On a rainy, dreary Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers — for the second consecutive week — failed to show the capabilities to dominate one of the NFL’s weakest teams. Mason Rudolph might have been taking the snaps, but the Steelers’ offense continued its persistent pattern of sputtering throughout the game, managing only a single touchdown in 60 minutes of football. Facing a total of 17 third down situations, the offense converted only seven.
Defensively, Pittsburgh had another spotty week of play with significant lapses against Detroit’s ground attack that enabled the Lions to stay in the game and compile a total of 229 rushing yards and a 5.9-yard average per carry. Yet even as poorly as Pittsburgh played on both sides of the ball, they might still have won the game if not for two crucial fumbles by Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth during the overtime period, robbing the Steelers of any chance to score decisive points.
It’s been said that football games typically are decided because key players step up at crucial times to make crucial plays. But on Sunday it was the crucial errors at key turning points that landed the Steelers in a tie with the weakest team in pro football. While some doubt might have remained following the Steelers’ dismal performance last week against Chicago, in the wake of this performance, Steelers Nation no longer can pretend their favorite team is going anywhere this season.
Detroit QB Jared Goff (114 yards, 4.6-yard average, 67.8 rating) played an even worse game than Rudolph (242 yards, 4.8-yard average, 70.6 rating), yet the Steelers simply were unable to close the deal. Against any NFL team with even a semi-competent offense, this game surely would have gone into the loss column.
It's true we must account for the fact that Rudolph wasn’t expecting to start the game and was bound to be rusty after cooling his heels on the sidelines for so many weeks. But the QB widely expected to be starting for Pittsburgh next season certainly never gave so much as a hint of the precocious talent demonstrated in 2004 by rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger who compiled a 13-0 record, passed for 2,621 yards and 17 touchdowns, while leading six game-winning drives and five fourth-quarter comebacks.
Rudolph misfired on a number of throws and his persistent targeting of former Oklahoma State teammate James Washington was something Detroit obviously expected him to do. Even though Rudolph's efforts to put the Steelers in a position to win in OT were foiled by turnovers, the only thing he accomplished during four quarters on Sunday was perhaps to temporarily silence some of the folks who think Roethlisberger should be benched for the rest of the season.
Watching all those diehard fans at Heinz Field sitting through the chilling rain to root for their home team with so much energy, it seemed quite unfair they had to endure the sorry spectacle unfolding on the gridiron. Instead of the Steelers feeding off of their supporters, they seemed to play even worse as the game went on. This nagging inability to break open a tight game is the hallmark of a team with serious personnel and scheme issues.
Probably the only reason why the Steelers are still in the playoff hunt is the precipitous decline in the overall quality of play in the NFL this season. Even supposedly elite teams like Tampa Bay have been struggling against mediocre competition. Once again in Week 10, we saw several jaw-dropping upsets across the league.
But unlike the few NFL teams still playing consistent football, the Pittsburgh Steelers resemble a team in utter disarray. They haven’t played a single complete game yet this year, while injuries to key players continue to mount. Now heading into the most challenging part of their schedule, they'll be playing most of their remaining games on the road.
Based on their body of work since Week 1, Pittsburgh's offense has failed to move the ball with any consistency — not even when facing doormat defenses. Their defense also is inconsistent and highly susceptible to a strong ground game. Perhaps most troubling, there’s been no indication through nine regular-season games that this team is making tangible progress as the season unfolds. Whereas, in the past, the Steelers sometimes played down to the level of opponents widely considered as beatable, nowadays they’re playing down to the teams competing to make the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
With almost nothing working for Pittsburgh in terms of game-planning, they might seem to have reached a back-to-the-drawing-board moment. But it’s quite difficult for any team to institute substantial, mid-season changes that produce immediate results.
That’s why everything the Steelers do from this point forward in 2021 ought to be geared more to the future than the present. With several glaring holes to fill both on offense and defense, the Steelers already should be looking to the NFL Draft, not only to address their immediate needs, but also to replace current players who clearly aren't getting the job done.
Sunday's tie with the sorry Lions is a prime example of what happens when a team keeps using the same old formula but no longer has the players necessary to pull it off. As sad and embarrassing as this might be for Steelers Nation, none of your typical coaching bromides is going to help a team in free-fall.
For those who like to blame everything on the head coach, the true test for Mike Tomlin's Steelers won't be how they perform for the rest of this season, but how well the rest of this season prepares them to make significant progress next season. When the wheels have totally fallen off of your wagon, it’s no time for pointing fingers or subscribing to miracle cures.
Quite simply, the entire Steelers organization must redouble the work they started in this year’s NFL Draft by bringing more and better talent onto the roster.
It doesn't take a football genius to recognize that the Pittsburgh Steelers have descended to their lowest point in many years. Realistically, a turnaround period of two years or longer isn't out of the question given the Steelers’ primary need to find Roethlisberger's successor. In the meantime, Steelers fans will need to dial back the high expectations which they continue to project onto their home team.