Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Lessons from Loss to Browns
Friends, I have been watching the Pittsburgh Steelers play football for the better part of 40 years, and I cannot recall a worse offensive game played by them in all that time than Sunday's game against the Browns in Cleveland.
The offense looked sloppy and kept putting the defense in a terrible position with mistakes and poor play.
The surprise isn't that they lost. The surprise is that they didn't lose by more than six points.
By all rights, they should have lost by at least two touchdowns. It is a testament to the quality of the Steelers defense that the game was close to the end.
So, what happened? Well, there are any number of things you can point to that led to this loss. Let's have a look at what can be learned from this miserable effort.
Lesson 1: Give Your Opponents the Ball Enough Times, and You Will Lose
The Steelers actually fumbled the ball eight times against the Browns, but only lost five of those fumbles. I say "only," but that is an insane number of fumbles in a single game.
Add to that the three picks QB Charlie Batch threw (only one of which was due to a tipped ball), and you have the makings for a loss to the worst team in the division; a team the Steelers probably should have beaten easily.
If you think the Browns are not clearly an inferior team, consider that they could not win by more than six points in a game in which they turned the ball over eight times. Against a team like the Ravens or Patriots, the Steelers might have lost by 45.
The entire running back corps of the Steelers had at least one lost fumble. I have never seen that. I don't have the stats to prove it, but I doubt that has ever happened in the history of professional football.
In the end, the Steelers proved something we have all known since we began watching football, and that is that you simply cannot win a game if you cannot hold onto the football.
Lesson 2: This Team Misses, and Needs, Big Ben
The offense without Ben Roethlisberger is anemic at best.
Other injuries are slowing them down, too, like WR Antonio Brown. However, in a quarterback-driven league, not having their franchise quarterback in three consecutive games against division opponents, including two games against the division leaders, could be the end of the Steelers' season.
Charlie Batch is a capable, experienced backup. So is Byron Leftwich. Neither of them is Big Ben, though.
Neither of them has Ben's ability to extend plays and create big gains from chaos.
The Steelers now have the 20th-ranked scoring offense in the NFL on the season. Over the last three games, they have had the 26th-ranked scoring offense in the NFL, scoring five fewer points a game over that stretch.
If this team is to have any hope of winning in the playoffs (or even getting to the playoffs), it is going to need Ben back soon.
Otherwise, the Steelers will be making early vacation plans and will have a much higher draft position than they wanted.
Lesson 3: The Penalty Situation Is Officially out of Control
Nine more penalties for 68 yards in this game, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are giving up 64.7 yards per game in penalties.
The Ravens have been averaging 68.6 yards given up a game due to penalties, but the difference between these two teams is that the Ravens have an explosive, big-play offense capable of erasing mistakes.
The Steelers do not.
The Steelers cannot afford to keep putting themselves in a bad position by having good plays eliminated by terrible penalties.
How many times are we going to see an eight or nine-yard pickup negated by a holding call? How many times are we going to see third and long become third and longer because the Steelers can't get a play executed in time?
We even saw a 33-yard gain on 2nd-and-28 get negated by a hold in this game.
I place the blame for this squarely on head coach Mike Tomlin. Team discipline is on the head coach, and this has to be the one of the worst-disciplined teams we have seen in many years.
The time has come for Coach Tomlin to let these players know that they have to play within the rules or they will be riding the pine.
Lesson 4: It's a Good Thing the Defense Is as Good as It Is
Going into the Browns game, the Steelers defense was ranked fourth in rush defense, first in pass defense and first in total defense.
Pittsburgh only allowed Brandon Weeden to throw for 158 yards.
Browns RB Trent Richardson only managed 85 yards on 29 carries. That 2.9 yards per carry is well below his 3.6 yards per carry average on the year.
A loss is a loss in the NFL, but we can all be thankful that the Steelers defense is keeping the team in games, giving it a chance to win.
Without the defense playing at the level we have come to know and expect as members of Steeler Nation, there is a good chance the Steelers would already have been eliminated from playoff contention.
Maybe the return of Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and any of the seemingly hundreds of offensive linemen that have been injured this year will help the Steelers score enough points to win.
And winning is something they are going to have to do a lot of because...
Lesson 5: The Playoffs Are Not Guaranteed
As much as I do not like this phrase, if the season ended now, the Steelers would be in the sixth seed of the playoffs.
The problem is that the season does not end now.
The Indianapolis Colts are now ahead of them in the playoff seeding, and they are playing a rookie quarterback.
In their own division, the Steelers are only up on the Bengals because they have beaten them. They still have to play them again.
The division-leading Ravens increased their lead to three games after an overtime win in San Diego on Sunday.
In other words, right now, the Steelers have almost no chance to win their division and will be playing for their playoff lives for the rest of the season.
This is not an unusual position for them. In 2005, after a three-game losing streak, the Steelers had to win their final four games to get into the playoffs. They went on to win the Super Bowl.
It's just that getting to the playoffs and making a run, without key players on the offensive side of the ball, is going to take a Herculean effort. And if they continue to play the way they did against the Browns, even Hercules wouldn't be able to help them.