The Steelers notched seven sacks against the Browns last week which, in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger’s six turnovers and, you know, tying the Browns, was an encouraging development and something they could build upon in the weeks ahead. Okay, the offense looks a little shaky and the tackling still isn’t perfect and the secondary is still coming along, but at least we’re putting pressure on the quarterback.
Now, I’ll pause to note that, under Reid’s tutelage, former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was routinely among the fastest snap-to-pass quarterbacks in the NFL. Assuming that Reid has transferred this particular offensive hallmark to Mahomes’s reign, the Steelers were never going to have much of a chance to get defenders in the backfield and put significant pressure on Mahomes. But just how ineffectual they were in that respect was, quite honestly, startling. Bud Dupree never even got remotely close to Mahomes despite jumping offside on every third play.
But an elite pass defense begins with an effective pass rush, and the 57 sacks the Steelers accumulated a year ago did help mask some of the, ahem, deficiencies that plagued the secondary. Hopefully Sunday’s game was merely the result of them falling victim to Kansas City’s schematics; otherwise, it could be a long season.
Stock through rock bottom and into the depths of a fiery hell: The secondary
It’s very clear that Joe Haden is the lynchpin of this whole outfit, so until he returns to the starting lineup the secondary is going to represent a significant liability. No point spending too much time here; they allowed an admittedly terrific, second-year quarterback to become their daddy. Their stock can’t go any lower.
Stock up: The offense
Abandoning the run, I don’t know, five minutes into the game allowed Roethlisberger to enjoy a historic outing; he’s now thrown for 450 or more yards in a single game five times in his career, which is the most in NFL history. This is a neat little footnote from what was otherwise a pretty forgettable afternoon.
JuJu Smith-Schuster also had a nice game, catching 13 passes (on a team-leading 19 targets -- more on that in a second) for 121 yards, which marks the fourth time in his past six games that he’s eclipsed the 100-yard mark. As it now stands, he ranks in the top-5 in the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. He’ll regress eventually (or, you know, maybe he won’t), but it’s very clear that his volcanic rookie campaign wasn't an apparition and that he's very much an integral component of what should be a prolific passing attack moving forward.
Let’s also give Jesse James some props. He amassed 138 receiving yards and a touchdown (a very DeSean Jackson*-like 27.6 yards per catch) on five catches, routinely serving as Roethlisberger’s third or fourth option on plays in which Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown were already blanketed downfield. Though James doesn’t quite possess Travis Kelce dynamism, he’s proven himself to be a highly-effective tertiary receiving threat, capable of punishing opposing secondaries who place too much emphasis on stopping the other receivers.
*The DeSean Jackson thing isn’t too off base, by the way. Among players with five or more catches, James’ 24.8 yards per catch average currently ranks third in the NFL.
Stock down: Special teams
Fans booed the punter, man. That’s how you know things are bad.
Chris Boswell, much like many kickers throughout the NFL, seems to be suffering from what I hope is an acute case of the yips. He missed another field goal (he’s 0-2 this season; he missed three kicks in total in 2017, so yikes) AND an extra point on Sunday. At this point, it isn’t a stretch to say that something is bugging the guy. He’s gotta resolve this before the games start mattering.
Stock so high that it’s penetrating the clouds: DRAMA
It took TWO GAMES for the locker room to completely implode. C’mon, guys.
A former public relations staffer for the Steelers tweeted some stupid thing implying that Antonio Brown’s success as a professional football player is the result of him being lucky enough to play alongside Ben Roethlisberger which, you know, okay. I love piping-hot sports takes, and this definitely was one.
So Brown responded.
Trade me let’s find out https://t.co/4OeepI78zy— Antonio Brown (@AB84) September 17, 2018
This is so great! I don’t know, maybe it's naivety on my part, but I’m interpreting this as a flex (“Your take is incorrect, friend; I could absolutely dominate the league regardless of circumstances”) and not as “I am unhappy, please trade me.” Only in Pittsburgh could the defense allow an opposing quarterback to scorch the very earth upon which they walk and the local columnists act as if the All-Pro receiver is the problem. But alas.
Brown’s diatribe comes on the heels of his second Week-2, uhh, meltdown in as many seasons (if you recall, he vented his frustration during a game against Baltimore last season by Bobby Knighting a water cooler). Ostensibly irked over targets — though Smith-Schuster was targeted 19 times, Brown wasn’t far behind with 17, and he reeled in nine passes — Brown was seen barking at offensive coordinator and professional fisherman Randy Fichtner during the fourth quarter and *gasp* didn’t celebrate with his teammates following Ben Roethlisberger’s rushing touchdown.
I love Antonio Brown wholeheartedly and I absolutely cannot be even remotely objective in this situation, but I’m trying to see both sides of this. On one hand, he’s frustrated. The team hasn’t won yet, he — in his opinion — isn't being utilized to an extent that gives the Steelers the best chance to win, and the quarterback has missed him on a handful of throws. We followed the exact same script last season, and everything turned out just fine; Brown feasted ravenously on a steady diet of targets and ended up leading the league in receiving despite missing three games, and the Steelers finished 13-3. The grandstanding is a little over-the-top, sure, but I’d be worried if the superstar receiver didn’t want the ball. In a couple of weeks we’ll all be over this.
On the other hand...maybe this is bad? Smith-Schuster is very evidently going to be featured heavily this season, which could exert deleterious effects on Brown’s usage. He’s never realistically had to compete with anyone for the lion’s share of Roethlisberger’s targets, and the emergence of another legitimate superstar could be a difficult adjustment.
We’ll see what happens. What I can say is that if you’re in the Trade Antonio Brown camp, you are wrong.
New Feature: Playoff stock
It’s Week 3—what better time to kickstart the postseason speculation. 0-1-1 isn’t an ideal start, but it isn’t the type of start that’ll derail a team’s postseason hopes (unless you’re the Browns, their season is over). Probably it won’t. (Eh.) Defensive ineptitude notwithstanding, the Steelers, at full strength, are simply too talented to find themselves on the outside of the AFC postseason picture. The Buffalo Bills sneaked in last season, for God sakes. It’s not like making the AFC playoffs is hard.
But it isn’t hard to envision a scenario in which a bunch of things go wrong — the poisonous and virulent locker room; the bad defense; the inexplicable coaching decisions; Roethlisberger’s Jekyll and Hyde act — and contribute to what would be a stunning failure on the part of the Steelers. Defeating RyCon Fitzgregor and the red-hot Tampa Bay Bucs will placate a lot of the immediate concerns, so at this point I suppose it’s best to just move forward.