Yesterday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered Lincoln Financial Field against the upstart Philadelphia Eagles with both teams looking to go 3-0. The day ended with a 34-3 drubbing at the hands of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and the dynamic Eagles defense that made the "potent" Steelers offense look inept. However, the sky is not falling in Pittsburgh (yet).
There were a lot of worsts in this game: it was the worst loss in the strong ten year career of head coach Mike Tomlin (31 point margin, which now surpasses that 2011 28-point annihilation at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, 35-7). It was the worst performance by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, whose offense only put up less than 300 yards of offense and 3 total points (his lowest point total in nearly 70 games as the play caller). As for the defensive coordinator Keith Butler, well, you could argue losing legitimately to a rookie quarterback (which previous defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau only did once, which was to Brandon Weeden, and the Steelers offense turned the ball over eight times to accomplish that) and giving up over 400-yards of offense and 34 points is the nadir of his 19 game career as defensive signal caller.
As for the players, well, Markus Wheaton looked like he should have been inactive again, dropping more passes than catching them. For DeAngelo Williams, the toast of the town in the first two weeks, it was less than a pedestrian day. The offensive line looked like a sieve, especially after Ramon Foster left the game with injury, especially the newly-resigned David DeCastro, who played what was perhaps his worst game of his professional career.
Ben Roethlisberger did not have a good game, missing his receivers much more than anticipated, especially for someone of his caliber. Big Ben completed less than 55-percent of his passes for consecutive weeks, which had not occurred since the 2008 season. Antonio Brown got his numbers, but it was all for naught.
The defense suffered injuries to just about everyone outside of the defensive line. Artie Burns and Sean Davis missed more tackles again. Ryan Shazier was in and out of the lineup with a balky knee. The field goal unit allowed a field goal block to Bennie Logan, which now looking back, set the tone for the Steelers’ dreary day in Philadelphia.
The good thing is, this loss only counts as one loss. However, was this loss a sign of things to come, or was this a humbling moment necessary for a talented but cocky team that needed a reality check? Yes, Le’Veon Bell will be back next Sunday against Kansas City. But is Le’Veon Bell really going to save the Steelers? Do the Steelers need saving?
With the emotions of the aftermath now mostly dissipated, the Steelers will need to refocus and get back to the drawing board. While there is no doubting the talent potential of Wentz and the speed of the Eagles front seven, this game was also about all of the missed opportunities that the Steelers did not capitalize on (such as the dropped touchdown pass by Wheaton). There is no single solution to fix the Steelers’ woes but several things must occur: one, the offensive line must work more efficiently. The lack of running spaces for the second consecutive week was alarming. Sure, Bell is great at finding holes, perhaps the best in the league at this task; however, it would be unfair to place all of the pressure on Bell when he returns. Only running the ball ten total times (with five of them coming on the first drive) cannot occur again. This offense will not come close to its goal of 30 plus points per game if the offensive line continues to be outworked.
On defense, who would have figured that a team which had 48 sacks last season would have one sack through three games? Sure, the lack of talent is quite apparent, but this team had the same personnel last season too, and if anything, the additions of Javon Hargrave and Ricardo Mathews was supposed to make this defense better. Instead, Butler’s men have given up a lot of yards in every game thus far (which a lot of people were OK with) but now have given up more points against the Eagles than the previous two games combined. That is unacceptable. The lack of pressure on Wentz was painful to watch.
This will be an issue against a smart veteran quarterback with strong mobility like Alex Smith, who the Steelers will face next week. While personnel changes might be too much to ask for (such as replacing the poor tackling rookie Sean Davis with Shamarko Thomas or Jordan Dangerfield), scheme and tactical changes should be in the works for this upcoming week. No more "bend but don’t break". That might have worked against Kirk Cousins. It might have also worked against Andy Dalton. It certainly did not work against Carson Wentz and it will not work against Alex Smith.
As for Mike Tomlin, he has always had the respect of the men who play for him and coach under him. A head coach should be judged by how his players respond to adversity and while this might be the darkest moment (thus far) of the 2016 season, it has a chance to be Tomlin’s finest hour. What better way to bounce back from an embarrassing loss than to propel a team to a long winning streak that will have the Steelers playing for playoff seeding instead of hopes for a playoff berth? This is that such moment for Tomlin. Hopefully, Steeler Nation can look at this weekend the same way the New England Patriots looked at a Monday Night drubbing at the hands of Kansas City Chiefs in 2014. It is too early to tell how this season will shake out, but there is a lot of football left and the story of the 2016 Steelers continues to be written.
Whether this Eagles game will ultimately lead to a happy ending or not….well, come see me in three-four months, but I am betting on this being a turning point for the best instead of the beginning of the end.