(I’m writing this part immediately after the first half, because I wanted it to be fresh in my mind and either:
A. The story of this game is already told or
B it’ll be the tale of two halves with a remarkable turnaround at halftime and a fantastic comeback
Regardless, this will be interesting to revisit when this game is over, provided it doesn’t kill me before it’s over.)
I’m struggling to remember a worse half of football for the Steelers, particularly since Ben has been wearing #7. I mean, like, this is reaching all-time legendary status, and for all the wrong reasons.
Ben might as well be fallen off the oil tanker that is the Steelers organization. He looks like he awoke to find himself in the middle of the Pacific, with no land in sight.
The sea. The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. – James Joyce, Ulysses
Ben has been late on throws, missing receivers, not seeing defenders, throwing into traffic– just thoroughly in a malaise as thick as mayonnaise. He’s had some games sort of this bad, but this is a whopper. He’s thrown a pick, fumbled legitimately once for a huge loss, fumbled without even possessing the ball (I’m not sure that’s possible but this game is proving impossibilities are not so impossible), and basically-–for one of the few times in his career––he’s been the reason his team is getting killed. He’s playing like he completely forgot how to play football.
Sure, his OC can’t throw him a life-preserver by figuring out a way to get the ball to Chase Claypool that isn’t telegraphed and can’t figure out a way to give Ben some easy looks beyond throws near the line of scrimmage. Sure, his OL can rarely and barely get anything resembling push on run plays or can barely pass protect long enough for Ben to wait that extra count to find open receivers. Sure his RBs run tentatively or run out of bounds when the only thing you really don’t want to do is run out of bounds. Sure his receivers look tentative and aren’t fighting for the ball, aren’t running aggressive routes, aren’t breaking down on backshoulder throws. Sure, his defense looks worn out and still susceptible to the big play or difficulties covering RBs. Sure the officials aren’t giving them the benefit of any calls.
But, c’mon. Against this opponent, in a situation where you can win the division, stop all the noise surrounding your team (whether justified or not), and ‘get right’… all Ben needs to do is make the routine plays routinely. He’s put them in this hole, and the only way out of it is for him to step up and out of the funk. Otherwise, it’s the stupid internet/ESPN chatter about Ben has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He is playing exactly now as they incorrectly claimed he was two months ago. Where can he go from here? The second half kickoff is about to happen.
Well, there for a *moment* there, the massive turnaround was on. The defense got a quick 3 and out and, after a bit of a stop and start beginning to the drive, the Steelers appeared to audible into a Chase Claypool screen pass that went for 37 yards and seemed to give the Steelers offense its wake up call. On the next snap, Ben threw a 23-yard TD on a deep sideline ball to Johnson that was as pretty as his severely underthrown first half throw to Chase Claypool was ugly. 7 put 7 on the board, and it suddenly seemed like GAME ON. The Steelers D again provided a quick 3 and out, and the Pittsburgh offense put together a beautiful drive in all respects aside from the final outcome, which ended with a FG. a goal-to-go series started with a Big Ben scramble and near-miss to Claypool in the back of the end zone, then a short rush by Snell, and a fire drill pass protection failure that left Ben no option other than a short desperation throw that Diontae Johnson caught––(causing pretty much every Steelers fan to say, “Wait, of all the passes, he catches THAT one?”). But that drive got it down to 17-10, and it seemed almost inevitable that the Steelers would make it all the way back to at least tie this game. Keyword: almost.
After the defense stopped the Bengals yet again with another 3 and out, the stone of the comeback crumbled a bit with the next Pittsburgh offensive possession. Considering the slim margin of error when you’re trying to come back from 17 points down in one half of football, it may not have seemed like too much of a problem, but after a 9-yard gain on 1st down––a rarity for the Steelers all year––a runaway pass rusher again forced a throwaway accompanied by a Diontae Johnson injury and, with its top 3rd down target out of the game, anyone with a halfway decent knowledge of the Steelers’ offensive motus operandi knew a Benny Snell run was coming. Apparently, the Bengals defense had a halfway decent week studying film. The telegraphed run to Snell wasn’t just stopped, it lost yardage and took with it any thought of going for it on 4th down.
When you put yourself in a 17 point hole, you basically have no margin for error. On either side of the ball. So it was that the game turned back in Cincinnati’s favor.
