Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was quick to deflect blame last week in his team's loss to the Dallas Cowboys, giving it to the play-calling rather than to his overtime interception that led to Dallas' game-winning field goal.
However, there can be no more excuses this Sunday, after two Roethlisberger interceptions led to the team falling to the Cincinnati Bengals at home, 13-10. The loss eliminates the Steelers from playoff contention, a rare occurrence during Roethlisberger's tenure under center.
Ten of Cincinnati's 13 points came from turnovers. The first was a pick-six of Roethlisberger in the first quarter by Bengals cornerback Leon Hall. The second was a Reggie Nelson interception that resulted in a Josh Brown field goal with just seconds remaining in the game, breaking the 10-10 tie and ultimately ending the Steelers' season (though, yes, there is still one game to play).
Aside from those missteps (and the loss), it was a solid outing for Pittsburgh's defense. The unit looked better than it has at any point in the season, generating turnovers where it previously had few. Cornerback Cortez Allen picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton twice. He also forced a fumble by receiver A.J. Green that was recovered by safety Ryan Clark.
Pittsburgh's defense was also good at bringing pressure—another area in which it had been weak all season—sacking Dalton six times. Safety Troy Polamalu was the team's second-leading tackler, with eight total. He and linebacker Lawrence Timmons helped hold Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to just 14 yards on 15 carries.
However, those turnovers and that pressure simply weren't enough, though Dalton was mostly erratic. The Steelers could generate no points from their three takeaways, thanks to Cincinnati's defense. Pittsburgh's only touchdown came on a 60-yard Antonio Brown reception that took advantage of single coverage and Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones' susceptibility to the double-move.
Two missed Shaun Suisham field goals—including an aggressive, fourth-quarter 52-yard try—would have changed the game's outcome had they been good. And while the call on that particular long attempt was certainly questionable, the loss comes down to more than just those missed kicks.
Roethlisberger's vocal complaints last week—though later recanted and apologized for—did result in offensive coordinator Todd Haley opening up the calls. There were more deep pass attempts and more no-huddle, but the risks didn't pay off.
No Steelers receiver had a particularly good day. Though Brown had 97 yards on his five receptions, 60 came from the touchdown catch, and tight end Heath Miller caught only three of the nine passes thrown to him, for 45 yards (with a long of 22). Mike Wallace had just one 13-yard catch on five targets, and Emmanuel Sanders had the same, though on just one target.
The run game was also anemic. The last time the Steelers and Bengals met, Pittsburgh running back Jonathan Dwyer had 122 rushing yards. This time, the Steelers' offense as a whole had just 95 rushing yards, with Dwyer putting up just 39 yards on 14 carries. Rashard Mendenhall was the Steelers' best back, with 50 yards on 11 carries, but 20 of those came on one run.
It was a flat effort on behalf of both Pittsburgh's and Cincinnati's offenses—both team's defenses kept their teams in the game. The difference, however, was in the mistakes each team made, how they capitalized on them and when they occurred.
Had the Steelers put up points off the turnovers they generated, the outcome could have been different. Had Roethlisberger not turned the ball over twice himself, the outcome could have been different. Could-haves and should-haves have marked Pittsburgh's season—especially in its waning weeks—and this time those missed opportunities cost them both a game and a postseason berth.
Though there are many moments in which the Steelers could have done more, ultimately this loss is all about Roethlisberger's turnovers. There's no way for him, or anyone else, to explain it any other way.
The Steelers this season have lived and died with the the play of their quarterbacks. When that's the case, a bad day out of the passing game means a bad day for the team.