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The Pittsburgh Steelers fall short at a turning point in their season

Against the Bengals on Sunday, the split personality of a team not ready for prime time was clear for all to see.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

As anyone knows who remembers the Pittsburgh Steelers in the years preceding their first Super Bowl win, when an NFL team is several bricks shy of a load, it sometimes manages to conceal its flaws for a game here and there. But over the course of a grueling, 17-game season, the team’s true nature invariably emerges, particularly when facing quality opponents. In their Sunday matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bad Steelers actors showed up at the worst possible times to upstage any cameos by the Good Steelers.

Within a relatively brief period during the second half of their 37-30 loss to the Bengals, the game slipped entirely away from the Black-and-gold. A Steelers defense that held up so well in the second half against the Saints on the previous weekend had no answers for Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense — particularly at the stage of the game when it mattered most. Sinking to a 3-7 record, it’s obvious the Black-and-gold has now reached a turning point in their 2022 season from which they’re unlikely to substantially rebound.

Cincinnati’s first-half TD drives sliced far too easily through the home team’s weak resistance. But in the second half, the Steelers offense put even more pressure on their harried defense by continually stalling and punting the ball back to the Bengals. Pittsburgh scored only three second-half points prior to garbage time — not nearly enough to keep pace with Burrow and the Bengals.

An offense that had shown signs of life in the first half by scoring 20 points came entirely unglued following the intermission — to such an extent that the Bengals defense spent most of the game’s final 30 minutes toying with Kenny Pickett and company as though they were playing an exhibition game with the Pitt Panthers.

Having performed reasonably well in the first half, Pickett looked every bit the typical, green rookie after halftime. He was hounded by the Bengals pass rush and several of his throws were badly off-target. For the first time in his short career, Pickett’s confidence appeared to waver and he looked indecisive. But this collapse definitely was a group effort and essentially what one might expect from a rebuilding team led by a novice quarterback and playing without the benefit of either a strong OL or a stout defense. Overall, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

Because the Steelers’ overall performance on both sides of the ball was so far below the line, it’s not particularly useful to analyze this game statistically. Nevertheless, some general conclusions are possible in the wake of this disappointing defeat:

1) Barring injury, Kenny Pickett will need every one of the Steelers’ remaining regular-season games to answer nagging questions about whether he’s the legitimate heir to Roethlisberger’s throne. Pickett certainly can’t grow as a young QB while sitting on the bench.

2) T.J. Watt is a great football player but he alone cannot cure the many ills of this Steelers defense.

3) Without the ability to consistently pressure opposing QBs, the Steelers’ defense becomes quite an easy target for opponents.

4) The Steelers’ offensive line has improved but still isn’t nearly good enough personnel-wise.

5) The Steelers need an entirely different offensive scheme which utilizes the team’s available talent to better advantage. Matt Canada seems incapable of providing that level of leadership.

The Steelers’ shortcomings as a team nowadays simply are too extensive to correct during what remains of this season. The loss to Cincinnati underscores the fact that any NFL team with a semi-potent offense enjoys a significant advantage over the Steelers, including some teams currently outperforming the Bengals. During Sunday’s game, as in several others this season, the Steelers swung widely between plays encouraging hope and those prompting despair. These are precisely the earmarks of a “three bricks shy” team which generally lacks the overall talent to credibly compete.

As many observers had noted at the beginning of the season, 2022 was bound to be a transitional year and a major rebuilding phase for the Black-and-gold. We had plenty of preseason warnings that it simply wasn’t realistic to expect too much too soon from this group. And today the validity of those warnings has come home to roost.

While the possibility still remains that the Steelers will upgrade their play and add a few wins before season’s end, we also must face the stark reality that the team’s many faults also will be waiting in the wings to emerge without warning to dash our hopes. Unfortunately, that’s simply the way it is with this team which remains a work-in-progress, clearly still struggling to establish a positive identity.

There’s no denying the painful spectacle of a Steelers team being humbled in its home stadium by a divisional rival which Pittsburgh historically has owned. This is one defeat that definitely is going to sting for awhile. Having won only three of their first 10 games, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers’ front office surely must realize that the remainder of this season looks much more like an unwelcome extension of the preseason than any serious quest for a playoff berth.

In the wake of this defeat, it’s clear that the seven weeks of football ahead will have much more to do with nailing down the team’s offseason needs and gathering evidence for hard decisions about which players and coaches deserve to stay in the Steel City and which ones ought to go. But just because the team’s collapse comes as no real surprise doesn’t make it any easier for Steelers Nation to swallow.