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The Steelers’ history of playing down to inferior opponents should not be an issue in 2020

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With some questionable losses over the last several seasons, the recipe for disaster should be fixed

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have accrued great success in the past 5 seasons, including making an AFC Championship appearance in the 2016 and earning 3 playoff berths over that span.

However, outstanding play over the last half-decade has not been without tumult.

Despite going 51-28-1 in the regular season since 2015— good for a .6375 winning percentage— the Steelers had several prototypical “trap games,” or matchups they have lost to inferior opponents. Unfortunately, this trend has obfuscated the greatness coach Mike Tomlin has accomplished as well may have even cost the Steelers the chance to play in the postseason several times.

The story begins in Week 6 of 2016, the first true game in which the Steelers indubitably “played down” which I can remember in recent history.

In the contest, the Steelers fell at the hands of the Dolphins in Miami by a score of 30-15. Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi absolutely emasculated Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Ajayi wreaked havoc by posting 3 carries of 20+ yards and put the game on ice with a 62-yard score with just 50 seconds remaining on the clock.

Just to emphasize how much the Steelers lost a golden opportunity to earn a victory, Pittsburgh entered the game 4-1 while Miami had the inverse record before the matchup.

The game was one to forget for nearly the entire black and gold fan base, though the Steelers’ playoff chances were not inhibited by such a dismal showing. The squad would ultimately go 11-5 and play in the AFC Championship game.

However, a fresh slate in 2017 did not halt the trend of losing to subpar competitors.

That season, Pittsburgh had 2 games in which they faltered to teams that were unquestionably worse.

In Week 3 of 2017, the Steelers rode into Chicago’s Soldier Field with an unblemished 2-0 record; the Bears, on the other hand, entered 0-2. In one of the zaniest games that I’ve ever seen (I was also at this matchup, unfortunately), the Steelers lost 23-17 in a simply embarrassing overtime effort. Chicago’s young running back duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen gashed Pittsburgh’s shaky defense for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns, including gallops of 36, 18 and 19 yards to seal the win for the Bears in the extra period.

Just two weeks later, Tomlin’s team lost once again to a foe many thought Pittsburgh should have beaten: The Jacksonville Jaguars.

In one of his worst career games, QB Ben Roethlisberger launched 5 interceptions; coupled with 181 rushing yards and 2 scores from Jags RB Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville mauled Pittsburgh 30-9 at Heinz Field. The game, much to the chagrin of Steeler fans, would be a harbinger of Pittsburgh’s futility against Jacksonville in the postseason the same year.

Based on the aforementioned 3 games, the Steelers lost to opponents that were, in many facets, worse because of the inability to stop the run.

But the motif of losing “trap games” would proliferate in 2018, though not just because of lackluster run stoppage: the Steelers’ dearth of road success against mediocre opponents directly spurred 3 inexcusable losses.

In the team’s first game of 2018, Pittsburgh tied with the Cleveland Browns in a game which saw a combined 4 interceptions between Roethlisberger and Tyrod Taylor. Despite the valiant efforts of James Conner (135 yards and 2 touchdowns) to replace Le’Veon Bell— at that point, little was known about the duration of Bell’s holdout— the Steelers still could not emerge victorious against what was thought to be a weak Browns team with Taylor at the helm. The Steelers allowed Taylor to total 77 rushing yards— nearly a career high.

The majority of Steelers faithful was confounded by this draw, as the franchise had historically pummeled the Browns and, up to that point, had not lost in Cleveland since 2014.

Despite their initial woes, the Steelers would go 7-2 in their next 9 matchups. At the same time, Pittsburgh’s hot stretch would not be maintained for long because of losing to second-rate squads.

The Steelers fell to the 4-6 Broncos in a rather shocking Week 12 loss. The defeat could easily be assuaged by excuses such as former tight end Xavier Grimble’s fumble at the goal line, a blocked field goal, or Roethlisberger’s interception near the end zone by Broncos defensive lineman Shelby Harris with just over a minute left in regulation.

Pittsburgh’s offense did not struggle even a tad in the contest. Pittsburgh outpaced Denver 527-308 in total yardage, and the Steelers had the ball for a whopping 10 more minutes than the Broncos.

At the same time, such metrics overshadow the inability of Pittsburgh’s defense to harangue Denver’s offense. Then-Broncos starter Case Keenum amassed two touchdowns; the Steelers had 0 takeaways and had a -4 turnover differential.

Ultimately, the Steelers’ West Coast struggles were perpetuated just two weeks subsequent to the loss in what was formerly known as Sports Authority Field.

The Steelers were unable to mitigate the ferocity of the “Black Hole” and lost to the 2-10 Oakland Raiders in Week 14, 24-21, in truly heartbreaking fashion. What makes the loss even more mortifying is that the Steelers entered 7-4-1.

