The most interesting thing about the NFL is, quite generally, how random it can be. One week, a team can look like a Super Bowl threat. The next week, it can look like a fading, punch-drunk boxer who used to be a contender.
Case in point: The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers, who now find themselves looking to bounce back following an embarrassing 27-17 road loss to a miserable Cincinnati Bengals team that improved to 3-10-1 on Monday night.
Just three weeks ago, the Steelers were sitting pretty in the AFC with an 11-0 record that was the best mark after 11 games in the franchise’s storied history. The defense was mighty, with four dominant pass rushers. The Steelers were humming with a quick-strike passing game, led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and a dynamic (but drop-heavy) receiving corps that was consistent enough to overcome a shaky run game.
The way the season was playing out was, in many ways, a manifestation of the optimism Roethlisberger relayed to me in August about this year’s team. After missing 14 games with a right elbow injury last year, he insisted that he fought his way through recovery because of the opportunity in front of him. The Steelers already had a Super Bowl defense, he believed; after an 8-8 season, Pittsburgh just needed an offense that could carry its weight.
And for three months, that’s exactly what the Steelers did.
Roethlisberger injuries not the only ones haunting Steelers
Again, football is funny, and there’s a reason championships aren’t won in December. To win it all, a team needs talent and premium coaching, yes, but it also needs luck, particularly with injuries.
And it’s hard to look at the Steelers’ recent three-game losing skid and not draw a correlation between those issues and the loss of star edge rusher Bud Dupree, who suffered a season-ending knee injury late in their last victory, a 19-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 2.
The Steelers’ defense is still good. Cam Heyward remains a beast, and so are Stephon Tuitt and the sensational T.J. Watt. While they still rank first in defensive DVOA, they haven’t been playing like the dominant group we got accustomed to, as injuries to Dupree and linebackers Devin Bush Jr., Robert Spillane and Vince Williams may have finally taken their toll.
And with the Steelers’ defense no longer dominant, the offense is forced to carry the slack, which they haven’t been able to do.
Some of that is on Roethlisberger, of course, and he’ll tell you that. His past three games have been middling, as he has completed 57 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and five turnovers. He had plenty of rough moments Monday night in Cincinnati, sailing some passes, not putting enough heat on others and completing only 52 percent of his throws for 170 yards, a touchdown, a fumble and a pick against the league’s 25th-ranked defense in DVOA.
“I would say that I’m not consistent enough, which affects the offense because the ball is in my hand every play,” Roethlisberger said after his most recent loss. “I wouldn’t say that I feel 100 percent, but nobody does right now.”
Roethlisberger showed up on the injury report a few weeks ago with an ailing knee, so that could be a problem that’s affecting his accuracy and velocity. None of this absolves his teammates and the Steelers’ coaching staff from taking some of the blame for their struggles, either. But in many ways, this is what happens to 38-year-old quarterbacks — they get hit, they get hurt and they need help.
And far too often the past three weeks, the people around Roethlisberger have let him down.
Whether it’s his receivers dropping a league-high 27 passes, or his offensive line’s inability to establish the ground game — Pittsburgh ranks 30th out of 32 teams in rushing DVOA — and hold their blocks on non-quick throws, the Steelers haven’t been executing at a championship level around Roethlisberger for nearly a month.
Could Pittsburgh follow 2018 Patriots’ plan?
Remember when Tom Brady won a Super Bowl at age 41 in 2019? He did so while leaning heavily on a strong ground game and a terrific defense, all while taking some play-action shots at the correct moments. New England never asked him to carry the entire offense; the Patriots asked him to deliver in the clutch, which he did repeatedly during that championship run.
So yeah, there’s no reason the Steelers couldn’t utilize that 2018 Patriots game plan to win a title with Roethlisberger this season or next, provided he returns to play in 2021 (as he reportedly expects to). And when asked Tuesday how he’ll know Roethlisberger is approaching the end of his career, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shrugged.
“That’s not something that I am anticipating so I don’t know that I am sitting around waiting on it,” Tomlin said. “I guess we will cross that bridge if and when we come to it.”
I don’t blame Tomlin for taking that approach. This may not be prime Big Ben, but statistically, he has been solid, as he’s on track to throw for nearly 4,000 yards, 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. And after talking to him in August, I don’t doubt his competitiveness or desire to cap his career with a third Super Bowl title.
For that to happen, Pittsburgh either has to get its offensive line together or fortify it this offseason, and get the run game shored up. The targets in the pass game are solid, drops and all (and yes, they should re-sign JuJu Smith-Schuster), but if the Steelers can shift to a more run game-oriented offense, it would help them protect their veteran quarterback.
Whenever a team makes the playoffs, you can never count them out. Maybe James Conner comes back from injury rejuvenated. Maybe the veteran offensive line dips into the fountain of youth and starts reasserting its physical dominance in January. Maybe the rest of the edge rushers besides Watt step up to better fill Dupree’s absence.
No matter what, the Steelers will have work to do this offseason. They need to start planning for Roethlisberger’s eventual departure, and as such, they definitely need to bring a young, talented backup. The chances of that guy overtaking Roethlisberger are low, but he’s a competitor, and there’s a chance such a move would push him.
And perhaps that would be enough to lift Pittsburgh to the seventh Super Bowl win that has been so elusive under Tomlin, though the Steelers’ long-time head coach is far more interested in fixing their problems now instead of waiting until the offseason, starting Sunday against the AFC South-leading Colts.
“We don’t need to run away from the kitchen — we need to run into it,” Tomlin said, “and this team provides that for us.”
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