The Bengals took over with 2:15 left in the 3rd quarter, clinging to a 7-point lead over a suddenly resurgent Steelers team. They proceeded to engineer a 9-play, 80 yard drive with only 1 passing play. The Bengals coaches outsmarted the Pittsburgh coaching staff (words I never thought I’d write) with Ryan Finley runs (something I never thought in a million years I’d write), capped with a 23-yard Finley run up a completely vacated middle. Sure, you can point at Steelers “LB” Marcus Allen––Ryan Finley literally did before relaying the play call in the huddle––who is an undersized 5th LB playing in meaningful games and who got maneuvered out of position on one QB run to convert a 1st down and then annihilated on another, but it was a clear case of the coaches not putting their players in positions to do what they can do best. Sure Allen is small to be your primary middle defender against the run, but his problem is less his size and more that he is the wrong Marcus Allen, in terms of talent. He’s just not good enough to get the number of snaps he’s been getting since Spillane went down.
Speaking of coaching and scheme, the Steelers’ defense came out balls of fire and seemed to have a great plan for slowing the Bengals. But the in-game adjustments––which had been a strength of this defense at one long-ago point of the season––flipped to the point where not only was converted safety Allen playing run defender, run-defending LB Avery Williamson was covering shifty RB Gio Bernard on a red zone play. Add to that EDGE defenders running past the edge on QB keepers and a no-name Cincinnati OL pushing the high-pedigree Steelers DL around in the run game… and all the great coverage plays and pass rush moves couldn’t have put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
On offense, the Steelers’ concepts and game plan at the beginning of games are completely indecipherable. They start the game with a play-action deep ball to Washington, but they give Ben literally no option other than to throw it to Washington for a 50/50 ball or throw it away. Most teams run this concept with a receiver crossing from the left side and coming into Ben’s vision on the right side, so that if the deep ball isn’t there, you get an easy 10-15 yards to the underneath receiver on most occasions. Then they bring Chase Claypool in motion one time and give him the ball the second he went in motion, I said out loud, “Claypool sweep”. They might as well have announced it over the PA system, because Carl Lawson was all over the “deception”. Then they bring James Washington in motion on a crucial handoff to Snell in short-yardage… does anyone think they’re giving it to Washington on the jet sweep? Is anyone fooled for even a nansecond? From the get-go, the pass rush is getting by the offensive line and speeding up Ben’s clock but no one tells the receivers to adjust their routes as they continually run past the backshoulder throw, run out routes too deep, and look for the ball late.
And it’s not just the coaches, either. This team has seemingly unlocked the magic formula for creating completely Jekyll and Hyde players. Diontae Johnson can’t catch anything for three weeks and then catches balls only an acrobat would even attempt to grasp. Ben Roethlisberger looks like an unstoppable scoring machine MVP candidate and then a switch is pulled that transforms him to Cliff Stoudt, only blind. Vance McDonald is a dependable, athletic, receiving TE who suddenly can’t even get a pass target (other than a horridly-conceived TE screen that went nowhere). Chuks Okorafor plays like an All-Pro for two months and suddenly can’t stop any pass rush move. Benny Snell rips off a crisp run on one snap and then moves as slowly as a vibrating Electric Football piece when it’s short-yardage. Stephon Tuitt plays like a superhero at times, now has completely disappeared. And on and on.
So it is with this completely dysfunctional team. One problem area is improved and another pops up to take its place. It’s maddening whack-A-mole. The receivers suddenly catch everything and the QB can’t see the field or hit them with passes. The Pass defense is stellar and the rush defense can’t stop anything. The offense wakes up and the defense goes to sleep. Why can’t we have nice things?
We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life. – C3-PO
It’s bad enough we now have the obvious questions of: Can it be fixed? Will the Steelers hang on to win the division? Will they win a playoff game? Will they ever win another game, ever?”. Worse, watching that 1st half we now have to ask, “Is Ben done?” and really mean it. It’s no longer a fantasy of other teams and their fans and media and analytics jagoffs that hate him––for nearly an entire half of football, Ben became the QB that the pundits were saying he was two months ago. He looked like he might literally retire at halftime. Hell, he looked like he might not wait for halftime.
Our HOF-bound QB stared the game with a real-life version of that dream you have where you have an important meeting at work and partway through you realize that you’re naked and can’t remember anything about the subject matter. Or the nightmare where you need to run away from the monster, but your legs suddenly can’t remember how to run. It was as if one of those post-apocalyptic denizens from Travelers found out Ben’s exact moment of death and transferred their consciousness into his body… seconds before the Steelers first snap.
Roethlisberger started the game 5 of 13 attempts passing for 8 yards, with a 14.58 QB rating… and it was worse than that 0.61 YPA would indicate. He forgot to take a snap that Cincinnati recovered, he threw a horrendous interception, he fumbled when sacked, and he missed wide open receivers––whether it was not seeing them or just missing them with throws. When Cincinnati turned the Steelers second turnover into a 10-point lead, I honestly wondered if the game was over. The Steelers offense was that bad. As if Ben having his consciousness overwritten wasn’t bad enough, the offensive line that went 5 games without giving up a sack suddenly forgot how to pass protect. The Bengals EDGE guys put on a clinic of fancy pass rush moves, hand to hand fighting, bull rushes, and effort. Ben rarely had a clean pocket and time to right the ship––although, in fairness, on the one occasion he had all day, he threw it directly to the other team.
