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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ problems are more than skin deep

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In a season where the Black-and-gold struggled repeatedly against inferior competition, and when individual issues often seemed to overshadow team goals, the end of the line was predictable.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Periodically, reality intrudes on our leisure pursuits and—once in a while—it can blow your boat totally out of the water. Such was the case for yours truly on the most important Sunday of the entire season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Caught in the midst of relocating from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay, Florida, I was able only to listen to the ESPN Radio play-by-play of the Steelers’ Divisional Round playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. And because I was traveling at the time, the car radio reception occasionally faded out at some inopportune moments.

When Jacksonville scored its third unanswered touchdown to take a 21-0 lead in the second quarter—and then jumped back to a 21-point advantage later in the quarter when Telvin Smith returned a Ben Roethlisberger fumble for a touchdown—it seemed highly unlikely the Steelers would be able to dig their way out of the hole they had created for themselves. As it turned out, and despite Big Ben’s heroic comeback attempt, it was a hill too steep to climb on their way to a stunning 45-42 defeat.

When your season record is 13-3 and you earn the No. 2 seed, it’s easy to ignore some of the problems that had been glaringly obvious since September. For quite some time, we’ve known that the Steelers occasionally play down to the level of their opponents. We typically wince in anticipation of these matchups on our schedule which bear all the earmarks of dreaded “trap games.” But during the 2017 regular season, there was a significant and troubling difference. No longer does the Black-and-gold struggle occasionally with teams they should beat handily. In 2017, the Steelers struggled consistently with most of the teams on their schedule and regardless of whether they were facing a veteran quarterback or a backup.

But as long as the wins kept piling up, Steelers Nation generally dismissed the fact that their heroes had compiled arguably the most dubious 13-3 regular-season record in NFL history. If this judgment seems overly harsh, consider the following six-pack of examples:

  1. Opening the season by defeating the awful Cleveland Browns by a mere 3 points.
  2. Losing to the forlorn Chicago Bears in Week 3 by six points.
  3. Getting blown out of Heinz Field in Week 5 by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
  4. Coming off of their Week-9 bye to pull out a narrow 20-17 win versus the Indy Colts.
  5. Winning a 31-28 squeaker at Heinz Field in Week 12 against a Green Bay Packers team minus Aaron Rodgers.
  6. Following their narrow win over the Pack with two more squeakers in Weeks 13 and 14 versus the Bengals and Ravens (games Pittsburgh won by a combined total of four points).

Of course, we heard all sorts of excuses for the obvious reality that neither the Steelers’ offense nor their defense had demonstrated any real capacity for playing consistent football. Probably the most outlandish excuse I recall was the notion that perhaps the Steelers were simply taking advantage of a fortuitous 2017 schedule by toying with the NFL while marshaling their energies for the postseason.

This is typical of the wishful thinking that was punctured on January 14 in plain view of what was widely expected to be a triumphant home crowd in Pittsburgh. By the time the last remaining seconds had ticked off of the scoreboard clock, the chorus of boos reverberating through Heinz Field was loud enough to be plainly audible—even through the radio static in my car. Sports pundits nationwide expressed shock and disbelief that the underdog Jaguars could waltz into Pittsburgh to deliver a knockout blow after previously staggering the Steelers with a 30-9 thrashing in Week 5. We heard that the Steelers had been overconfident—that they had taken their opponents too lightly. Meanwhile, Steelers fans chimed in with broad-brush condemnations of anyone and everyone on the current roster or occupying coaching or front-office positions with the Black-and-gold.

Come to think of it, this defeat actually was a compilation of everything we loved and hated about the Steelers this season. After doing absolutely nothing for the entire first quarter of the game (except turning the ball over twice—once for a Jacksonville TD), the Steelers’ offense went on to play lights-out football for most of the remainder of the game. But unfortunately, Pittsburgh wasn’t playing the Browns or Bengals this time and their trademark, last-ditch rally fell short. The Steelers’ defense couldn’t stop the Jaguars throughout the game, surrendering big chunks of yardage on the ground while also making Blake Bortles look like a far better passer than his career stats suggest.

So now Steelers Nation must confront the harsh reality that the same Pittsburgh defense characterized as young and improving earlier in the season is now in shambles. Despite all of the early-round draft picks and free-agent signings in recent years, a dearth of defensive talent still appears responsible for the many of the team’s problems. And regardless of the occasional spurts tempting us to believe the high-powered offense we’ve anxiously awaited has finally arrived, the overall record of the just-ended season speaks of a unit which continues to operate largely in fits and starts—hardly with the consistency of a team like the defending champion New England Patriots.

As to the core question of why the Steelers failed to extend the progress they made during the 2016 season, we must—as BTSC Editor Jeff Hartman has suggested—look not only at talent issues but also focus on personalities. Despite their undeniable talent on the gridiron, for example, we must take account of the impact of major distractions created during the 2017 season by Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. At some level, it must be determined whether the talent benefit these players bring to the table is truly worth their obvious (and apparently incessant) needs to have their egos stroked.

Regardless of the substantial changes occurring in the NFL during the past decade, players who come to believe they’re larger than the sport itself are biting the hand that feeds them. The fans who pay the fare to support the NFL and all of its various entities are primarily interested in the entertainment value of football as a game. For the most part, fans don’t want to hear about whether one player or another is dissatisfied with his contract—or perhaps might prefer to be traded. When pro football becomes more like a business than a sport—filled with greedy, self-interested parties—the appeal is deflated as surely as a game ball in Tom Brady’s custody.

As for the Steelers, they’re out of the playoffs again—not only because they clearly weren’t good enough to reach the Super Bowl, but also because they never developed the cohesion and team focus necessary to achieve that lofty goal. And make no mistake—it’ll be a long, tough road merely for the Black-and-gold to get another shot at the Big Dance. That’s true because, while the Steelers appear to have taken a step backwards from their 2016 season, other teams in the league continue to improve. So Mike Tomlin and the Steelers’ front office definitely have their work cut out for them in the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft and beyond.