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The Steelers’ problems run deep, and there aren’t many easy fixes

There are plenty of problems with the Steelers, and there are no easy fixes for those problems either.

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine for a second that your favorite football team is trailing by 12 against a hated divisional rival, who has a delightfully disgusting historic-playoff-drought-snapping story on their side, entering the fourth quarter of a playoff game.

That hated division rival jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, with your favorite team having maybe the worst start in NFL history, but yet with the ENTIRE fourth quarter to go and having outscored your rival 23-7 over the past quarter and change, getting one yard on 4th & 1 at just about midfield would set up the chance to bring the game within six points.

Man, what a chance! What an opportunity to scratch and crawl back in the game! In today’s NFL, it’s all about taking ris— wait, your favorite team’s coach decided to punt the ball?

If such a decision were to take place, there just so happens to be a Twitter account dedicated to determining the “cowardice” of every single punt in the NFL based on “arbitrary metrics” from SB Nation’s own Jon Bois. This hypothetical punt would have ranked in the 94th percentile of all punts in the 2020-21 season and the 92nd in all punts since 2009.

Well, I guess it’s no surprise that my hypothetical situation was the Steelers and Browns on Sunday night. Tomlin didn’t go for it, the punt was a touchback for just over 30-yards net, and the Browns marched down the field to essentially put the game out of reach with a 40-yard scamper from Nick Chubb.

Man, imagine a Steelers’ halfback doing something like that.

It doesn’t take a Twitter analytics account to realize that, down two scores entering the 4th quarter, playing the field position game at midfield on 4th and 1 isn’t it. And that was just one decision in a rather poorly coached game from Tomlin.

The 2011 Broncos and the 2017 Jaguars would beg to differ, but this particular playoff collapse hurts the most. This was the year, the final year. With the Ravens, Browns and Bengals all primed to improve over the next handful of seasons, the Steelers staring down an impending cap crunch and Ben Roethlisberger seemingly intent to just grind one more season out, it’s all been for naught. An 11-0 start smashed into a brick wall, and a concussed 1-5 stumble to finish line has been as disappointing as I’ve ever seen.

In three of the past four weeks, I’ve said to myself, ‘Man, that’s been the worst first half of Steelers football I’ve seen in a long, long time.’ The only week I didn’t say that, Mason Rudolph was under center and the Steelers’ four captains were back in Pittsburgh, and that was the one respectable performance.

This Steelers team has a lot of problems, and that’s not even factoring in the impending salary cap crunch. With players like Mike Hilton, Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner among nearly 20 others entering free agency this offseason, the Steelers will have some difficult decisions.

But...when it comes to issues that need to be addressed among the players currently on the roster:

After watching a full season, 16 games (one with Rudolph) with Roethlisberger operating at whatever capacity he is now, it’s clear that an offense with him under center is not sustainable and will not lead to playoff success. With Roethlisberger slated to count $41 million dollars against the cap next season, it would be asinine to run things back. Roethlisberger’s arm isn’t shot, far from it actually, but it’s clear he’s not able to withstand the physical grind an NFL quarterback requires anymore.

The offense needs to be gutted. Roethlisberger looked older, slower and less sure of himself than ever last Sunday night, the offensive line looked even worse – looking at you Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva. On top of all that, the run game couldn’t manage a rush attempt longer than 11 yards all night.

Randy Fichtner wore out his welcome in Pittsburgh, with a combination of stale, unimaginative play calling and the inability to make adjustments over the course of a game. Even the talented Steelers receiving corps has had its share of ugliness – Smith-Schuster, oh JuJu, and his off-field distractions, Diontae Johnson and his cases of the dropsies and Eric Ebron with his case of the dropsies and the inability to make plays like Johnson to make up for it – and you know, not being able to block an iota.

How ironic that Smith-Schuster’s first 100 yard game of the season has come in likely his final game in a Steelers’ jersey. 2017-18 feels like a lifetime ago.

After the first half debacle that was the Steelers’ offense against the Colts and subsequent second half adjustment that led to a comeback win over a playoff team, why didn’t the Steelers make those adjustments against a Browns’ defense without their two starting corners?

That offense should – and will – shoulder a LOT of blame for this season’s collapse, but the defense isn’t safe either. For such a talented unit, even with crucial injuries to guys like Dupree and Devin Bush, Sunday night was the first time the defense just wasn’t up to par. Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran roughshod around, through and over Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt, and Baker Mayfield was able to pick apart the Steelers’ secondary/linebackers with underneath crossing routes in which the corners/safeties seemed to just bounce off. I mean, Mayfield didn’t even get hit a single time!

Keith Butler’s reliance on linebackers covering the opposing team’s slot receivers, hello Keenan Allen and Jarvis Landry, has worn very, very thin. For all of Robert Spillane’s strengths, he is NOT going to drop back into coverage and make plays. And the Browns, without their head coach, saw that and executed.

There is so much talent on the Steelers’ defense, even with Dupree, Bush and Joe Haden out – and Alex Highsmith not playing after halftime – but there is too much talent on the field to allow near 50 points to Baker Mayfield and the Browns.

I don’t know what this offseason holds. I don’t know where the salary cap will eventually fall on that continuum of $175-195 million dollars. I don’t know what tomorrow holds at this point, well, other than being a national laughing stock.

In all likelihood, Dupree, JuJu, Conner, Villanueva, Avery Williamson and Matt Feiler will be gone. As of right now, barring insane cap maneuvering from Steelers’ executive Omar Khan, who is still around for now, there just isn’t money to bring anyone back. Maybe someone like Mike Hilton comes back, which would be much, much needed, but free agency will take a serious toll on the Steelers. Even though the Steelers really should only entertain Dupree, Hilton and maybe Feiler among that crop of free agents.

Roethlisberger will count for $41 million against the cap next season, should he choose to return. And all signs point to another go-round with Roethlisberger under center. T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are due massive raises – deservedly so. With COVID-19 cap implications, there just isn’t enough to go around, and if the Steelers would want to backload Roethlisberger’s cap hit now, that would mean a dreaded extension.

The Steelers have a lot of issues.

Keith Butler’s system will continue to allow slot receivers to gash the defense for massive yardage, but in terms of talent, the defense should remain among the most talented in the NFL. However, they aren’t getting any younger and they’ll only get more expensive.

Tomlin remain an enigma. I do think Tomlin is a good coach, a true player’s coach, but the playoff collapses are adding up. And Sunday night’s display was awful, to put it mildly. Tomlin will be a Hall of Famer, he’s a legend in this city, but you have to wonder if this is the standard now. He’s never had a losing season, he motivates his players like no one else, but he’s prone to be outcoached in big moments – tonight especially against a first-time play caller.

I absolutely hate to pin losses, or wins, or any one person, but the 4th and 1 decision just lingers in my mind. Maybe the Steelers don’t get it. Maybe they do and score three players later. Trailing by six with 13 minutes left, who knows what happens.

All we know is the Steelers lost another disappointing playoff game.