The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their third straight game on Sunday to the Green Bay Packers. It was a game that showcased some of the potential that the Steelers have, but Green Bay proved themselves to be a far more complete team, ultimately walking away with the victory.
As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. So close, and yet so far
I refuse to believe that I was the only one who came away with a glimmer of hope following the Steelers’ loss to the Packers. Pittsburgh looked pretty awful at times, sure; but there were many moments when they looked like a team more than capable of winning the game.
The offensive line again wasn’t great but they had made noticeable improvement, especially when it came to opening up some running lanes for Najee Harris. The wide receiver core was consistently getting open, while the tight ends room had a few catches between them. And while the defense wasn’t great, they did their part in keeping the Steelers in the game, all while having some key starters injured. The offense even broke their double-digit streak of failing to score points on their game-opening drive.
So what went wrong? As you’re probably guessing, it was Ben Roethlisberger.
Ben’s poor decision-making and inaccuracy absolutely killed the Steelers’ offense on Sunday. He missed several crucial throws that could’ve helped the Steelers take control of the game, including two sure touchdowns to JuJu Smith-Schuster. His inability to make plays beyond the sticks, or even in the middle of the field, crippled the Steelers passing game, which in turn couldn’t set up the run game.
Roethlisberger’s performance especially hurt as Ben was clearly holding back an offense that was finally close to major improvement. And no, this isn’t a call to bench the future Hall-of-Famer — especially only four weeks into the season — but rather an acknowledgement that it’s Roethlisberger, not the pieces around him, who will need to step up if this offense has any shot at improvement.
2. Room for improvement
While most agree that Roethlisberger is the Steelers’ biggest issue on offense, not many agree that he can still improve this season. Some may think that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, as Ben Roethlisberger is clearly well past his prime. But his two biggest issues, accuracy and decision making, are all quite fixable despite Roethlisberger’s physical limitations.
When Roethlisberger missed passes on Sunday, he often overthrew his receivers, which proved that he still had plenty of arm strength left. I figured that he likely just wasn’t stepping into his throws enough, and that seems to be correct given what Roethlisberger has said himself this week.
Per Steelers.com, Roethlisberger was quoted as saying, “I’ve got to find ways to be better with my lower body, going back and watching the game. A lot of the throws that I missed were missed because my lower body wasn’t in sync. Over striding, not stepping towards my target. Things that mechanically I know I can fix and need to fix. Obviously when you’re dealing with pain it’s harder to get through those things, but nothing I can’t get through and I’ll work to get through.”
As Roethlisberger continues to heal and gain confidence as his offensive line further gels, his accuracy should begin to look more like the Big Ben of old. And as for the quarterback’s decision-making, there’s less of a clear answer, but Roethlisberger is a veteran quarterback who should find ways to get around whatever mental blocks he’s dealing with in the Steelers’ new offense.
It’s hard to write this without it sounding like an excuse for Roethlisberger’s poor play against the Packers. It’s not. Rather, it’s to point out that a few poor games from Roethlisberger don’t necessarily spell disaster for the rest of his season.
3. Is the coaching staff to blame?
Ben Roethlisberger has received most of the blame for the Steelers’ recent woes, and rightfully so. But others have pointed out that the coaching staff, more specifically Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin, deserve similar levels of criticism.
The main reasoning for a critique would be the play-calling. There’s not much of a defense for Mike Tomlin’s bizarre aversion for going for it on fourth down in tight games — but it’s a different story regarding when the Steelers do keep the offense out on the field on fourth down.
More specifically, the plays have resulted in Roethlisberger throwing a short pass in which the receiver gets tackles well before the line of gain. And it’s happened a lot.
But when asked about the play calls, both Tomlin and Canada have seemingly put the blame on Roethlisberger, with Tomlin noting that there were “eligibles beyond the line of gain,” on the fourth down play against the Packers, and Canada adding that “there were guys in the end zone” regarding the fourth down play against the Bengals.
However, in his press conference Tomlin didn’t exactly confirm that Roethlisberger had the ability to change the play pre-snap in those scenarios. With Tomlin noting that the veteran quarterback “has a lot of freedom... but maybe not in those moments.”
All in all, the coaching staff of a losing team will always be at least partially responsible for their poor record, and despite Roethlisberger’s unquestionably poor play, there should be questions regarding whether or not the coaching staff is putting him in a position to succeed.
