The 2018 regular season may be recalled as the time when the weight of plain evidence forced the Pittsburgh Steelers and their worldwide fan base to stop pretending. Ever since the Black-and-gold’s 1970s heydey, the team and its organization have enjoyed the reputation as a consistent winner bolstered by a stable organization, sage drafting, solid coaching and key players that, when the chips were down, could be counted on to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In large part, this is the meaning of slogans such as “the standard is the standard” and “the Steeler Way.”
But in the wake of yet another lost season — one even more disappointing than the preceding four seasons dating back to 2014 — it’s no longer possible to pretend this is a team building towards another championship. Steelers Nation was given fair warning in the first four games of the current season, when the team stumbled to a 1-2-1 mark. But their subsequent 6-game winning streak changed the picture to what once appeared to be a commanding 7-2-1 record in the AFC North following their narrow Week-11 win at Jacksonville.
At that heady time, few Steelers fans could imagine the Black-and-gold’s utter collapse during the final six games of the season. During this stretch run, when they should have been honing their game for playoff competition, they posted a dismal 2-4 record — enabling the Baltimore Ravens to claim the divisional title largely by default. In the process, the Steelers offered compelling evidence that they no longer warrant mention among a declining group of NFL championship contenders.
While the specific reasons are myriad for Pittsburgh ‘s free fall from a 13-3 record in 2017 to this season’s 9-6-1 mark, it’s the big picture which is particularly troubling. A chronically underachieving offense — plus a still-patchwork defense — speaks of major issues concerning the team’s drafting, coaching and player development efforts in recent years. While the Steelers have won 10 games or more in four of the past five seasons, they’ve never been truly competitive during this period in the all-important playoffs.
Essentially, the Steelers are still employing the very same offensive formula they've used since the tenure of former OC Bruce Arians. Ben Roethlisberger alluded to this trademark approach in his post-game comments when he said that, for better or worse, he’s always been willing to take chances as a quarterback — and he noted that taking these risks sometimes backfires. But an even bigger problem is the fact that, during the past several seasons, this offense hasn’t truly evolved despite the injections of new talent. Thus, the Steelers might have the dubious distinction of being the most predictable offense in the league. They seem to believe that execution alone will win the day — even when opposing defenses are well prepared and know exactly what to expect.
Perhaps this represents a throwback to the days when the Black-and-gold truly were good enough that, even when opponents knew what was coming, they couldn’t stop it. The legacy of offensive stars such as Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Heath Miller still plays a role in the expectations of Steelers fans, even though only Roethlisberger and a few members of his offensive line remain as links to the last team to reach the Super Bowl. Clearly, this also is the reason why Big Ben has stated repeatedly that his willingness to return to the gridiron depends principally on the return of Maurkice Pouncey and his offensive line mates.
Defensively, the Steelers appear to be stuck in a one-step-forward/two-steps-back pattern. While each season brings renewed hope that evidence of a regenerated Steel Curtain might emerge, the reality is that Pittsburgh’s defense remains just as unreliable as the offense when a game (or the season) is on the line. It’s no secret that some key defensive positions (linebacker in particular) are currently manned by players who likely would be warming the bench on other NFL teams. But given the lack of support they received from the offense in 2018, it’s legitimate to question how much these defensive shortcomings matter in a league firmly committed to high-scoring shootouts. Even the best defenses will crack when their offensive teammates fail to put points on the scoreboard.
Hope springs eternal
Undoubtedly, and as further hinted by the mystery surrounding recent reports of the true reasons for Antonio Brown's absence from the season finale at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a team in disarray as players depart for their offseason pursuits. After several seasons in which they appeared to be knocking on the door — perhaps just “a few bricks shy” as the slogan goes — they crashed and burned in 2018. This speaks poorly, not only of Head Coach Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff, but of the entire Steelers organization. Perhaps the most damning evidence of this organizational failure is the fact that, throughout the 2018 season, the team platooned several players — not mainly due to injuries — but because no clear starters emerged. This is a pattern we might expect during the preseason, but it’s continuance during the regular season cost the team dearly.
Among the ruins of this lost season, where does Steelers Nation now find a ray of hope? The answer can be found simply by watching the rogue’s gallery of NFL hopefuls who will compete for what gradually is becoming the not-so-super, Super Bowl. Similar to the Steelers’ narrow win over the Bengals, the AFC North divisional champion Baltimore Ravens had a tough time dispatching the Cleveland Browns in their must-win game on Sunday, despite playing in front of their home crowd. In a poorly played game marred by botched opportunities, the Ravens nearly blew it, if only Cleveland’s receivers had been able to hold onto the ball during their final drive. Earlier in the game, Cleveland missed a sure TD when the receiver lost track of the ball and it bounced off of his helmet.
Even worse was the Colts-Titans Sunday night game with a Wild Card berth at stake. While the Titans ultimately crumbled under the weight of their own errors, the Colts nearly allowed an offense led by Blaine Gabbert to send them home for the winter. The number of turnovers and egregious penalties in a game of this magnitude was totally unbecoming of teams competing for a shot in the playoffs.
Herein lies the silver lining to the pall of doom that descended upon Steelers Nation at Heinz Field last Sunday evening. The current problem with the Steelers has become a league-wide phenomenon today. Without mincing words and despite their season records, no NFL team is particularly strong or dominant these days. Head coaches in the league have become largely preoccupied with public relations concerns while silently enduring the most obnoxious antics from their high-profile players. Furthermore, as Steelers fans witnessed in the 2018 implosion of kicker Chris Boswell — and to a lesser extent in the virtual disappearance of Stephon Tuitt as a force on the defensive line — the rising stars of promising players sometimes fade quickly, especially once they’ve signed generous contracts. For future reference, this shall be known as the Joe Flacco Effect.
For several years, the NFL has intentionally fomented a free-for-all in terms of league competition, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that their vision has now reached full flower. Likewise, the rising power of big money and big celebrity in pro sports conspires to severely limit the number of variables controllable by team owners and their coaches. For this reason, the league no longer fields truly dominant teams or dominating franchises. Each new season has now become a crap-shoot from which even the dim hopes of Cincinnati’s Bengals or Tampa Bay’s Buccaneers might be rescued by an uncanny, lucky streak.
If, as appears likely, Big Ben returns to fulfill the final year of his contract in 2019, the Steelers will have as sound a shot to reach the big dance as any other team. Conversely and absent any substantial improvements, however, Pittsburgh has an equally good chance in 2019 to miss the playoffs again.
If you truly want to witness what’s wrong with the Steelers — and with the NFL at large — all you need to do is turn on your TV and watch the playoffs. You’ll bear witness to the same inconsistency and sloppiness we’ve seen from the Black-and-gold this season, but you’ll see this among a group of teams which one might reasonably expect to have corrected these issues by this stage of the season.
Play-by-play broadcasters, of course, will continue the ruse that these clumsy, unprepared teams somehow represent the league’s cream of the crop. Regardless of how ugly the spectacle on the gridiron might actually become, they’ll do their level best to portray this season’s contenders as titans of the sport, perhaps poised on the threshold of a new league “dynasty.” While there’s probably a reasonable chance that this season’s Super Bowl victor might represent an entirely new entry in the NFL championship club, the decline in the overall quality of today’s on-field product almost makes me want to see some sense of normalcy restored by rooting for a team that at least possesses a winning tradition. But unfortunately, this might tempt me to root for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots. And of course, once you’ve joined the dark side, then all hope is lost.