clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Can the Pittsburgh Steelers overcome their demons?

All the liabilities widely suspected in September resurfaced in a lackluster victory over Chicago.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If it's possible for a team to win a game while taking a definite step backwards in the process, the Pittsburgh Steelers clearly managed to pull off this feat on Monday night at Heinz Field. Despite the advantages of a home crowd, jazzy Color Rush uniforms and grabbing an early, seemingly comfortable lead, Pittsburgh narrowly escaped with a last-minute, 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears. In a game riddled with mental errors, penalty flags and severe lapses by both teams, the Steelers snatched a crucial victory mainly on the strength of Chris Boswell’s foot, but also because of his heads-up recovery of a fumbled Chicago kickoff return.

As promising as the game began, with the Steelers jumping out to 14-0 lead, the entire second half and especially the fourth quarter were nearly disastrous as the Steelers’ offense failed to move the ball at crucial times while a gassed defense was unable to slow down the upstart Justin Fields and Chicago’s offense. Not until the Bears scored a TD with less than two minutes remaining in the game to take a 27-26 lead did Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense begin to play with any real sense of urgency.

To the Bears’ credit, Fields demonstrated a skill set beyond that of other rookie QBs the Steelers have faced in recent years. In fact, Fields looks every bit the part of a fast-rising and potentially dominant NFL quarterback.

Any sense of this being an opportunity for Steelers Nation to relax evaporated during a nail-biting fourth quarter when Pittsburgh appeared to simultaneously collapse on both sides of the ball. And despite the rough initiation he got from the Steelers’ defense in the first half, Fields gave them all they could handle in the final quarter.

The caveat to this dismal performance by the Steelers is that both the Bears' defense and their talented, young QB looked considerably better than their 3-6 record indicates. Chicago came into Heinz Field as a hungry team trying to break a 3-game losing streak, and they played nothing like the pushover they were suspected to be.

Giving the Bears their due and despite Pittsburgh extending its winning streak to four games, it’s difficult not to view this game as a step backwards for Rooney U. In particular and especially during the second half, the Steelers' offensive line wasn't blocking adequately either for the run or the pass. Chicago’s defensive line was pushing Pittsburgh’s rookie linemen backwards while Big Ben absorbed a total of 4 sacks and 5 QB hits in the game.

Despite Ben's game-winning drive during the final two minutes, Pittsburgh's offense was sluggish throughout most of the evening, unable to move the chains and rest the defense (6 of 17 conversions on 3rd down). Najee Harris gained only 62 yards on 22 carries (2.8-yd. average) for the game while catching 3 passes for only 16 yards. Diontae Johnson was limited to 5 catches for 56 yards. In total, the Steelers generated only 280 yards of total offense compared to Chicago’s 414 yards.

When the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were unable to disguise the increasingly glaring holes in their patchwork defense. Chicago's tight end Cole Kmet (6 catches for 87 yards) was often seen running free through the Pittsburgh secondary and he ended the game as the Bears’ leading receiver. In the final quarter, Bears’ RB David Montgomery started blasting out chunks of yardage through and around a weary and sometimes overpowered Steelers defensive line. T.J. Watt was the only Steelers defender to sack Fields but he did so three times.

Ben Roethlisberger is playing reasonably well given that he's running an offense largely foreign to his true instincts as a field-stretching quarterback. On the other hand, Ben has been taking about the same degree of physical pounding this season that he endured as a much younger player. And the wrinkles Matt Canada has added to this offense won’t be too difficult for opponents to counteract unless the OL starts to give Ben more time to hit the deeper throws and keep defenses honest. Even Chicago's halftime adjustments on Monday night were enough to largely squelch the Steelers' offense, except for Ben's final drive that put Boswell in a position to seal the victory.

Unless the OL cleans up the porous pass blocking seen on Monday night, it’ll be a challenge for Big Ben to stay healthy and on the field throughout the remainder of the Steelers’ schedule, let alone for him to perform at a level necessary to survive the playoffs.

They say a win is a win regardless of style points, but on Monday night the Pittsburgh Steelers looked nothing like the playoff contender their 5-3 record might suggest. Quite plainly and regardless of their gritty win at Cleveland last week, the demons haunting Pittsburgh in Weeks 2, 3 and 4 had returned to Heinz Field. Pittsburgh had the Bears on the ropes by halftime but simply could not deliver a knockout blow despite ample opportunities in the second half. In fact, if not for some questionable officiating and untimely blunders by Chicago at crucial points of the game, Steelers Nation likely would be mourning a lost season this week.

Overall, it seems evident the Steelers simply don't have those few extra bricks this season necessary to make a full load. While they clearly have some individual stars, as a team they're not playing consistent or coherent football. As suspected during the preseason, these Pittsburgh Steelers still resemble a team lacking some basic elements of success. The Steelers Nation faithful keep waiting for a breakout performance that signals this team is trending towards the NFL playoffs. But that's certainly not the team we saw playing at Heinz Field on Monday night.

When you ask the tough question of exactly where these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers expect to find the players to step up and compete in must-win games with likely playoff teams like the Ravens or Titans -- let alone with NFC teams such as the Bucs, Cardinals and Packers -- answers are hard to find. As we learned from last year’s late-season collapse, it’ll take more than a winning streak for Pittsburgh to make believers out of those who question whether they’re a true contender.

Provided that the Steelers avoid a meltdown this weekend against a Lions team desperate for a win, they'll need to prove their mettle week by week facing a lineup of stronger teams during the second half of the season. Unfortunately and mainly because we haven’t yet seen a complete, 60-minute effort by the entire team, performances like the one on Monday night inspire little confidence that this group suddenly will don its Superman outfits and live up to the Steelers organization’s traditional standard.