For once in my life, I’ll make this short and to the point: WTF was that I just watched???

That game was a meal of an uneasy feeling appetizer, a main course of bad QB play served with sides of injuries and serious offensive line malfunction. The usual gem-marring defensive breakdowns for dessert. Would you like fries with that?

Wallow along with me in my tears and indigestion, because that was a game that offered basically only suffering until Mason Rudolph came in and played like every in-game replacement Steelers QB has this year– which is to say, about 3 orders of magnitude better than any of them has played as a starter. For a few minutes of football, Rudolph was not only better than Hodges, and he was not only good, I’d dare to say he was great. And then they talked with him at halftime and got him to play conservatively with that lead, er, tie score and things went back to basically nothing to cheer for. And then, because he is a Steelers key position player in 2019, he does what they all do: he got injured.

Then Hodges––in a move I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before (a QB removed for sucking coming back into the game) ended up having a chance to tie/win the game, which was surreal. And, like the other replacement QBs who’ve come off the bench, he suddenly played a little better than he had been and moved the team into scoring position, down 3. And then the offensive line lost its collective mind. Ramon Foster missed his assignment, allowing Quinnen Williams a free run at Hodges, sacking him without a chance to throw, even though the play was a rollout to the opposite side. On the next play, BJ Finney decided he hadn’t done enough by, on his first snap replacing Maurkice Pouncey, sacking Mason Rudolph by getting pile-driven back into the QB… this time he decided to show he’s Pouncey’s equal by snapping the ball low and away from Hodges, killing the play and knocking the Steelers completely out of FG range.

The Steelers suddenly have multiple QBs who start off great and get shell-shocked, an OL who can’t handle stunts/blitzes, RBs who either can’t stay healthy or can’t pass protect, TEs who are nearly invisible because they play in the middle where rookie QBs can’t see them (or backside defenders in coverage, apparently) and let’s not get started on WRs who are pro bowlers one year and can’t adjust to or catch the football in crunch time.

But, just to get back to this QB off the bench thing: what exactly are we saying in the young QB’s ears all week when they prepare to start? Are we hammering home conservative play? Scaring them? I mean, the longer they started, Mason Rudolph became Duck Hodges, who became Mason Rudolph. Maybe the Steelers coaching staff can get in Paxton Lynch’s ear and make this a three-way race to the bottom.

You think I’m joking about the starting vs relief appearances? Here are the numbers, see for yourself:
Off the bench: 42/66 458 yds 63.6% 4 TD / 1 INT 6.9 YPA 97.9 QB rating
Starting: 264/425 2657 yds 62.1% 14 TD / 17 INT 6.3 YPA 74.2 QB rating

Sure, some of that is exposure; teams get to prepare for the young guy, get some tape on him, etc. But just from watching them, it sure seems like we break their confidence by treating them like we’re scared of them instead of building something for them to drive to victory. Or maybe it’s just too much to ask to have two inconsistent and inexperienced starters, a #1 RB who can’t stay healthy for even one complete game these days, a #1 WR who has had a season to forget, and the aforementioned OL and coaching staff, who are in seeming competition to see which can get them PSTD the most thoroughly.

Even including the off-the bench play bump, the 2019 Steelers QBs are 31st in YPA, 32nd in passing 1st downs, 32nd in % of throws that resulted in 1st down, 31st in completions over 20 yards, 28th in TD passes, 31st in INTs, and 32nd in starting QB QB rating. You can’t really overstate how bad the passing game has been.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s the Steelers run game rankings vs the league: 30th in yards per rush, 31st in rushing TDs, 29th in rushing 1st downs, 30th in 1st down %, 31st in DVOA

Ladies & gentlemen, I present your Pittsburgh Steelers _ffense! SEND FOR THE CART!!!

And, to add insult to injuries, the team we follow just punted from the opponent’s 40 yard line, on 4th and 7, down 3, with less than 16 minutes left in a game where just getting to the Jets side of the field was a rarity. I guarantee you that fancypants analytics guy the Steelers have on staff and rarely listen to had to go to the blue tent after that call.

On the ensuing Jets possession, the Steelers defense did get the stop on 3rd down, but Benny Snell went across the line of scrimmage on 4th down when the Jets center picked his head up (sound familiar Steelers fans, like where Pittsburgh was called for false start on the same type play just last week?) and was called for encroachment, despite the fact that Snell came back onto his side of the LOS before anyone on the Jets moved. Have we just stopped allowing the defender to get back onsides? They are officiating like it’s High School, and the quality of the officiating is as bad as it is in High School games, so I guess that fits.

