When the dust settles at the end of this season, neither the Minnesota Vikings nor the Los Angeles Chargers will find themselves anywhere in the vicinity of an NFL championship. But during the first halves of two recent games, each of these middling teams manhandled the Steelers so completely that Pittsburgh's desperate bids for a comeback ultimately proved to be a bridge too far.
Considering their dismal 6-6-1 season record, it's small comfort that Pittsburgh's fourth-quarter rallies nearly saved the day in L.A. and Minneapolis. But neither do the Chargers or Vikings have much to brag about because each team blew a comfortable lead, nearly choking in the final quarter.
Taken together, these past three defeats make a strong case that the Steelers' current record accurately reflects a talent-poor team capable of competing only when it brings its "A" game to the stadium. While past Steelers teams have prevailed even when their performances were below the line, this 2021 edition enjoys no such margin for error. Unless their effort is totally maxed out, as it was during those final 15 minutes of urgency in losses to the Chargers and Vikings, Pittsburgh looks more like the NFL doormat we saw in Cincinnati and during the first halves in L.A. and Minneapolis.
Despite many changes in the league in recent years, consistency remains the gold standard for league champions. Conversely, the 2021 Steelers — along with a large group of NFL teams currently clustered around the .500 mark — have shown what becomes of a team that only rarely manages to muster a 60-minute effort on the gridiron.
Winning is a byproduct of consistency but rebuilding a championship team is mainly about getting the fundamentals right. For example, offensive linemen cannot mimic free-spinning turnstiles to your quarterback — a role they clearly were playing during most of the game with Minnesota. Your defense cannot repeatedly lose track of the opponent's receivers or allow their running back to sprint untouched for a 30-yard touchdown. These are obvious signs that individual players simply are not measuring up in their one-on-one matchups.
Beyond their obvious need for more talent on the roster, the Steelers have been plagued, not only by losing key players to injury, but also by underachieving players who had been expected to make significant upgrades to the team. After the best season of his career in 2020, Stephon Tuitt was lost for the entire year, and perhaps permanently. Tyson Alualu went down for the season in Week 2. Now at age 34, his future with the team looks equally cloudy.
Former first-round pick Devin Bush clearly hasn't become the dominant player the Steelers expected when they traded up to draft him in 2019. Unless Bush finds a way to turn things around, the Steelers' front office will see the embarrassing crash of a major investment. After being selected in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Alex Highsmith has performed adequately overall but he hasn’t yet shown the ability to become the kind of bookend to T.J. Watt as an edge-rusher that Bud Dupree had been.
Quite simply, the Steelers team we're watching these days fails to do most of the things that made their predecessors NFL champions. Gone is the offensive line that once hammered out lanes for explosive runners like Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. Gone are the clutch, third-down receivers like Hines Ward and Heath Miller who kept the chains moving and were deadly in the red zone. And when this season ends, Pittsburgh no longer will have the franchise-quarterback talent that played a central role in all six of their Super Bowl triumphs.
Gone also is the fearsome Pittsburgh defense led by players like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Casey Hampton. Each of these players brought to the table a capability to perform consistently at a high level — play after play and game after game. Without exception, they were known quantities that teammates and coaches knew they could always count on.
The core issue with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers is the fact they've got only a smattering of championship-caliber players on their roster. Beyond Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Najee Harris and perhaps Pat Freiermuth, where do we find the superlative talent necessary for Pittsburgh to punch another ticket to the Super Bowl?
By now it should be clear that 2021 will not be the year for Pittsburgh to seriously compete for the big prize, even if by some miracle they manage to secure a Wild Card berth. But the remainder of this season and the post-season nevertheless is an opportunity to take stock of the team's most glaring needs and hopefully to find more players in the mold of those former stars whose names forever will be linked with the Steelers' glory days. The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has reached a turning point and it’s going to be a bumpy ride for fans expecting immediate results.