In the game, JuJu Smith-Schuster made a ludicrous, astonishing toe-tap catch in the back of the end zone, but it still was not enough for the Steelers to prevail. In an infamous moment, Boswell slipped on a game-tying 40-yard field goal attempt after an absurd hook-and-ladder play.

In this particular vanquishing, Tomlin’s offense was not entirely to blame. The Steelers’ run game was rather miserable— Conner did not suit up, and Jaylen Samuels totaled just 28 ground yards—and former Steelers QB Josh Dobbs entered for 4 futile series. However, Roethlisberger was solid with 289 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a near-comeback.

It should be noted the Steelers have not won in Oakland since 1995, though this loss was particularly egregious.

What truly prevented Pittsburgh from prevailing? Once again, its defense.

In the 4th quarter, Roethlisberger returned to game action after suffering a rib injury in the first half and readied his red cape and blue suit to lead the Steelers on a 6-play, 75-yard drive capped with another TD reception for Smith-Schuster.

But Oakland reciprocated and marched right down the field with under 3 minutes remaining. The Steelers were able to force a 4th and Goal, but their defense capitulated and surrendered a touchdown to give Oakland the lead for good. The demoralizing loss somewhat prevented Pittsburgh from making the playoffs, as the team finished 9-6-1.

There are several “what ifs” which could have drastically altered both of the last two matchups discussed. For example, if Roethlisberger had not been intercepted near the goal line by Harris, and if Boswell had successfully converted the field goal attempt, the Steelers could have gone 2-0 in such games, and neither would have been described here.

The point is not hypotheticals, however. What needs to be evaluated is if the Steelers had a lacuna in their preparation for lesser opponents or if Tomlin simply became complacent.

In my opinion, neither is valid.

Rather, what sticks out like a sore thumb is the Steelers’ lack of defensive competence in all 6 “trap game” defeats since 2016.

Had Pittsburgh not allowed Oakland to score with just over 20 seconds left, they almost certainly would have won the game. Had the Steelers’ defense not permitted a ludicrous number of rushing yards against Cleveland in 2018, Jacksonville and Chicago in 2017 and Miami in 2016, they easily could have— and probably should have— triumphed in each of those contests.

The matchups in which Tomlin’s team has “played down” have become topics eschewed by the Steelers’ fan base, and understandably so— they are painful, poignant and raw.

But as we gear up for the 2020 season, it seems very fitting to reminisce on them— largely because these defeats are very unlikely to happen any time soon.

As evidenced by the 6 games outlined between 2016-18, the Steelers suffered cataclysmic losses because of, holistically, poor defensive showings.

Despite having several subpar opponents on their 2019 slate, though, the black and gold still emerged with a “W” against each— all because of a stingy defensive unit led by Keith Butler.

Some may view Pittsburgh’s unforgettable “Thursday Night Football” defeat in Cleveland as yet another “trap game,” but I’m not going to classify it as such because of a cavalcade of injuries and simply porous QB play from Mason Rudolph.

A week after one of the most virulent fights in NFL history, Rudolph was unseated by Devlin “Duck” Hodges, who was far from superb: he posted just 118 yards and a touchdown. Nevertheless, the Steelers still eked out a 16-10 win in Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium by holding Ryan Finley and the winless Bengals to under 250 yards.

Another game in 2019 that the Steelers arguably should have lost was Week 14 at Arizona, which was 3-8-1 at the time. The Steelers ravaged rookie QB Kyler Murray by forcing 3 interceptions, one of which was thrown with Arizona in the red zone.

The Steelers were certainly better than both Cincinnati and Arizona on paper. In terms of talent, both of Pittsburgh’s opponents were superior, to some extent, on offense. In spite of quarterback quandaries, the Steelers were able to win both games— yes, even on the road— because of stout defense.

By no means is defense the only potion to concoct a win versus a lesser opponent. But history tells us not only has it worked in recent memory, but the solution should very well suffice for the Steelers for quite some time.

Upon examining Pittsburgh’s 2020 schedule, games such as Week 1 at the Giants and Week 12 at Jacksonville may cause some anguish due to both fitting the criteria for “trap games”: being on the road and versus teams that are seemingly not in the Steelers’ echelon.

Steelers fans, recency tells us there should be no need to worry.

In fact, the Steelers should not be concerned about losing at the hands of inferior teams for the immediate future. With a defense whose projected starters have an average age of 26.5 and young stars in 21-year-old Devin Bush, 23-year-old Minkah Fitzpatrick and 25-year-old T.J. Watt, this team’s defensive nucleus is quite youthful.

Defense very well may be a nostrum to avoiding “playing down” and losing to bad teams, something which has plagued the Steelers for years. But with more defensive talent than ever, it seems Tomlin and Butler have found the answer to turn the corner and avoid more quixotic losses to bottom-dwellers for the next few years.