Let’s put aside the fact that Week 1 can be an unreliable indicator of where things are currently and what things are to come; teams are still very much in the getting to know each other phase and virtually all veterans of note haven’t played more than 15-20 snaps of live football since last season. Indeed, you didn’t come to this blog for anodyne insights; you came to eschew levelheadedness and foresight in favor of reveling in the vexation of yet another Steelers loss to the Patriots. And what an absolutely disgraceful loss it was. The fan base’s defeatism has been indoctrinated by frequent mashings at the hands of the Patriots, but a 33-3 thumping on national television is the kind of thing that can understandably lead even ardent supporters to call into question this team’s capacity to win 8 or 9 games, let alone a Super Bowl. The wendigo was right: the Steelers are a festering trash heap and they are fully deserving of your opprobrium and scorn. I struggled to find a combination of English words that convey the gravity of the Week 1 turd the Steelers laid at the feet of their foremost nemesis, but I gave it the ol’ college try nonetheless. Stock report!
Quarterbacks, receivers, and offensive game-planning: Stock way, way down
“I wasn’t good enough,” Roethlisberger told the assembled media horde after the game. Yeah, no kidding, guy. Roethlisberger finished Sunday’s proceedings with 276 yards, which doesn’t look half bad until you consider that he amassed just 68 of them in the first half and that it took him 47 passing attempts to get there. His 2019 debut was a grim montage of inaccurate deep balls and passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage, which Patriots defenders easily diagnosed and snuffed out accordingly. No quarterback in the NFL relied on yards after catch (YAC) more than Roethlisberger did last season, and it’s now apparent that that strategy was effective specifically because opposing defenses emphasized shadowing Antonio Brown.
Apparent, too, was the lack of continuity between Roethlisberger and his receivers when plays broke down. The quintessential Ben Roethlisberger play is one in which he escapes a collapsing pocket, sidesteps or arm-bars one or more defenders, and heaves a pass downfield to an open receiver for a first down or touchdown. More often than not, that receiver was Brown. On Sunday, Roethlisberger extended a number of broken plays, but when he made his way out of the pocket and searched downfield for open receivers, there were none to be found. Replicating the inextricable telekinetic bond that Roethlisberger and Brown maintained over the past six seasons was never going to be easy, but the Steelers need to get at least one receiver on the same page as Roethlisberger when he goes full schoolyard. The Steelers simply are not talented enough to win by utilizing an offense fraught with check-downs.
Roethlisberger had a terrible game, but it’s not like his receivers did him any favors. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who I would go to war and die for, padded his stats late to finish with a respectable-looking six catches for 78 yards, but functionally had just two receptions for 26 yards. This is largely attributable to the fact that Stephon Gilmore, debatably the best cornerback in the NFL, spent his evening shadowing Smith-Schuster. Still, the best receivers—most notably, Brown—are experts at getting themselves open. Each week, Smith-Schuster is going to wage battle against the opponent’s best defensive back and in many cases will be forced to contend with double-teams. This is to say that things aren’t gonna get any easier for him.
Donte Moncrief led the Steelers in targets and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. If you’re reading this sentence, it stands to reason that your eyes work, so you shouldn’t need me to tell you that Donte Moncrief sucks. He dropped three catchable passes Sunday—including a touchdown that would’ve cut the Pats’ lead to 10—making Limas Sweed look like DeAndre Hopkins in the process. The way Moncrief tells it, though, his loathsome debut was a vital and necessary step in, uhh, [checks notes] promoting the coalescence of Pittsburgh’s offense into a formidable outfit in the post-Bell/Brown era? Hmm.
Donte Moncrief on the Steelers' offense after an awful showing: "I think it was a wake-up call – something we needed…It's something I felt I needed." Moncrief caught three passes for 7 yards despite a team-high 10 targets, dropping several contested passes.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 9, 2019
Durr, well actually, it’s a good thing that we got our teeth kicked in during a primetime game to which upwards of 15 million viewers tuned in. Buddy, you had seven months to prepare for this game. If you needed someone to shake your tree in THE FIRST GAME OF THE SEASON, against the REIGNING SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS who have won SIX CHAMPIONSHIPS over the past 18 seasons and who your team has NEVER DEFEATED in Foxboro during the Brady/Belichick era, then you were never truly prepared in the first place.
