They scheduled a football game in San Francisco but a surprise screening of Back to the Future aired instead. Or at least it seemed like it on Sunday, when the Steelers lost the first game of the (temporary) Mason Rudolph era.
For those of us old enough to remember the era between Bradshaw and Ben, the patterns of this game were familiar: sluggish offense with a gameplan straight out of J_e Walt_n’s imagination, sloppy OL play, lethargic run game paired with an inexplicable commitment to keep handing it off, and barely any success throwing the ball downfield. The NextGen stats breakdown of Rudolph’s pass attempts was unlike anything I’ve ever seen: He completed only two passes beyond the line of scrimmage… and both went for TDs. Every other attempt downfield was either to a covered receiver or OR a ball that sailed off-target and gave the receiver no chance.
• Cam Heyward is playing hard but has been a shell of himself. Javon Hargrave has been on skates. Tuitt is finally playing like the stud he is and the other guys are regressing in inverse harmony
Newsflash: this team is extremely unlikely to win the Super Bowl this season. Why not give some snaps to guys like Gilbert and Adeniyi and Buggs? In terms of winning and losing, how much worse can it be?
This team has fallen into an extreme rerun cycle worthy of Cheers or M*A*S*H, only their sitcom goes: look great in flashes, play well enough to keep it close, and then a 3rd act twist where some series of small mistakes/bad breaks alchemizes victory into defeat. An ill-timed holding penalty, a missed assignment, a bad bounce. It’s like clockwork, and as a viewer… you know it’s coming and you are powerless to stop it.
And then there’s James Conner. Those of us who pay attention to analytics were slowing the roll on Conner last year; most of his damage came against poor run defending teams and with the help of an OL who was blowing open holes for him. He was good at getting the yards they game him and he was above average in the pass game. Considering he was replacing an All-Pro, we were thrilled that Conner and Samuels were out-producing Bell, even if he wasn’t as good as his stats made him appear. But issues with late fumbles have now cost the Steelers in 2 losses and a tie… way too often for a supposed bell-cow back who just made his 15th start in the NFL. He’s also averaging 2.9 yards per carry, down from a career 4.5 YPC average coming into the season.
What do the Steelers decision-makers have against Jaylen Samuels? Your offense is struggling to find someone to make plays, struggling to run it well consistently and Samuels is barely used, has zero touches in the game. His usage looked *nothing* like the way NC State found ways to get him the ball. When he ran routes, he was on the sideline, running a hitch or other unchallenging route. Where are the end-arounds, the quick tosses, the slants in the slot vs a LB, the seam routes? Where is the Randy Fitchner who showed amazing creativity last year, especially in the red zone? Hell, where is the Randy Fitchner who was creative and an exciting playcaller as a college OC? Is this team that young and that unaccustomed to playing together?
The team wasn’t as lethargic as on other early-season road appearances of recent memory, but there’s no doubt the team overall is a mess. It’s easy to say the coaching is failing, and it might even be true, but it seems so much more than that. I said it last week, and I say it again: stale.
Staler than Full House: Season 9. Staler than Happy Days after Fonzie jumped the shark. Staler than Kent Graham.
There’s time to salvage something of this season and to tee it up for 2020… but they need to throw out the organization’s operating manual, be bold, play guys who want to give everything on every play, be totally unafraid of making mistakes or taking risks. They’ll probably do that after they turn the oil tanker around… let’s hope that it’s not too late to make something of themselves.