The Pittsburgh Steelers are not a very good football team.
By losing to the Dallas Cowboys 35-30 at home, the Steelers have now lost four straight games — the first time they’ve done so since Weeks 1 through 4 of the 2013 NFL season. That year, Pittsburgh finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. A similar fate in 2016 is looking more likely by the week.
Perhaps the biggest theme of Pittsburgh’s season has been inconsistency; inconsistent health, inconsistent performances, inconsistent coaching. It’s maddening.
The loss to Dallas, however, might finally be the game that accurately reflects Pittsburgh’s true identity. Despite having six or seven top-tier players, the Steelers can’t surmount the issues posed by their subpar supporting cast. Specifically, we learned that:
Secondary, Stock down
At this point, we can probably accept that the Steelers’ secondary is one of the worst units in the NFL. Certainly, Pittsburgh has held its own in the red zone (they allow touchdowns just 44% of the time, which ranks third in the NFL), but the fact that the Steelers have allowed passing touchdowns of 95, 83 and 50 yards in the last two games reflects incredibly poorly on their ability to defend big plays. That red zone percentage looks a lot better when teams are regularly scoring from the other side of midfield.
On Dallas’ final two drives (both of which ended with Ezekiel Elliott touchdown runs), Ross Cockrell and Sean Davis committed bone-headed personal fouls that spotted the Cowboys 30 yards of free field position. Even the veteran players - namely, Mike Mitchell and William Gay - have been totally anonymous this season. The immediate future of Pittsburgh’s secondary doesn’t look particularly bright, and the long-term outlook isn’t much better.
The front office’s offseason decision making, Stock up
Dak Prescott is a really good quarterback, but Dallas is 8-1 because Ezekiel Elliott is on the roster. Nine games into the 2016, this dude has 1,005 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Right now, Zeke is the MVP of the league.
Great running backs are still indispensable components of great offenses. The Steelers already have a great running back in Le’Veon Bell, so the fact that some people support the idea of letting him walk away in free agency blows my mind.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Ben Roethlisberger has four good seasons left. And let’s assume, as precedent has proven, that running backs tend to really fall apart by the time they reach their 29th birthday. With this in mind, it would seem obvious to pair Bell, 24, with Roethlisberger for at least the next four or five seasons.
Aside from Bell, Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers aren’t exactly flush with talent. Keeping a player of Bell’s caliber should be an obvious decision.
The Steelers can certainly slap the franchise tag on Bell this offseason to keep him under team control for one more year (and the probably will), but the head brass should definitely engage in some worthwhile discussions regarding a long-term offer for Bell, who continues to prove that he is the most multi-functional player in the NFL.
Stock down, coaching
Let me preface this by saying that there is a zero percent chance that Mike Tomlin loses his job this offseason. I will eat a raw ghost pepper if he does.
With that said, though, I think it is fair to place Tomlin on the lukewarm seat. The Steelers are not a franchise that experiences four-game losing streaks with any sort of regularity, so having two such streaks in the span of four seasons is slightly alarming.
Regardless of your personal opinions (and I know many of you are not keen on Tomlin), Tomlin is the least of Pittsburgh’s coaching problems. Danny Smith’s (special teams) and Keith Butler’s (defense) units have looked completely lost during this four-game streak, and Todd Haley called four failed two-point conversions against Dallas; the Steelers failed only three such conversions in 11 tries in 2015.
In Smith’s defense, the Steelers were without Shamarko Thomas and Stephen Johnson for most of Sunday’s game, which likely contributed to Lucky Whitehead’s late 39-yard punt return.
Overall, stock down
Sunday’s game didn’t quite quality as a “must-win,” but it was close.
For Pittsburgh, closing the gap between their star players and role players has been incredibly difficult. Defensively, opposing teams are throwing two blockers on Heyward and Ryan Shazier at the line on every play. On offense, coordinators are simply putting two or three guys on Brown and stacking their fronts to stop Bell. Stopping the Steelers is as easy as stopping their superstars.
Pittsburgh simply isn’t getting solid contributions from the other guys. The team desperately misses guys like Heath Miller and Martavis Bryant, who served as reliable second or third options to give Brown more space to operate. If the Steelers are going to turn their season around (which they easily can; Baltimore and Cincinnati don’t look any better than Pittsburgh), the second, third and fourth options must step up.
If the Steelers rely entirely on the offensive big three and two or three guys on defense, these last seven games will quickly become meaningless.