Moving ahead, James Washington, who is miraculously somehow worse than Moncrief by virtue of his status as the no. 3 receiver on the depth chart, caught two passes for 51 yards, including the following:
.@JamesWashington showing off his speed on the outside— NFL (@NFL) September 9, 2019
: #PITvsNE on NBC
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch for free: https://t.co/Y0BrMUSvS8 pic.twitter.com/n5EN591xUy
I’ve watched this a thousand times trying to figure out why this play didn’t result in a touchdown and I am truly at a loss. Washington almost gambols out of bounds! What on earth.
Anyway, I cannot overstate how critical it is to alleviate these offensive woes, and fast. If the Steelers truly hope to contend for a seventh Super Bowl (which seems hilariously unlikely after Sunday’s wet fart of a debut), Ben Roethlisberger will need to play the best football of his career. He can’t do that if receivers can’t get open, if they routinely drop passes, or if they inexplicably run out of bounds. He also can’t do that if the coaching staff sets him up to fail. That the Steelers effectively abandoned the run so early in the game can be chalked up to the speed with which everything around them unraveled; indeed, this is the natural corollary of being on the business end of a blowout-in-the-making. But what can’t be so readily excused were the myriad byzantine play-calling decisions by Tomlin and Co. in critical short-yardage situations. On one play, a 3rd and short, Roethlisberger lined up in the shotgun formation with James Conner to his left and pitched the ball to Conner five yards behind the first down marker; Conner was summarily tackled well short of the line to gain. On another play, a 4th and short, Roethlisberger lined up alone in the backfield, once again in the shotgun, with five eligible receivers along the line of scrimmage; his pass to Moncrief was—surprise!—dropped.
More problematic than the play-calling was the coaching staff’s blithe disregard for their personnel. On 3rd or 4th and short, the quarterback’s hands should be on the center’s buttcheeks. This is a universal and unassailable truth. This does not necessarily indicate that you have to run the ball, but it does at least give the imposing defense the impression that you could run the ball. It does not take a defensive mastermind to ascertain that, if the offensive backfield is empty sans quarterback, a passing play is probably imminent. Also, halfback tosses on 3rd and 4th and short should be punishable by law. Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner ought to face a tribunal for their crimes.
Secondary and defensive game-planning: Stock down through the earth’s crust and deep into its mantle
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the secondary did little to fracture the extrasensory connection between Tom Brady and his receivers, most notably James White and Julian Edelman: Tom Brady now has 23 touchdowns against 0 interceptions in his career against the Steelers at home and averages somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 yards per game. There is death, there are taxes, and there is the evisceration of Pittsburgh’s secondary at the hands of Tom Brady.
Brady, aided by a proprietary blend of rhinoceros semen and lionfish neurotoxins from Boston’s shadiest biotechnology company, torched the Steelers to the tune of 341 yards and 3 touchdowns. He completed 67 percent of his passes, piloted six scoring drives, and was sacked only once. He disoriented the Steelers with a bevy of check-downs, underneath crossing patterns, and play-action fakes, the same exact plays he’s run with great effect against this outfit for the past decade. Personnel is obviously a concern for the Steelers—Kameron Kelly, whose most recent start prior to Sunday’s action came against the Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF, had a rough night, as did Terrell Edmunds (Edmunds tackled nothing but the air in front of his face as he attempted to bring Josh Gordon down during what was technically the game-winning touchdown in the first quarter) and Mike Hilton—but more than anything their downfall was precipitated by shoddy game-planning and lazy schematics. The Steelers have 15 years worth of game film on these Patriots; that they were so unprepared to face Brady is bewildering and inexcusable.
Front seven, Stock down
The linebackers and defensive line don’t get a pass. This is a unit that’s paced the NFL in sacks in each of the past two seasons but failed to create any pressure against Brady, enabling him to jugulate the secondary like a Plexus-devoted John Rambo. On the bright side, they held the Patriots to 3.4 yards per carry and did not allow a touchdown. Small victories!
Offensive line: Stock up
No complaints. These guys represented the shine amongst the muck. Well done.
Seattle’s next, and this is a Seahawks team with legitimate championship pedigree. Russell Wilson is a veritable sorcerer, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett both can and will blow the lid off the secondary, Chris Carson is the league’s most underrated running back, and the defense is still comprised largely of buff Olympic sprinters. The early portion of Pittsburgh’s schedule is an unforgiving crucible and drawing these Seahawks at home is far from a reprieve. The Steelers will essentially need to transform themselves into a different team than the one that showed up in Foxboro last Sunday. If you think they’re capable of such a drastic turnaround in the span of a week, well, you’re a brighter optimist than I.