What's Wrong with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 10, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, left, talks with head coach Mike Tomlin during the first half of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

Exactly one month ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like prime Super Bowl contenders.

On Friday, November 9, 2018, Pittsburgh was celebrating some extra time off following a 31-point Thursday night victory over a Carolina Panthers team that entered that game 6-2. 

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had put together quite possibly the best game of his career against Carolina, running back James Conner was continuing to cause fans to forget about Le'Veon Bell's holdout, and it was clear that the Steelers had become one of the most balanced and dangerous teams in the NFL

This league is so weird.

The Steelers have either been outplayed or flat-out beaten (or both) in all four of the games they've played in the last 31 days, losing three of them. They've blown a sizable AFC North lead and are now hanging on to a playoff spot in that conference by a half-game thread over the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts. 

Sunday's unacceptable loss to the 2-10 Oakland Raiders might ultimately be viewed as Pittsburgh's death knell. It takes an especially bad performance to lose to an especially bad opponent when you take only two penalties and said opponent is penalized 13 times, but that's what the Steelers did. 

They had more first downs, more third-down conversions, more yards per play, way fewer penalties and the same number of turnovers (one each), but—just like with the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers the previous two Sundays—they let their underdog opponent stick around. It cost them dearly. 

It marked the third consecutive week in which they blew a second-half lead, and now their season is on life support at 7-5-1 with back-to-back games against the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints looming. 

The increasingly reckless Roethlisberger threw six interceptions against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Broncos and Chargers in Weeks 11, 12 and 13. The Steelers were fortunate enough to squeak out a victory after the Jags clammed up and blew a 16-0 second-half lead, but they weren't as lucky against those AFC West foes. 

This time, Roethlisberger wasn't the problem. But the fact that he completed all but four of 29 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns in a turnover-free performance indicates something else was amiss. And it's not just that Big Ben missed four second-half series while dealing with a rib injury. 

In this case, three other recent issues once again plagued Big Ben's team. 

   

Non-Ben issue No. 1: The relatively sudden lack of oomph from the running game

With Bell officially sitting out the season and Conner out with an ankle injury, backs Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley compiled just 32 rushing yards on 16 carries against the Raiders' 31st-ranked run defense. Partly as a result of that lack of production, Oakland had an advantage of more than five minutes in time of possession. 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

This isn't totally new, and it's not just about Conner's absence. Just a month ago it felt as though the Steelers might have been better off with Conner than Bell, but Conner averaged just 3.7 yards per carry against Jacksonville, Denver and Los Angeles before going down against the Chargers. And now Pittsburgh hasn't rushed for more than 75 yards in a game since that rout over Carolina. 

Once again in Oakland, they couldn't sustain drives, settling for three punts and a pair of field-goal attempts. 

Which leads us to Pittsburgh's next issue.

   

Non-Ben issue No. 2: Placekicking

After a first-half drive stalled thanks in part to a one-yard Samuel run on first down inside the Oakland red zone, Chris Boswell missed a 39-yarder. And in the dying seconds, his 40-yard game-tying attempt was blocked. 

That came a week after he missed an extra point against the Chargers and two weeks after he had a 48-yarder blocked in Denver. Boswell is now just 5-of-11 this season on kicks beyond 38 yards, and he's missed five extra points. 

Considering how small the margin for error is these days, that's problematic.

   

Non-Ben issue No. 3: Mike Tomlin

It also doesn't help with that margin when your head coach makes so many mistakes. 

Not only has Tomlin lost nine consecutive challenges, but he continues to make decisions that are hurting his team. Two particularly heinous examples from Sunday's loss in Oakland:

1) He misused his second-half timeouts, wasting one before a 3rd-and-3 play in the third quarter and then neglecting to use the remaining two when the Raiders were gladly taking the clock down late. With Pittsburgh up 21-17, Oakland had a 1st-and-goal with about 90 seconds to play, but Tomlin sat on his timeouts until it was 4th-and-goal with 25 seconds remaining. The Steelers burned their second timeout after a 3rd-and-goal incompletion, so the only timeout he did use on the drive wasn't even for clock management. The Raiders scored on the next play, and the Steelers had way less time than they should have had on their final drive.

2) Apparently, Roethlisberger didn't necessarily need to miss all four of those series. ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler wrote following the game that "Tomlin said Roethlisberger probably could have gone in a few series earlier but [the] flow of the game prevented that."

The. Flow. Of. The. Game. 

Is Tomlin trolling us? 

Pittsburgh's last offensive play before Roethlisberger's departure was a beautiful touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster that gave the Steelers a halftime lead. His backup, Joshua Dobbs, completed four of nine pass attempts for 24 yards and an interception while adding 15 rushing yards on two carries. 

On four series, Dobbs gained three first downs (one as a result of an Oakland penalty), produced zero points, turned the ball over once and failed to reach the Raiders' 40-yard line. 

What kind of flow was Tomlin going for?

Six Steelers games have been decided by five or fewer points this season, but Pittsburgh has won just two of them. That speaks to Tomlin's situational coaching and his game-management skills, both of which are lacking. 

Bad coaching, a down year overall from Roethlisberger, a lack of consistency on the ground, no Bell to help the running game or the passing game, terrible placekicking. Add it all up and you have a season that is circling the drain. 

Can the Steelers redeem themselves? Sure, especially if Roethlisberger and Conner can get/stay on the field for the final three weeks of the regular season. It also helps that they still lead their division, and that their top AFC North threat, Baltimore, will likely have trouble finishing 3-0 with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback (or even with a less-than-100-percent Joe Flacco). 

But now they have to deal with a Patriots team that will be fired up following a shocking loss to the Miami Dolphins, and then they have to travel to face a Saints team that has won 13 of their last 14 games at the Superdome. They'll likely have to win at least one of those to sneak into the playoffs, but even then they'd be left with a hell of a mountain to climb on the road. 

There's a lot wrong with these Steelers, and they probably can't find a cure for all of it between now and February.

They've been making a mess for a month, and it's likely too late to clean it all up. 

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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