Pittsburgh Steelers Finally Lose: How Much A Surprise Was It?

Photo Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

 I don’t do much writing about football. I have at before at different points in my writing career for other websites but have really veered away from it in recent years. Watching games are harder now than years before for me, and even when I am available to watch, I don’t feel as invested in the sport as I use to.

I did get a chance to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Football Team game on Monday.

Lucky me, right?

Thanks to NFL Game Pass, I’ve been able to keep up with all the games this year, just after the fact.

I’ve been searching and waiting for an opportune time to dig back into the football side of things, and I debated to wait another week before I did - didn’t want to make it seem like a Debbie-downer, or that I’m just complaining.

It just seemed that now was the right time to get back into football. 

But boy was that a rough game to watch. 

Where to even start on it. Maybe more importantly, where can I really start that no one else is going to touch on?

1. The Run Game Was A Disaster

Some teams can’t get by without their starting running back. Some teams find a guy that had been cut by several teams and make it work.

Not sure if there is anybody out there like that out there, but it couldn’t hurt the scouting department to take an extra look at what’s out there.

No one is quite sure when James Conner is going to be back, but it should be a concern if it’s going to be any longer than it already has been. His inability to stay healthy has already become a concern, but now more than ever they need him on the field.

Even though Conner has had his moments this season, the Steelers are tied for last in the NFL with a 3.7 yards-per-carry mark. 

Stepping in for an injured Conner in week 1, Benny Snell broke off 113 yards on just 19 carries against the New York Giants (5.94 YPC). Since then he has averaged just 2.37 yards per carry (62 carries, 147 yards). Part of it could be based on the fact Snell faces eight men in the box at one of the highest percentages among running backs in the league.

When he checks into the game, team’s know to stack the box and try and make Snell break a tackle or two before he can start running downhill, which he hasn’t been able to do.

That’s where I was hoping him getting the majority of the snaps may help out Ben Roethlisberger. One of two things was going to happen, either team’s would continue to stack the box against Snell - theoretically opening things up for Ben - or they’d respect the passing game, which would open lanes for the run.

Neither of which happened, as the passing game was it’s usual limited self and Snell averaged less than a yard per carry.

In the end, the running game limped to a paltry 21 yards on 14 attempts, forcing another game in which Ben had to throw over 50 times. The running game’s inability to get another going led to a goal line stand that helped shift things into Washington’s favor.

2. The Passing Game Is Just, Limited

What can you really say about the passing game that hasn’t really been said? It’s fair to say that Steelers’ fans have been spoiled in watch Ben play over the years. To this day I don’t believe he ever got the credit he truly deserved as a deep ball passer, and quarterback overall.

There were few who could do what he did to keep the play alive and then make a play down the field. 

Which makes this year that much harder than to watch.

Roethlisberger’s season comes down to the eye test vs what the numbers say. It’s different to watch a quarterback that you are so use to watch stretch the field on a repeated basis be reduced to a limited short passing attack that has led to a lot of frustration.

That has limited his turnovers, which had been getting out of hand the last couple of seasons as he pushed the ball into dangerous areas trying to make plays. Now without the arm strength he once had, he has had to rely on a quick passing game and allow his receivers to try and make the play for him.

No body - heading into this past week - has been getting the ball out of his hand quicker than Roethlisberger. Rewind ten years, who would have thought that was possible?

That has also led Ben to be at the bottom of average completed air yards, with a 4.6 mark. Meaning, when Ben completes a pass, on average, it travels 4.6 yards in the air.

Only Jimmy Garoppolo, Alex Smith, and Dwayne Haskins put up a lower mark than Roethlisberger. Two of those players listed aren’t currently playing (one injury, one benched), and the other just out dueled Ben and was able to make a couple of deep passes that won them the game.

This offense was set up perfectly for Ben coming off an injury. They are incredible deep at receiver, with upwards of five receivers able to make a play on any given night.  

Pittsburgh has used a second-round pick on a receiver in three of the last four drafts. That one draft they didn’t? They used a third-round pick on Diontae Johnson

The organization has made a point of putting playmakers around Ben as his career winds down, and they have done a good job of making plays. Ben has even come up with some big throws across the season, but they’ve become predictable and easy to defend with their limitations.