Anyway, after that phantom penalty extended the Jets drive, they completely flipped field position and the Steelers were no better off for having forgone the 4th and 7 attempt.

Side note: As bad as the Snell encroachment call was, the worst call of the NFL week goes to the officials in Seatlle/Arizona, who dropped a flag for an illegal blindside block that erased a great Pharoah Cooper punt return TD. Only problem with the call: the blindside blocker and the guy who got “blindside blocked” were both running side by side in the same direction on the field and neither turned. I mean, it’s no wonder officials are missing basic calls––they’re obsessively looking for calls on plays where there’s zero reason to throw a flag.)

Despite the brain-dead call of punting from the opponent’s 40, those that want to use this game as an example of how Tomlin’s teams always lay an egg or play down to bad teams, two things:

1. The Jets aren’t any worse than the Steelers, talent-wise. They have some studs on D and a young, inconsistent QB with unproven targets. Hell, the Jets might have more talent on the field, with Quinnen Williams and Jamal Adams back starting. It wasn’t a game where the Steelers looked the better team but lost anyway; it looked like a game where their offense was the worst-case scenario and their defense who needed to be perfect blew one coverage that turned out to be the difference in the game. TE Trevon Wesco found himself uncovered when it appeared Devin Bush went with the crossing slot receiver by mistake, and that 32 yard gain led to a 37-yard FG that was the difference in the game.

2. How’d you like to be the Seattle Seahawks, who were all set up to get the #1 seed in the NFC, until they lost AT HOME, to a 3-win team whose QB was knocked out during the game, by multiple scores (should have been at least 11 points more due to bad officiating)!!! Now that was a letdown/trap game if ever there was one. How’d you like to be on today? Ouch.

Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of coaching problems. The offensive problems are a snake with at least two heads. One obvious head is that the OL, QB, RBs, and WRs seem incapable of consistent play. I can give the WRs some pass… they’re young and the guys throwing them the ball have been injured, even more inexperienced than the receiving corps, and wildly inconsistent. but that’s all the more reason you can’t drop easy balls and why you can’t make as poor an effort as JuJu did on the last play, with the game and probably the season on the line. The RBs are also a 2nd year guy transitioning from being a jack-of-all-trades, two rookies, and a guy who used to be good when he didn’t have a list of injuries that would make the first half of Ben Roethlisberger’s career proud.

The QBs, I get. their combined performance is no worse than rookie Peyton Manning. This is what rookie QBs not named Ben Roethlisberger or Patrick Mahomes generally look like. But to me the biggest blame goes to the veteran and best unit on the offense: the OL. If your veteran, multi pro-bowling, strong track record OL can’t play consistent football for an entire drive, let alone a whole half of football, then everything else you try to do is in serious peril. I get that Ben isn’t there to call out a favorable protection or audible out of a bad run fit, but some way, somehow, your best players have to get the job done.

Then there’s the other head of the snake: making game plans and coaching decisions that have as their basis your offense performing consistently. Have a run-based offense depends thoroughly and inarguably on everyone doing their job. Getting it to work enough to turn the chains and set up other things on offense requires not just doing your job, but doing it consistently. You are going to have more plays per yard and that means you have to execute nearly perfectly to keep ahead of down and distance. This is especially true when you don’t have a HOF QB you can count on to bail you out of unfavorable down and distances more often than not.

The problems are so chicken and egg that I honestly don’t know that it’s worth trying to unravel it. Is there a reduced playbook and little eye candy because the young QBs haven’t gotten far enough along yet? Are they putting too much on their plate and causing the week’s preparations to get in the way of just playing football? Is the offensive line simply missing the Munchak effect? Do the RBs just make what’s there and no more? Are the TEs healthy? I the OC unimaginative? Does the Head Coach insist on boring, 4-min offense football? Is it ALL of the above? Who can tell?

Weirdly enough, this team is still not eliminated from a playoff spot with one game to go. If I had predicted that after week 2, no one would have believed it to be true. Everyone would have been thrilled with that possibility. And, yet, here we are: complaining our asses off about how they lost a road game in December with a young QB who suddenly lost himself, one who got knocked out during his redemption appearance, and a whole team of not quite perfect enough to win.

It would be no less ridiculous to go into Baltimore and beat a team with nothing to play for than it would be to go to Baltimore and get smoked by their 3rd team. So… tune in next week for another adventure of How Not to Score Without Really Trying.