In a game that unfolded exactly opposite to what many expected, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense trashed superb efforts by both the defense and a raucous hometown crowd at Heinz Field, handing the game on a silver platter to the almost equally hapless Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth quarter. But long before a pair of mind-boggling interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger destroyed whatever chance Pittsburgh had for victory, a game billed as a clash between two of the NFL's better teams had devolved into a comedy of errors.
In fact, the Bengals made enough key errors at critical points to lose three or four games, but the Steelers once again failed to put a beatable opponent out of its misery, despite having ample scoring opportunities in the second half. But what really gave this game its Twilight Zone feeling was the fact that the Steelers' offense was led, not by Landry Jones or Mike Vick, but by the Steelers' franchise quarterback. Not only did Roethlisberger fail to help his team when the game was on the line, but he managed to thwart a superb performance by the defense with ill-advised passes that wound up in the hands of Bengal defenders. Steelers Nation simply isn't accustomed to having No. 7 appear on the Losers list but, after this performance, you'd have to agree that Big Ben not only is on the list, but leading the pack.
The disastrous loss of Le'Veon Bell to a season-ending knee injury is only the latest of many forbidding signs indicating that 2015 simply may not be the Steelers' year. Even more troubling than Bell's absence for the remainder of this season, and even worse than having Big Ben already miss more than a month of action with his own injury, the Black-and-Gold as a team have utterly failed to establish any sort of consistency during the first half of the season. This nagging inconsistency not only has characterized the players on the field, but also their coaches.
Once again at Heinz Field on Sunday, we witnessed the same failure to implement a coherent offensive game plan. This trait has hounded the team in almost every game this season. Thus, whereas the initial (and only) Steelers' TD drive showcased a diverse and effective approach, this also marked the last time when anyone saw this kind of offensive football for the rest of the afternoon. It appeared that they suddenly had forgotten the plays which had been so successful in the first quarter. And in honor of Halloween, it seemed that Bruce Arians had donned a Todd Haley disguise on the Steelers' sideline, as Roethlisberger launched pass after pass into the teeth of a Bengals' secondary clearly aligned to stop the long ball.
Unfortunately, the Steelers' problems obviously run deeper that simple bad luck or injuries. You can say that Ben was rusty in his first game back, and that's certainly true. You can also say that losing Bell totally alters the character of Pittsburgh's offense. No argument there either. You can even point out that the Steelers' defense, including a much-maligned secondary, is playing far better than anyone expected—to the place where it's essentially carrying the entire team. But at the same time and for whatever reason, this team and its coaching staff have failed to sustain any sort of consistent approach to their game-planning during the first half of this season.
Instead of consistency, what Steelers fans have witnessed is a herky-jerky offense that apparently cannot decide whether it wants to run the football or heave it deep. This uneven approach means that opponents never need to worry about stopping the pesky sort of dinks and dunks that teams like the New England Patriots have developed into a science. Every Steelers opponent knows that Pittsburgh either will try to ram Bell down their throats or go deep to its wide receivers. And in the wake of the loss to Cincinnati, the Steelers now retain only half of their overall strike force.
By no means, however, does a 4-4 mid-season record indicate that the Steelers are dead and buried. No matter what the Ben-haters might say, those who follow this team realize that No. 7 will be back next week and in the weeks to come, resuming the level of play that makes him one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. But even though we like to think that Ben can come back from more than a month without playing and not miss a beat, it was pretty obvious on Sunday that we weren't watching the same guy playing against the Bengals. Similarly, as big a blow as it is to lose Bell, DeAngelo Williams is no slouch as a running back. So there's no reason why Pittsburgh can't continue to run effectively with No. 34 in the backfield.
Defensively, you can't ask for much more than the performances we've seen. In fact, it wouldn't be too surprising for this unit to be widely recognized as one of the best in the NFL by the end of this season. There's a good reason why high-scoring teams like Arizona and Cincinnati have had so little success against the Steelers, and it appears that the team is starting to harvest the fruits of some excellent drafts in recent years.
With a couple of home games on tap against the Raiders and Browns, the team has a good opportunity to get itself back on track offensively, even without Bell in the lineup. But whatever the Steelers do from this point forward, their offense must develop a lot more consistency or they might be staring at another lost season.
During the first half of this season, Pittsburgh has been flummoxed by suspensions and injuries to key players. At the same time, the high-powered offense so widely touted during the preseason hasn't yet materialized, with the exception of an easy win over the hapless San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. If the Steelers are to have any shot whatsoever at a playoff berth, these personnel issues cannot persist during the second half of the season. Furthermore, Coach Tomlin and Todd Haley need to reassess the offensive unit they're putting on the field, now minus the explosive Bell. They must find a way to compensate for his absence, possibly by getting some new players involved in the offense.
Something that stuck out like a sore thumb on Sunday was the Steelers' excessive reliance on early-down passes and deep throws in general. This is precisely the one-dimensional approach that many fans hated when Bruce Arians was on Pittsburgh's coaching staff. As we've seen in recent weeks, this definitely is not an approach conducive to sustaining drives or scoring TDs. And as great a player as No. 7 might be, there are certain situations where he's probably not the best one to be making play-calls.
The loss at home to the Bengals should serve as a cold slap in the face for this team and its organization. It has been said that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing while expecting a different result. For the past eight regular season games, the Steelers haven't altered their basic approach, despite suffering a number of key injuries. But with half of the season now in the books, it's painfully obvious that the same old ways aren't working anymore. It's also clear that this team still hasn't achieved anything remotely resembling an offensive identity, let alone becoming the powerhouse offense that many fans anticipated.