4. A ten point swing
At the end of first half, Packers’ kicker Mason Crosby lined up for a field goal that would put his team up seven points on the Steelers. However, a brilliant special teams play by Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden resulted in Fitzpatrick blocking the kick and returning it for a touchdown. But it was all called back on an offsides penalty that was later confirmed by Gene Steratore and many others to have been wrongly thrown.
Crosby got to re-kick the field goal and was successful, resulting in a ten point swing in favor of the Packers. Want to know by how much the Packers won?
This isn’t to blame the outcome of the game on the officials, as there’s still a very high chance the Steelers could’ve found a way to lose the game even with the right call. But it does show that the Steelers played a closer game than it seemed to one of the NFL’s best teams, and also that bogus offsides penalties are becoming a problem.
The mishap on Sunday isn’t even the first this season, which shows that NFL defenders have perfected jumping simultaneous to the snap, and the league’s referees simply can’t keep up. The fairly objective nature of the penalty, especially on replay, would seem to make it a worthy candidate for the “reviewable” list. But then again, never underestimate the power of NFL referees to mess things up even more.
5. An injured impact
T.J. Watt didn’t play a great game against the Packers, but it certainly looked like he was still recovering from his groin injury. He looked a step slow and a little less efficient in terms of his pass-rush, but it’s more of a testament to him fighting through injury than disappointing post-contract as some have framed it.
Somehow, Watt still managed to record two sacks, but in the least impressive way possible. The first was on a trip that should have been penalized (but clearly wasn’t intentional — look at Watt on the play, he’s being held and is simply bull rushing the passer blind), and the other being when he touched an already-down Aaron Rodgers behind the line of scrimmage near the end of the game.
Hopefully this is far from the last of Watt’s multi-sack games. And hopefully they come in better circumstances.
6. Addition by subtraction?
Two Steelers’ offensive starters were out against the Packers in right tackle Chuks Okorafor and wide receiver Chase Claypool.
Okorafor, who had been playing abysmally throughout the first three weeks of the season, had set the bar of play fairly low heading into the game into the Packers, but it was still a pleasant surprise to see his replacement Joel Haeg hold his own against the Green Bay front. Haeg’s play seemed to be an improvement over Okorafor’s, which contributed to a much improved outing from the offensive line. When Chuks returns from injury, it will be interesting to see if Haeg remains in the starting lineup.
Meanwhile, James Washington stepped into a starting role to replace the injured Claypool. He turned in a solid performance, recording four catches for nearly 70 yards. While it’s fair to say Washington doesn’t possess Claypool’s special athleticism, he was able to play in a similar role, stretching the field to an impressive 17.2 yards per catch. He’s a far more reliable target than Claypool, and he did manage to create ample separation in what was one of the wide receiver room’s best games of the season.
It’s going too far to say that the Steelers should bench Claypool for Washington, but perhaps the two should split playing time a bit more evenly in the future. Claypool is still the most dangerous threat due to his superior speed and size, but Washington’s strong hands and reliability may make him a better option at times for the struggling Ben Roethlisberger.
7. Stepping up
Middle linebackers Devin Bush and Joe Schobert have received criticism for not being particularly noticeable in games. Bush, a former top 10 pick, had been especially absent in the “splash plays” category. However, against the Packers, he managed to record a sack and tackle for loss, while Schobert, despite his struggles, had some fantastic reps in coverage.
Beyond the middle linebackers, cornerback Arthur Maulet had an impressive game. He displayed the aggressive mentality the Steelers like to see in their slot corners, recording two tackles for loss. And on offense, both the aforementioned James Washington and Zach Gentry made the best of the passes thrown their way, while both Kalen Ballage and Derek Watt recorded some snaps in the backfield.
In a season where so many starters have been struggling with injuries, it’s been nice to see some of the less-noticeable and reserve players stepping up in their playing time.
8. An early bye
The Steelers have a fairly early bye week this season, as their break comes in Week 7 of the 17-week season. At the beginning of the season it seemed like a bad thing, as the team would want to be rested headed into the final stretch of the season rather than before even the halfway point. However, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as the Steelers’ recent three-game skid paints them as a team in desperate need of a reset. An early bye week may be the perfect time for the Steelers to step back and make the improvements necessary to save their season, before it’s too late.
The Steelers have had a dismal first quarter of their season. But as BTSC’s own cassidy977 has pointed out in a recent article series, the Steelers have a knack for turning their season around from. Maybe they can do that again this year.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.