Sometimes these articles write themselves.
With a 21-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have now lost three games in a row for the first time since 2013, which saw Pittsburgh open the season with four straight losses.
The midseason themes are pretty straightforward thus far: the Steelers are a supposedly Super Bowl-caliber team that can’t seem to defeat bad teams.
Maybe its time to consider if the Steelers are, in fact, actually a good team.
Entering Sunday’s contest, the Steelers ranked 11th in the NFL in total offense, which is certainly commendable, but not necessarily in line with their preseason goals, especially after finishing in the top five overall in 2014 and 2015. The defense, which was never going to be a particularly stout unit, is ranked 26th in the league in total yards allowed. While these statistics don’t tell the full story of Pittsburgh’s season, they do serve as a pretty reliable reference point.
Eight games into the 2016 season, the Steelers are just what their record shows; an average team.
Remarkably, the Steelers are still just a half game back from Baltimore in the AFC North standings by way of Baltimore’s head-to-head tiebreaker, so a playoff run is still not out of the question.
Stock down - Pittsburgh’s bragging rights
The Steelers have not defeated the Ravens since November of 2014. That’s four straight losses for those of you keeping score at home. More troublingly, Pittsburgh’s inability to beat Baltimore isn’t a recent trend, as the Steelers are 3-9 against the Ravens in their last 12 meetings. I’ve used this analogy before, but if Alabama lost to Auburn with the frightening regularity that Pittsburgh loses to Baltimore, Nick Saban would be long gone from Tuscaloosa.
This isn’t a shot at Mike Tomlin. Tomlin can’t run the plays himself.
The Ravens are the Steelers’ daddies. The Steelers can always lean on the Super Bowls, but at this point its fair to ask ‘what have you done for me lately’?
Stock up - Every defensive coordinator in the NFL (except Keith Butler)
The Ravens proved that you can put three dudes on Antonio Brown and eight on Le’Veon Bell and still win the game. Ancillary guys like Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers should have had field days, but instead remained anonymous (Coates actually dropped a touchdown that would’ve cut Baltimore’s lead to seven with just over four minutes remaining in the game). It doesn’t take a professional football mind to realize that Bell and Brown are the key nuclei of Pittsburgh’s offensive attack.
Stock down - Mike Mitchell
Anything that I can possibly say about Mitchell has already been said. Though everyone on the team has struggled, it seems as if Pittsburgh’s tackling issues typically begin and end with Mitchell.
Mike Mitchell’s cap hit in 2017 will be just over $8 million. Just saying.
Stock up - Young building blocks
Despite how bad Sunday’s game looked, the defense was generally solid (save for Mitchell and the penalties, which we will address in a minute). Specifically, LB Ryan Shazier and CB Artie Burns both played well and look to be excellent building blocks for the Steelers defense moving forward. Pittsburgh’s porous run defense rebounded by holding the Ravens to just 50 yards after surrendering nearly 400 ground yards to Miami and New England in Weeks 6 and 7, thanks in no small part to Cameron Heyward’s efforts. We already knew that Shazier and Heyward are invaluable components are Pittsburgh’s defense, but Burns is well on his way to joining them.
Stock down - The season ahead
At 4-4, the Steelers are very much in the thick of the AFC playoff race. Roethlisberger is only going to get healthier in the weeks ahead, and Pittsburgh’s offense has proven to be among the most potent units in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s tackling and discipline (imagine being in Tomlin’s locker room after committing 14 penalties for nearly 100 yards) absolutely must improve, but the Steelers do have the ability to rebound.
Unless, of course, the Steelers truly are as enigmatic as they’ve looked so far this season.
Pittsburgh has looked every bit a Super Bowl contender in their four wins, but have looked like a team worthy of a top-three draft pick in their four losses. The Steelers will get a crack at the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys next Sunday at Heinz Field before battling the Browns in Week 11 and the underachieving Colts on Thanksgiving in Week 12. It won’t get any easier from there, with games against the suddenly-hot New York Giants, along with tough divisional games against Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Fortunately, the Steelers tend to play well in December. Hopefully they still have something to play for.