Steelers Get Harsh Post-Big 3 Reality Check in 'Humbling' Loss to Pats

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 9, 2019

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 08: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts on the sideline during the second half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There was one series in particular during the Steelers-Patriots game Sunday night that showed what happens when a team gets rid of its most talented players.       

It was the second quarter, and the Steelers were facing a 2nd-and-2. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass to receiver Ryan Switzer. He went one yard.

On 3rd-and-1, they ran James Conner. He was short. He couldn't get a single yard.

Against the Patriots, that won't cut it. You won't come close unless you can make those plays, and the Steelers didn't make the plays or come close, losing 33-3 at Gillette Stadium.

But the Patriots' victory wasn't the story from this game. We know there's a good chance they will be an even bigger juggernaut than last season when star receiver Antonio Brown joins them in the near future.

The larger story from this contest, however, is how the Steelers lost.

For the Steelers, getting rid of Antonio Brown was the right thing to do. It was like taking a dose of penicillin.

For the Steelers, letting running back Le'Veon Bell walk was the right thing to do, too. He didn't want to be there, so say goodbye, send him flowers and move on.

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 7:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers congratulates Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium o
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Steelers broke apart their Big Three, and it was smart to do so, especially in the case of Brown.

But doing what they should have done doesn't mean there won't be repercussions. In the Patriots game, you saw those repercussions, and they were a glaring red light. It was the worst season-opening loss for the Steelers since 1997.

"It's humbling," coach Mike Tomlin said in his news conference after the game. "It sucks."

When asked about Brown not being part of the offense, Tomlin said the team moved on in March. 

Conner, who stepped in and filled Bell's shoes during his season-long holdout last year, had just 21 yards on 10 carries Sunday. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is stepping into Brown's ample cleats this season, had six catches for 78 yards, and most of that came once the game was out of hand. Roethlisberger was 27-of-47 for 276 yards.

These are your new Pittsburgh Steelers. Happier, maybe. More peaceful. More content with fewer divisive players on the roster. But not as good.

That run by Conner? Bell would have gotten the yard. That pass to Switzer? Brown would have gotten the first. 

It wasn't the only sequence we saw it. It was one of many. Like the 4th-and-1 near midfield with under two minutes left in the first half. Roethlisberger's pass was dropped by Donte Moncrief. The Patriots took possession, moved into field-goal range and extended the lead to 20-0 at halftime.

It's true the New England defense is excellent, but the Steelers looked plodding and overmatched. Roethlisberger had 65 passing yards in the first half, Smith-Schuster just two catches.

The Steelers offense did eventually have its moments. There was a nice deep pass from Roethlisberger to James Washington. Conner had some nice runs. Smith-Schuster had a few good plays. Yet even on what was the best Roethlisberger pass of the night, when he hit Washington, the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

It's not that the Steelers won multiple Super Bowls with Brown and Bell. They didn't win any. 

It's that they gave the Steelers a chance. Always a chance. The three-headed offense also took pressure off the Pittsburgh defense. Brady shreds a lot of defenses, but without an explosive offense, the Steelers' young (but talented) defense will face more pressure.

One of the main discoveries from B/R's examination of how the Big Three broke up was that Roethlisberger felt he made Brown, Brown felt he made Roethlisberger and Bell felt he made both of them.

It's just one game, and things can take a dramatic turn, but we're maybe getting somewhat of an answer. Roethlisberger looked like a different quarterback without Brown, and not in a good way.

The few times Smith-Schuster made a catch, he was tackled almost immediately. The benefit he received from Brown's double teams wasn't there. Conner looked like a fullback compared to Bell. Without those dynamic playmakers, Roethlisberger wasn't as effective.

It's only Week 1. This offense could transform in future games. But it was hard to ignore what the Patriots exposed: that the Steelers no longer have unique playmakers on offense.

They are average. It's been a long time since anyone said that about Pittsburgh's offense, but that's what happens when you lose a future Hall of Fame receiver in his prime and one of the best backs of his generation.

They ejected the malcontent in Brown. They let Bell sit out and then fly out of town. 

Again, those decisions were the right ones.

But Pittsburgh will still pay a price. It will be a painful one.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.


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