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Steelers’ early sleepwalk ends their once magical season

JV ball in the first half and a total of five turnovers combine to make a bridge too far.

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 regular season was typified by various sluggish starts preceding game-winning comebacks. But not even our wildest imaginations could have conjured what we witnessed at Heinz Field on Sunday night. On the first offensive play of the game, Maurkice Pouncey sailed the snap high over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. That blunder would prove to be a portent of things to come as, once again, the Black-and-Gold team we expected to show up never emerged from the locker room. By halftime, the score was 35-10 and, with the Steelers’ defense still surrendering big chunks of yardage, the only thing Steelers Nation could hope for was a miracle.

But despite a third quarter rally that briefly pulled the Steelers within 12 points, this was not to be a night for miracles. Especially mind-boggling were Roethlisberger’s four interceptions and more of what recently has become a frustrating number of errant and dropped passes. Despite missing some starters on their offensive line, Cleveland exploited an uncharacteristically porous Steelers defense almost at will throughout the game, taking full advantage of Pittsburgh’s miscues on their way to a 48-37 victory.

Essentially, the game was over at halftime. But as deflating as the loss might be, even more troubling is what this defeat might signify for the Steelers’ future. Watching Roethlisberger and Pouncey sitting forlornly on the bench after the game, it was difficult to escape the thought that Steelers Nation might have witnessed the final act for these two close friends and teammates. While in Ben’s case the injury probably is more psychological than physical, it was eerily similar to the hollow feeling of the Steelers’ fan base when Terry Bradshaw played his final game at Shea Stadium on December 10, 1983.

While there’s no doubt Roethlisberger still is capable of throwing some of the most beautiful passes you’ll ever see on the gridiron, it’s equally true that too many things simply didn’t add up during this season which began so hopefully with eleven straight wins. In certain key areas, it’s likely the 2020 Steelers’ season will be recalled as a time when the wheels fell off of the wagon.

Pittsburgh’s inability to establish a consistent running attack, as well as the substitution of a dink-and-dunk offense for the field-stretching attack of yesteryear, raises some difficult and perhaps intractable questions for the organization. Overall, Big Ben has not adapted well to the team’s shift in offensive strategy. As the season progressed, it became increasingly obvious that opponents were well aware of what they needed to do to bottle up the Steelers’ offense.

Additionally, we can’t escape some nagging questions surrounding Ben’s overall physical condition and, in particular, whether the aftermath of his elbow surgery has affected his throwing motion and delivery. Furthermore, Ben’s mobility in the pocket — a hallmark of his performance since he entered the league — has declined significantly in recent years.

But of all the questions Steelers Nation will be mulling during the offseason, none seems more troubling than the mystery surrounding the Steelers’ receiver corps. Despite the team compiling a solid 12-4 season record, Roethlisberger never achieved consistent rapport with his uber-talented receivers. During Sunday night’s must-win playoff game, we saw obvious examples of Ben and his receivers not being on the same page. Even taking into account the fact that there were no preseason games, plus all the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 protocols, the fact that Ben and his receivers still were not in sync in their 17th game of the season should raise a huge red flag for this team.

Given the many uncertainties now clouding the team’s future, it’s no exaggeration to anticipate some sea changes on the Pittsburgh Steelers before next summer’s training camp. Will amigos Roethlisberger and Pouncey decide to ride into the sunset together? Will the Steelers’ brain trust decide that Mason Rudolph can grow into the role of a winning NFL quarterback, or will they need to prioritize the quarterback position in future NFL drafts? What does the team need to do to shore up an offensive line whose performance has fallen short this season?

As depressing as it is for Steelers Nation to be considering these and other questions during a particularly long offseason, it’s also true that everyone knew the Big Ben Era couldn’t last forever. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers’ front office must be focused on the challenge of keeping this team competitive in the future. If Ben decides to hang up his cleats, we might be embarking on a period of substantial rebuilding in order for the Steelers to return to a competitive level of play.

As a native of Pittsburgh and a lifelong Steelers fan, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that it might indeed be several more years before the team’s impatient fan base once again entertains serious expectations of a championship. But this is an experience we’ve been through before without ever losing our commitment to the team and the remarkable city it represents.