It’s been almost a year since I had to write one of these postgame wrap-ups after a loss. I almost forget how.
It’s even hard to muster a big emotional reaction to this loss, considering about the worst you can say is that it reduced the Steelers’ margin for error to close to zero in terms of winning the AFC’s #1 seed or even winning the AFC North.
But it is hard to ignore the bigger ramifications of what we’re seeing in the last couple of games: sloppy football, the cumulative effect of injuries, and just a tired-and-no-bye-week-looking squad.
Week 13 proved to be unlucky for the Steelers, with an array of outrageous officiating, bad play selection, unforced errors, & finally, a bad bounce or two that sealed the Steelers fate in the end. The cumulative effect of run game dysfunction, a growing list of injuries on defense, and dropped passes resulted in an end to the Steelers’ undefeated dreams and a general cloud of dread over the worldwide nation of Steelerdom.
Hey, let’s be honest: if before the season started someone offered us the option of “After 13 weeks, the Steelers will be 11-1 with a healthy Ben”, we’d have been all over that. And here we are.
Let me repeat that: the Steelers are 11-1 and Ben is healthy. And playing really well. And they are 1st in the AFC North and are currently the #1 seed in the AFC. And COVID-19 hasn’t totally destroyed the NFL season. We should be friggin thankful just to be alive and to have this embarrassment of riches at this point. But that would make for a very short article and defy human nature––we want more and more! 11 wins??? We want 12!
Truthfully, I’m fine with losing this game if it proves to be the impetus necessary to batten down the hatches and get the issues worked out before losses that can’t be avenged nor overcome. At least that goes for the issues which can potentially be worked out: offensive plan, run game execution, fundamentals, defensive consistency, decision-making. The one issue that can’t really be improved, and which, honestly, is the biggest elephant in the room is: Can the Steelers withstand the accumulation of injuries and how close to the breaking point with new injuries are they, going forward?
Losing Devin Bush was offset the most easily: it was one position, surrounded by 10 immense talents. The others lifted Robert Spillane into played beyond his abilities and they didn’t miss a beat. When DT Tyson Alualu missed a few weeks, the run defense suffered but they managed to make stops when they needed to. When Stephon Tuitt went on the COVID list, the defense could still cover for a few lapses. When James Conner and Maurkice Pouncey were out, the backups played well for a time and the offense got it done well enough to keep scoring and winning. When Steven Nelson was out, we were happy Cam Sutton got some more PT. When Joe Haden and Robert Spillane got hurt mid-game, we were glad Avery Williamson and Justin Layne were available to be the next men up. When Chris Boswell couldn’t go, Matthew Wright made the most of his opportunity… but it was just too many straws for the camel’s back to hold.
The depleted Steelers defense knocked Antonio Gibson out of the game early, harrassed Alex Smith all night, stopped a 4th down play, held #1 receiving target Terry McLaurin to 2 measly catches for nothing… and still blew enough coverages and tackles to somehow fall behind in the game, thanks to a handful of long plays plays by Logan Thomas and some guy named Cam Sims… who if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you how long he’s been in the league or where he played college ball. But don’t just blame the defense for some letdowns: this loss was a complete team effort.
When the Steelers offense took a 4th-quarter drive into FG range but stalled on 3rd down, coach Mike Tomlin went against his own “next man up” mentality, eschewing a 45-yard FG attempt that would have been a chance to tie the game late in favor of his offense going for it on 4th and 1 from the Washington 28 yard line. Hey, I am in favor of going for it on 4th down in your opponent’s side of the field as much as anyone, but when your offense moves it in position late to tie the game, you have to kick the rock. And if you bring in a kicker you can’t trust to make a 45-yard FG with the game on the line because there just aren’t enough guys available on the street, fine… but if the play you’re selecting or the throw you’re choosing to make is to an inexperienced RB on a subtle stutter and go backshoulder timing route 20 yards downfield––on 4th and 1 to a guy with 6 NFL catches in his career––you’ve got layers of problems.
