The first quarter of the 2015 NFL regular season is history and Steelers Nation is embroiled in one of its biggest donnybrooks in recent years. First, the team lost its starting placekicker and center. Its star running back and emerging-star wide receiver already were known to be missing-in-action for a portion or all of the early schedule due to substance-related offenses. Then, major disaster struck in St. Louis, when Big Ben went down with a sprained MCL and an indefinite timetable for return.
A rusty, out-of-shape Michael Vick took control of the offense. Seeing his first regular-season action of the year in a pair of games played only four days apart, Vick has created the impression that he's familiar with maybe 30 percent of Coach Todd Haley's offensive playbook. The Steelers' offense promptly transformed from the irresistible force that blasted the San Francisco 49ers out of Heinz Field into a Punch-and-Judy show that any NFL defense can readily stop dead in its tracks.
Kicker Josh Scobee demonstrated to the entire football world why his services weren't exactly in high demand when Shaun Suisham went down and the Steelers dialed his number. Now Scobee has been given a one-way ticket to Palookaville and the Steelers have signed Chris Boswell, a former Rice University kicker signed as a free agent in 2014 by the Houston Texans. Boswell's paper-thin resume also includes a brief period spent with the New York Giants before he was waived prior to the start of the current season.
The cumulative impact of these setbacks has rendered the Nation apoplectic, as Pittsburgh fandom has devolved into an orgy of ugly recriminations and hard drinking, either behavior to be considered as fairly typical in the wake of such a tough Steelers' defeat. In this toxic atmosphere, the very same performance that might have been toasted throughout the Burgh had the Ravens not come back to win in OT was widely viewed as a blunder on the order of Little Big Horn or the Bay of Pigs. Bearers of torches and pitchforks hurled expletives in the direction of anyone detected in the vicinity of the Heinz Field crime scene, where an evening honoring Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis was rudely spoiled by the home team.
As my path weaved through a maze of profanities, broken beer bottles, Terrible Towels and mutilated Scobee jerseys, I paused to reflect on the root causes of the Pittsburgh Steelers' current dilemma, while entertaining the chilling thought that things might actually get considerably worse before we start to see any light at the end of the tunnel.
The St. Louis Story
It may be difficult to accept, but something clearly was awry in St. Louis before Mike Vick made his regular-season debut on the field. For more than two quarters with Ben Roethlisberger calling signals, the Steelers' vaunted offense was clinging to a slim 9-3 advantage and struggling to pull away from the lowly Rams. The ample pass protection that Ben enjoyed in the previous week seemed to evaporate, and No. 7 had been ducking Rams defenders throughout the first half, before being sacked for the third and final time at the 5:35 mark in the third quarter.
The series on which Ben was hurt was especially telling in the manner that it unfolded. After running 10 plays and advancing the ball from their own 20-yard line to midfield, Aaron Donald burst through the Steelers' OL on first down and sacked Roethlisberger for an 8-yard loss. Then, on second-and-18, when the Rams knew Ben would be passing, disaster struck. Unfortunately, fans of the Black-and-Gold have seen essentially this same sequence occur many times before, when the offense drives 30-40 yards and then stalls on early downs, forcing Ben to drop back and, many times, take sacks. This ingrained pattern is a remnant of the Bruce Arians era, when merely moving the sticks to sustain a drive was considered a cheap substitute for heaving the ball downfield in hopes of a quick strike. In the past, this approach made Ben one of the most frequently sacked and physically battered quarterbacks in the NFL. In St. Louis, reverting to their sandlot habits only succeeded in removing the Steelers' most valuable player and unquestioned leader from the lineup for four weeks or more.
It's always tempting to be sucked in by the notion that, because all NFL players are professionals, you can simply plug in a new guy and keep rolling merrily along. But it's painfully obvious, based on the two games in which Vick has played, that it'll take more time before he's in sync with his receivers and capable of running a broader range of plays. On Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens, there was little doubt that a general and broad-based failure of the Steelers' offense, precisely when the game was on the line, had destroyed any chance of victory.
Josh Scobee served as a convenient target for the lynch mob by missing FG attempts from 49 and 41 yards. But immediately prior to the two wayward kicks that sealed Scobee's fate, the Steelers' offense had run three consecutive series on which they netted a total of zero yards. This was despite a valiant effort by the Steelers' defense, repeatedly stopping the Ravens and giving the ball back to Vick and company. But the best they could do with these golden opportunities was to set up a 41-yard FG attempt.
There's no doubt that Mike Tomlin's decision-making during the latter portion of Thursday's game left much to be desired, and it's certainly true that either one of Scobee's missed kicks would have provided the margin of victory. But the roots of this team's current woes run far deeper than mere coaching errors or the sorry state of its admittedly awful kicking game. An offensive line widely expected to be one of the team's key strengths in 2015 has played inconsistently throughout the first four games. At the same time, the offense is working with a backup quarterback and currently with its second substitute placekicker of the year. Unfortunately, these positions just happen to be the two most crucial to the team's ability to score points.
Long Road Ahead
It was impossible to witness Thursday night's game without concluding that the wheels have fallen off of the Steelers' wagon. In what might have been one of Joe Flacco's worst-ever performances against the Steelers, the home team still failed to secure the win. And ever since this season began, the Steelers haven't yet been able to put anything approaching a complete cast of characters on the field at the same time. When you think about it, it's surprising that Pittsburgh has been able to manage even its current 2-2 record.
It might help somewhat to appreciate that, under circumstances like these, nobody is going to look very good—not the head coach, not the offensive coordinator and, certainly, not stopgap players like Vick or Scobee who have been plucked from semi-retirement and thrown into the breach because of the untimely rash of injuries. The unvarnished truth about the first quarter of this season is that the Steelers haven't yet defeated a single playoff contender. The two teams they have defeated likely will never find themselves within sniffing distance of the playoffs this year. Now they've suffered a dismal home defeat at the hands of perhaps the weakest Ravens team ever to show up at Heinz Field.
So if you're one of those incurable optimists seeking a ray of hope in this hour of darkness for Steelers Nation, you'd better hope that a new-and-improved Mike Vick shows up in San Diego and that Big Ben returns to the field within a reasonable time period. Barring one or both of these developments, this team is going to have trouble winning games, no matter who their opponents might be. The angry mob will then have a wide selection of targets to blame for every negative thing that unfolds. The trolls will march in lockstep and even the most absurd suggestions for turning this ship around will gain a modicum of credibility.
But during this period of ugliness, it might be helpful for Steelers fans to exhibit some patience, bearing in mind that it's very tough for any football organization to adapt successfully when their team clearly is more than just a few bricks shy. For the time being at least, all of the coaching strategies and player substitutions under the sun aren't likely to make much difference.