It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The worst of times came Sunday evening, after a 26-15 loss to Buffalo at Bills Stadium.
It was Pittsburgh’s second-straight loss after an 11-0 start, but that wasn’t really the frustrating part. The truly maddening narrative of Sunday’s loss was that it was a continuation of the offensive struggles that have plagued this team since before Halloween.
Despite the offensive woes, the first 28 minutes of Sunday’s clash looked promising, as the Steelers led 7-3 on the strength of a defense that forced two first-half turnovers—including a fumble recovering by Cam Sutton that set up a 19-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver James Washington to give Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead.
But just went it looked like the Steelers were about to add more points right before the half and take firm control of this battle of AFC contenders, Taron Johnson intercepted a Roethlisberger pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster and returned it 51 yards for a score.
And, just like that, the Steelers seemed to crumble.
The defense certainly did, when it allowed the Bills to quickly score two touchdowns to start the third quarter and take a 23-7 lead.
It wasn't over by that point, but it might as well have been. That’s how bad this offense is right now. That’s how predictable this offense is right now.
After everyone with a vested interest in the Steelers—including the players, coaches, fans and media—spent the better part of the previous week discussing what changes the offense could implement to make things better, it was the same old story on Sunday night.
Roethlisberger completed 21 of 37 passes for 187 yards and averaged a measly 5.1 yards per attempt. After all the talk of making a change and maybe opening things up, it appears as if the Steelers will continue to ride with the short-passing game until perhaps they die with it? The receivers certainly seemed to be intent on making that happen, especially Diontae Johnson, who dropped two early on and was subsequently benched, an outcome that at least pleased those who were eager to see head coach Mike Tomlin not live in his idle threats.
As for the running game, it gained 47 yards on 17 attempts. Were 17 carries enough? I’d say they were a few too many.
I realize you can’t really blame the defense for Sunday night’s debacle. Yes, the unit was injury-depleted. Yes, it only gave up 19 points, but who cares?
What we’ve witnessed the past few weeks is the kind of stuff we saw last year, a good-to-great defense carrying a woeful offense. Only, instead of Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges, the Steelers' anemic offense is being led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a guy who not so long ago was a write-in candidate for NFL MVP. Now, people are beginning to write off his 38-year old elbow after yet another game in which it seemed to lack the ability to do anything but dink and dunk—his second interception was the result of badly underthrowing a wide-open Washington on a fly pattern late in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers ultimately aren’t going to win with a great defense in 2020, although that will certainly help. They’re going to win on Roethlisberger’s arm and the Steelers' offense.
Unfortunately, that offense is either unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes to become the kind of unit that can lead the team on a Super Bowl run.
The Steelers may have qualified for the playoffs on Sunday, but if they can’t get their act together over the final three weeks, the very worst of times may still be yet to come.