The Pittsburgh Steelers are perhaps the NFL's biggest paradox.
How else do you describe a perennial playoff contender that routinely loses road games to such lowly opponents? With a 30-15 loss to the previously 1-4 Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the Steelers have now lost three road games in a row in which they were favored by at least 7.5 points.
Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, who is, statistically speaking, one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, played a terrific game, as the former first-round pick completed 24 of 32 passes for 252 yards and no turnovers. In fact, Tannehill's only bad throw of the game fell harmlessly to William Gay's feet after the veteran corner failed to hold on to an easy interception.
Similarly to their blowout loss to the Eagles in Week 3, the Steelers performed poorly across the board. Pittsburgh's front seven, which entered Sunday's game as the NFL's fifth-best run-stopping unit, allowed 222 rushing yards, including 204 on 25 carries to Jay Ajayi. That same front seven also failed to put any real pressure on Tannehill, who had taken the second-most sacks in the league entering Sunday's contest. In addition, Miami completed 50 percent of its third down attempts, outgained Pittsburgh 474-297 and possessed the ball for nearly 37 minutes.
The performance of Pittsburgh's front seven, however, can be somewhat attributed to the fact that injuries have utterly decimated this unit. Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh's two best defenders, missed Sunday's game with lower-body injuries, while both Vince Williams and Stephon Tuitt exited Sunday's game at various points with injuries of their own.
Given Pittsburgh's performance against the run this season, it's fair to say that getting gutted for 220-plus yards is somewhat uncharacteristic. So, too, was the performance of Pittsburgh's offense, which averaged 37 points per games in Weeks 4 and 5.
When you lose (and lose badly) to a team that will almost certainly win a top-five draft pick, everyone's stock goes down:
The secondary - Stock has officially gone through rock bottom
I should preface this by saying that I understand Pittsburgh's defensive philosophy; soft-ish coverage between the 20s, tighten up in the red zone, fields goals are better than touchdowns. Pretty simple concepts. And to be fair, Pittsburgh's defense did just that in the first half by holding Miami to a trio of field goals in their first three trips to the red zone. But, when you think about how Miami entered the red zone in the first place, the blame falls squarely on the secondary. William Gay, for example, made the executive decision to spy Tannehill from 35 yards downfield during a pretty routine rollout. As such, the veteran (and I cannot stress the term veteran enough on this) was burned Marqeuis Gray for a 53-yard gain. Miami's subsequent touchdown on the next play was negated by an illegal formation, and the Steelers held Miami to a field goal. Commendable, certainly, but not the type of play a team that identifies so much with the "bend but don't break" philosophy should allow.
Speaking of veteran players making crucial mistakes, I am going to break the fourth wall a little bit and ask if any of you know what goes through Mike Mitchell's brain on a play-by-play basis? Mitchell committed a pair of late hits that resulted in personal fouls, which contributed to 30 of Pittsburgh's 65 penalty yards. His "tough guy" act was fun when he was actually making game-changing plays, but at this point he is Pittsburgh's de facto goon.
Tackling continues to be perhaps the biggest issue facing the Steelers. Ajayi earned every one of his 204 yards, and more often than not Pittsburgh's linebackers and defensive backs simply failed to wrap him up. I cannot stress this enough: Miami ranked 29th in the NFL in total offense in Weeks 1-5. With games against Buffalo, New York, Dallas and New England still on the schedule, the Steelers will see far better offenses than what they faced in Miami.
Intangible stuff - ???
Mike Tomlin knew exactly what to expect. In his press conference on Tuesday, Tomlin praised the talent of Miami's offensive line (they played awesome, as evidenced by Ajayi's 200 yards and Tannehill's zero sacks), the dangers associated with Tannehill's mobility (he completed a number of long passes after escaping the pocket) and Jarvis Landry's abilities (buddy had a game-high seven catches for 91 yards). Tomlin also spoke about the depth of Miami's backfield (see Ajayi, Jay) and the quality of its secondary (two interceptions, six pass defenses and allowed just 189 passing yards).
By identifying these issues and addressing them in his press conference, it's pretty obvious that Tomlin knew exactly what to expect. To be honest, I don't blame his gameplan for Pittsburgh's failures.
As I said earlier, the Steelers did pretty well to stick to the plan early in the game. The defense was reasonably stout, Ben Roethlisberger looked pretty sharp and Le'Veon Bell was doing his thing on the ground. After Roethlisberger suffered a knee injury in the second quarter, things officially began to fall apart.
Sure, things weren't looking particularly awesome for Pittsburgh in the first half, but it was no different than how things looked last week against the Jets. The Steelers' players and coaches aren't stupid; they know very well that a season-ending injury to Roethlisberger pretty much puts a knife in their Super Bowl hopes. Am I saying that Roethlisberger's injury kinda psyched everyone out? Yeah, actually I am.
Pittsburgh was never going to blow Miami out of the water, but Roethlisberger's injury appeared to completely disrupt everyone's rhythm, which ultimately proved to be the kiss of death. A convenient excuse, sure, but definitely plausible.
Overall - Stock down
The Steelers are 4-2, which is still pretty good. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore both lost on Sunday, so the Steelers' division lead is still safe.
Although the Steelers have a well-deserved reputation for playing down to competition, they are equally notorious for playing well after losses. They are also renowned for playing well at home, and it seems like Pittsburgh beats good teams more often than not. In Week 7, the Steelers will host the New England Patriots, a team that certainly qualifies as "good."
I suspect that many of you expected Pittsburgh to lose to Miami, so this loss probably won't impact your week too much. At the risk of sounding like an overprotective parent, Roethlisberger's injury doesn't appear to be serious, and both Heyward and Shazier have a shot to play against New England in Week 7. Things should get better eventually.
UPDATE: With Roethlisberger reportedly suffering a torn meniscus, it's probably safe to put Pittsburgh's stock as low as possible. The Steelers defense simply isn't good enough to buoy the team as Roethlisberger begins what will most likely be a lengthy recovery period.