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.

Don’t get me wrong: Mason Rudolph wasn’t close to terrible. In fact, compared to Cliff Stoudt, David Woodley, Kent Graham, the ghost of Michael Vick, and most of the Bradshaw to Ben QBs, he was above average  and has the potential to grow into more.
Regardless of the QB or situation, if you can’t run it with some juice and you can’t win throwing it downfield… it’s damn hard to win football games.
And that’s just the offense.
The defense? To quote the icon of 80s Steelers football, “Yoi and double yoi.”
Apparently, they tried to make up for not creating any turnovers for two years by recording a year’s worth of turnovers in one game. They literally had 15 in all of 2018 and 5 on Sunday. Minkah Fitzpatrick had an outstanding debut, grabbing a deflected INT that no Steelers FS of the past 10 years comes close to and forcing a fumble in run support. (Let us hope it doesn’t cost a top 5 pick because this team can’t win any games.)
And, yet it wasn’t the story the D ended up writing. Sure, they were hung out to dry by the offense’s inability to do anything for most of the game, but their flaws we knew about reared up:
•  building a defense with much more speed is going to make them vulnerable to the run
•  their rookie ILB is going to be a step or two slow while he figures it out,––playaction is going to be painful to watch
•  their SS is playing hard and making tackles, but he’s also late to figure it out and isn’t erasing the mistakes in front of him
•  they don’t have enough cohesiveness to be coached (even if their coaches were a damn sight better) to some new iteration every week
That’s enough to cause problems… but the stuff we didn’t expect is also causing big issues.
•  I could write a whole article about the ways in which Mark Barron let his team down yesterday… but suffice to say: if you’re late to read the play, slow to get in position after you do figure it out, and then jog after the ball… you’re not only not helping, you are actively holding your team back and letting EVERYBODY down. I can remember somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 or 5 examples of Steelers players not hustling… usually it’s the playing hard and hustling that stands out, even when up 27 or down 27. Barron yesterday played like a guy who was gassed on the 2nd or 3rd play from scrimmage, yet never came out of the game. I can’t imagine he will enjoy the film session this week. At all.

(click here) Effort play. (click here)

Watch the play where Barron jogs after the ballcarrier in front of the Steelers’ bench and see Ulysses Gilbert’s reaction. That a guy with all the ability in the world who busts ass on every snap is standing on the sideline while a high pedigree guy like Barron steals money in a game is everything that’s wrong with an organization that is loyal to their own people and stubborn about the personnel evaluations that they made *before* the season to an extreme.

•  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.