Let’s back it up a couple of hours to try and understand this situation: the Steelers had an earlier situation in the game where they had 5 plays from the Washington 1 yard line or closer and couldn’t manage to come away with a touchdown. They tried everything… they ran it off-tackle, they ran it up the gut, they tried a pass to an extra OL who was not named Alejandro Villanueva but who was just activated off the COVID list today, they gave it to Benny Snell to dive over the line… absolutely none of it worked. Do you know what they didn’t try? Eye candy WR motion to distract eyes, a QB sneak from 6″ out, a pass to anyone named James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Vance McDonald, RayRay McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Eric Ebron. Okay, we can understand not throwing it to RayRay McDonald, because he doesn’t exist and not going to Ebron is understandable because he’s been taking reversion to the mean a little bit too seriously when it comes to dropping potential catches–– but throwing it twice to two of the worst players that have lined up as eligible receivers for this team in 1st and goal to go from the 1 and throwing it to another questionable receiver on 4th and 1 with the game on the line in the 4th quarter is like pulling Ben off the field and trying a fake punt on 4th down. At least they didn’t go that far. On the other hand, there’s a chance greater than zero that Jordan Berry could step in at RB and provide a spark in the run game. yes, it’s that bad.
The Steelers’ run/pass game dichotomy has become so staggering that it’s taken on a life of its own. My guess is they’re thinking about it, worried about it, trying to work on it, talking about it––it colors every decision they make on offense. Sometimes, you just need to stop thinking and worrying and just let your muscle memory take over with repetition. That’s one side of it.
The other side is: coaches have to create matchups and opportunities for their players. If they can move one defender with misdirection or giving him things to worry about, then the entire arithmetic changes. Give a RB some angle, some space, some cutback where he can plant and go. If none of that works, then quite being so married to your personnel and get some different people in the house. Kerrith Whyte is sitting at home. Last year, without Ben on the offense, mind you, Whyte ran behind the same OL and ran the same plays as the other guys… yet he averaged more than a yard per carry more than anyone else and had an above average DVOA, the best any Steelers RB has had in 4 seasons. Snell is not a runner, McFarland has potential but is light years away from being a good player, and Samuels is a rotational 3rd down piece at best in this offense.
Of course, Samuels would probably be useful in an offense designed to be multiple and create opportunities, and I guess McFarland will get better and won’t fall down trying to make a 5 yard run into a 50 yard run, and I guess James Conner will return… but it is malpractice to leave those players out there on their own. It’s malfeasance to not be as tightly organized and cohesive on offense as you are on defense. Where the offense is is akin to its 2016 defense: subtract your outlier player from the equation and you’re left holding a bag of dust. Adter 2016, they got serious about adding intelligence to the coaching staff on defense and in adding better players. The result is a deep unit that is the envy of every team in the NFL. Whether the obstacle is Ben or Tomlin or Rooney or Rustbelt Randy or the personnel, they’re cheating themselves by not creating a better plan–– and running out of time to solve the problem.
People are seeing what they want to see about this team and its chances… they’ve done the same about Bud. About Edmunds. About Ebron. DJ., Washington, JuJu, Snell, AntMac, Pouncey, Feiler, Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin, Rustbelt Randy, Matt Canada, and (most of all) Ben’s arm. It’s become the same tired dynamic as politics. Everyone has a starting position and is incapable of seeing anything objectively. Plus, there’s so much noise and garbage masquerading as news.
I’ve never seen anything like the talk about Ben’s arm. The media created a narrative won’t let go and now schlubs who don’t even understand what zone coverage is think Ben has no zip or has a broken arm. They are screaming to the interwebs that he’s incapable of throwing downfield. This after a game where Ben dropped dimes to JuJu 20+ downfield, had a 30 yard scramble and toss to Claypool, hit DJ on an 18-yard out that was a dart on 3rd and 15, and hit Washington in the slot for 30.
There’s a term for this: Gaslighting. They’re trying to convince me that our eyes don’t see what we know they see. “Ben is the problem and if you don’t think so, you’re biased!”. The sad part is, I’m starting to break. They’re convincing me that I’m crazy. They are making me doubt myself– maybe everyone else is right and I just can’t see it because of my bias. Maybe he really does suck. However, one thing I do know: if receivers cut the number of drops in half, we’re talking about a couple of big wins, 12-0 and #HereWeGo.
That I’m palpably close to the breaking point is a function of how much emotionally invested I am in this team and this season. So tired of the haters and social media/sports media garbage and really wanted them to be shut up for good. This is especially true during a pandemic, where there is so little opportunity for joy. The economy is in the tank, the world is messed up beyond belief, winter is coming, and the once-shining Steelers season is on the brink. I’m not sure I can handle another lockdown, seasonal-affected disorder, AND a Steelers meltdown. After this week that feels like a playoff loss, with all the accompanying recriminations, gloom, & doom, I don’t even want to think about what a playoff loss would feel like.