Ben Roethlisberger’s Pass Chart for Week 13 vs Washington

The 300-yards was nice, but having to throw the ball 53 times week after week isn’t something is going to lead to success. All total, 31 of his 53 pass attempts were within five yards of the line of scrimmage - eight of them completely behind.

Of the 13 passes of 11-or more yards, Roethlisberger completed just six of them, one of which went nearly 30 yards. 

But with the running game so ineffective, Washington was able to press while the front-four put pressure on Ben, forcing him to throw to tightly covered receivers. There was a lot of drops, which definitely hurt, but the Steelers couldn’t adjust when the game was on the line, and it finally cost them.

3. The Play Calling Was, Wow.

It can’t be easy to call plays when you have to be so one-dimensional so often. That can at least be said in favor of what Randy Fitchner did on Monday. With no fear of the run, Washington knew exactly what was coming, and Pittsburgh didn’t hide it lining up with five receivers a lot.

But throwing to an offensive lineman on third and goal wasn’t a shinning moment. Or not recognizing that gaining even just a yard was going to be a difficult task, and continuing to beat a round peg into a square hole at the goal line. 

This definitely won’t go on Fitchner’s highlight reel of play calling. If such a thing exists.

I’m not even completely upset at the fourth down call to target Anthony McFarland. He was open. It was a tough catch to make, but it was catchable with the proper adjustment. It was, however, an adjustment that you want to put a wide receiver in position to have to make.

Not a fourth-round rookie running back who started the season fourth on the depth chart.

We just talked about the high-draft picks the Steelers have used on receivers, plus one of their biggest free agent signing is a former first-round tight end.

There were other options, and through the gimmick plays and the final call, shows a lack of belief in their playmakers ability to come through when needed.

Remember when Ben alienated Antonio Brown by saying that he ‘should have thrown to Juju four-times’ at the goal-line in a loss? 

Where’s that mentality at?

Chase Claypool is 6’4”, let him go up and get a ball. Isn’t that the exact reason you drafted him?

4. The Defense Found Themselves In An Unfamiliar Spot

The Steelers’ defense isn’t use to being outplayed, especially from other team’s defensive units. But that’s certainly what happened on Monday.

They had a strong first half, were able to get to the quarterback but couldn’t get their trademark turnover at any point when it mattered most. T.J. Watt forced a fumble and had the recovery in his hand, but couldn’t secure it.

How different was the game had he fallen on the ball?

Washington made the adjustments during halftime, and although they couldn’t get to Ben, they did exactly what you should do when you face a quarterback who releases the ball quickly - get your hands up in the air.

Doing just that led to the interception that put the final nail in the coffin for Washington, as former Steeler Jon Bostic grabbed the ball off the tip.

The defense had to be tired. They were playing their third game in 12 days. By time the final quarter came around they were down their replacement starting middle linebacker and both starting cornerbacks, after losing Bud Dupree for the season the previous week.

They are stretched thin, and tired, and trying to carry the load as the offense continues to figure things out.

That doesn’t make the two defensive mishaps that led to a first down, and then a touchdown, late in the game an easier pill to swallow.

It doesn’t make the missed tackles, poor positioning, and Cam Sutton getting burned in his first start at cornerback easier either. 

On paper, Pittsburgh escapes with the better numbers - three sacks, a forced fumble, and several pass defended.

It was the Washington defense that came up with the bigger play at the more crucial time.

5. What’s Next?

What is the full on potential for this Steelers’ team? There are way more questions surrounding them then there usually is around a team that is also 11-1.

When’s Conner coming back? Will he balance out the offense? Are the injuries finally catching up to the defense?

Do they have any chance against the Kansas City Chiefs?

They have four more games to find answers to these questions, get as healthy as possible, and now try and hang on to the first seed they are holding only now due to tiebreaker.

What were your thoughts on the game? How many wins do the Steelers finish with and can they earn the first round bye? What’s the biggest change you’d make if you were Mike Tomlin? Let us know in the comment section below, subscribe to the website at the top of the article, and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy AND @SportBlogMurphy.


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