Ben’s start wasn’t as bad as Kendall Hinton’s debut as an emergency QB earlier this year and it wasn’t even as bad as Drew Brees’s 0/5 and an interception beginning on Sunday, but it was Mason Rudolph/Duck Hodges or Tommy Maddox vs Houston Texans-debacle bad. Maybe it wasn’t Tommy Maddox vs Jacksonville ’05 bad but it was bad. It was plenty bad, and not in the Leroy Brown or BAMF wallet kind of way.
Even I, the strongest advocate of Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL career reached the point of wondering if Ben had finally been mentally broken. If it hadn’t been for what he did after that horrendous start (15/25 for 162, 1 TD, 92.42 QB rating), I wouldn’t be using this space to talk about anything else. Not only did Ben get it together enough to make the reports of his demise greatly exaggerated, he actually made some great throws in the middle, in the intermediate zones, and downfield. If the pass protection had been a little better and if he’d have gotten a call or two they probably deserved on defensive pass interference, he might have even brought them all the way back. They were good enough in the second half to win… if only there had been a 3rd half.
Not only did Ben Reothlisberger live up to the unfair criticism he faced from almost everyone, Mike Tomlin put up what people like to think of as the ultimate “Mike Tomlin loss-to-an-inferior-team-with-a no-name-QB” loss. Apparently, those two have been reading their press clippings and trying to live up to the critics’ expectations. In truth, Steelers under Tomlin have a pretty good record against teams with losing records, but last night Mike’s team helped him live up to the hype. Congratulations, you nattering nabobs of negativism! Your fusillade of fallacy has come true at last!
As for the “Mike Tomlin’s teams always play their worst at the end of the season” meme, it has been a rough couple of seasons, with a combined 3-6 December record… but in the prior 4 seasons, they were 14-2 in December. Even with a couple of earlier rough 2-3 Decembers thrown in, Mike’s lifetime December record is a pretty solid 33-19. That .635 win percentage is a touch lower than his .656 percentage otherwise, but it’s not like they’ve collapsed like this every year.
Aside from Diontae Johnson catching everything other than coronavirus, the first significant snaps from Derwin Gray were a bright spot. On first watch, he seemed to be the one guy on the line who didn’t have a horrific game. He seemed to offer more in the run game than Hassenauer and held his own in pass protection. Although the Steelers spent a 7th round draft pick on Gray, only to see him mostly inactive, at least they spent some draft capital on an offensive lineman, something they haven’t done very much lately. You want to know how the Steelers’ offensive line went from a strength of the team to old and done, here’s a tidbit from stosh-67:
In 2012, the Steelers drafted OL with their first 2 picks in Decastro and Mike Adams. Since then––8 drafts––they have drafted a total of ONE offensive lineman in the first 3 rounds.
25 picks in the first 3 rounds the last 8 years: ONE offensive lineman selected. – Stosh-67
Other than the aforementioned Gray, Pittsburgh in that span has used two 4th round picks and a 5th-rounder on OL. And they’ve drafted pretty well. Other than Gray, all of the OL they’ve drafted have started games in the NFL, and on average, have outproduced their draft investment: 1st Decastro (122 starts), 2nd Adams (21), 7th Beachum (113), 5th Wesley Johnson (24) , 4th Jerald Hawkins (1), 3rd Chuks Okorafor (13), 7th Derwin Gray (0), 4th Kevin Dotson (2). They just haven’t spent enough draft capital to keep it going. With Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, & Zach Banner set to become free agents and Maurkice Pouncey & David Decatro appearing to have slipped in performance despite big salaries, you can expect that lack of top draft investment to change next spring. Unfortuantely, they can’t just draft some new guys mid-season or mid-game for that matter!
So, where do we go from here? Well, it’s the NFL, so they go right back to work and are required to show up next Sunday at 1pm, where the AFC South-leading Indianapolis Colts will be salivating after watching Steelers-Bengals film all week. Which Steelers team will show up? Which Diontae Johnson? Which Vance McDonald? Which Stephon Tuitt? Which Marcus Allen? (Well, we know which Marcus Allen, unfortunately.)
To paraphrase the head coach, the best kind of ship is a Championship. Either the Steelers will stay afloat and win next week or they will lose and we will abandon ship. Which one will it be? Depends on if their offensive captain wakes up and takes the helm.