What It Feels Like:
I know it seems like the Steelers have a tendency: throw short of the sticks on 3rd and long and go deep on 3rd and short. The first one of those is pretty obviously true, although a tiny bit less true the past couple of weeks. But, aside from the failed 4th-down play this week, tgoing deep on 3rd or 4th and short used to be a thing and is no longer a thing. From 2014 through 2017, Pittsburgh attempted 18 deep balls in 85 opportunities in that situation, 21.1% of the time. From 2018 to the present, they have attempted 5 deep balls in 57 plays, 8.8% of the time. However, one thing is fairly constant: aside from the understandable high number of short-yardage deep attempts to Antonio Brown over the past few seasons, the deep shots have come to a rather motley crew of “other guys”. Among the names: Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates (3 times compared to once for Martavis Bryant), Jesse James, DHB, Matt Spaeth, and now Anthony McFarland.
For all the drops and bad plays, the best play of the game was called back on a penalty. A Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson Red Zone pass was thrown perfectly above the defender, DJ caught it at its highest point, was immediately hit in the face and hands… and somehow not only hung onto the ball (miraculous) but had the body control and presence of mind to dive into the end zone. It’s the kind of highlight-reel moment that almost outweighs the drops but it was all for naught because Villanueva (along with the entire defense and all of us at home) expected the ball to come out 2 seconds earlier.
Mike Hilton deserves special mention. He played like a boss in this game, breaking up passes, making big open-field tackles, and securing a key 4th-down tackle for loss with a superior, instinctual play to get past a blocker and blow up the WFT short-yardage play. Unfortunately for us, he also got obliterated by an obvious block in the back on a 31-yard Cam Sims catch and run that allowed the Football Team to escape a 3rd and 14 hole on a drive which eventually resulted in a TD. Officiating is what it is, to quote the future Jets coach Bill Cowher, but the games and the teams are just too closely matched to give teams extra downs on blown calls.
T.J. Watt showed that he doesn’t need a running mate to be dominant in the game, with a TFL, a sack that extended the Steelers consecutive game streak to tie the NFL record, and just continual harassment of what Washington tried to do. He also made a huge mistake that–– in a close game––cost his team. He forced a fumble from RB J.D. McIssic and, with the ball lying directly in front of him, tried to pick it up and run instead of falling on it. This resulted in Logan Thomas crashing the party and recovering the football. A case of trying to do too much because the team is tired and pressing? Or perhaps just the way the ball bounces sometimes.
Speaking of the ball bouncing, with under 30 seconds left at the end of the first half, Alex Smith took an absolutely unforgivable sack that SHOULD have resulted in a second straight week of the clock running out on an opponent’s drive. But the ball “bounced” to the sideline… in Smith’s hands, the officiating crew had already decided there was not enough time on the running clock to bring the special kicking ‘K’ ball into the game, and when they prepared to just put the regular ball into play for a potential rushed FG attempt… there was no ball to be found. Because Smith took it. To the sideline. So, the crew did what they’re supposed to do when there’s no ball on the field when they try to set it–– they stopped the clock. It gave the redskins time to settle everything down, get their FG team set, and get the kick off before the half ended. I am willing to assume that Smith had good intentions–– help speed up the process of changing to the ‘K’ ball by taking the regular ball off the field––rather than the ulterior motive of buying time for the FG. But, either way, to effectively penalize the Steelers for a mistake the WFT made is ridiculous and arguably was the difference in this game. But the Pittsburgh Steelers should be used to being penalized for other teams’ mishaps at this point.
On a good note: James Washington is finding ways to produce, including a terrific catch and run TD, where he made two defenders miss––not something you expect from JW. He’s been a consistent bright spot on a couple of pretty grim games.
On a great note: the OL again did not allow a sack for the 5th straight game, although Ben did have to make a miracle escape from a free rusher to do so. This is the first time in NFL history a QB has had 5 straight games with over 40 attempts per game and no sacks allowed. Brett Favre might get to keep that sack record after all.
Bottom line: two weekday afternoon games in a row is some kind of a record that will never be broken and basically it just blows. It killed this team’s momentum. It ruined my routine and tarnished my enthusiasm––just felt weird and out of place to be cranking up for game time in the middle of a workday and emails. I can only imagine how it ruined things for the players. The constant rescheduling and weird lack of routine wore them out. Unfortunately, there’s no bye week or even mini bye coming off thanksgiving to regroup and refresh. Regardless of the issues and question marks, they’ve got to pack all their troubles in an old kit bag and shuffle up to Buffalo. Time waits for no man but the red-hot Bills wait for thee.A1