The Steelers’ bizarre season of close games, and where they go from here

NFL


The Steelers’ playoff hopes are in serious jeopardy. Losses in tight games and an inconsistent defense provide some answers.

Juju Smith-Schuster’s late fumble on Sunday, sealing a 31-28 Saints win, dropped the Pittsburgh Steelers to an 8-6-1 record, the culmination of a weird season.

No one can figure out if the mercurial, mistake-prone Steelers are an unlucky fallen elite or season-long frauds without the bona fides of a legitimate contender.

It took a lot of close losses and near-misses (bookended by a handful of impressive wins) to put them in this predicament. I repeat: It’s been a weird season.

Early in the year, they infamously tied with the Browns (in a game featuring two missed field goals in OT) and then got torched in Week 2 by the Chiefs, dampening early season championship aspirations as rumors of internal strife swirled.

It’s easy to forget, somehow, Le’Veon Bell’s never-ending drama.

A Week 3 win in Tampa and a now-killer loss to the Ravens put them at 1-2-1 prior to a sudden six-game winning streak, seemingly reaffirming their status among the AFC’s elite.

They beat up on the Falcons and Panthers (not coincidentally at Heinz Field), exacted revenge on the Browns in Hue Jackson’s last game in charge and picked up a pair of seven-point wins over the Ravens and Bengals.

The win streak featured its share of underlying issues. The defense struggled to force turnovers. Chris Boswell’s epic case of the yips persisted.

The offense tended to fade in and out, even amid dominant performances out of James Connor, Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster. Ben Roethlisberger’s late-career propensity for damaging interceptions occasionally reared its head.

But after a 52-21 blowout of the Panthers (then considered a good, contending team, ensuing belly-flop notwithstanding) marked their fifth-straight victory on Thursday Night Football, the Steelers looked legit.

They suddenly were staring at a chance to not only win the AFC North, but skip the wild-card round in the process.

Their Week 10 win in Jacksonville maintained that path. But it required a frantic late comeback and last-second red zone craziness to overcome a horrid first-half Roethlisberger performance and a disappointing Connor output.

The following week’s 24-17 loss in Denver began a turn for the worse.

They fell to the emerging Chargers on Sunday Night Football, 33-30, in another wild affair. They traveled to last-place Oakland and somehow lost to Jon Gruden’s tankers, a Boswell missed field goal ruining the late hook-and-ladder heroics of Smith-Schuster and James Washington.

The ways in which they lost those three games are myriad. A chance to tie the Broncos game at the goal-line with 1:03 left in the game went wasted after Roethlisberger threw a devastating interception to nose tackle Shelby Harris.

Against LA, the Steelers held a 23-7 halftime lead only to eventually see a potentially game-winning Roethlisberger drive ruined by a brilliant Rivers answer. The game would have gone to overtime had the Steelers not jumped offside on Michael Badgley’s missed field-goal.

Boswell, for his part, slipped on the Oakland turf in an attempt to send that game to OT.

Per Bill Barnwell, Pittsburgh is 5-5-1 in one-score games this season, a year after winning eight of 10 such games. They go from finding wild ways to win (the long AB touchdown to miraculously beat the Bengals in October, for instance) to those wild losses.

In the middle of all of this, they somehow managed a 17-10 win over New England in Week 15 at home.

Their playoff chances now rest on the Browns and the Steelers’ ability to not lose to Jeff Driskel and the Bengals — no longer a guarantee.

The most recent loss, to New Orleans, came due to Smith-Schuster’s fumble, a dubious early pass interference call against Joe Haden that resulted in what was likely a nine-point swing, and the defense’s struggles against Drew Brees. The interference call, especially, proved decisive.

Losing in one of the toughest environments in the NFL against one of the league’s best teams isn’t a disaster in itself, but losing in the ways the Steelers did, just a week after finally beating the Patriots on the back of that much-maligned defense, is a brutal way to see the season potentially decided.

So, the question remains: What is this Steelers team? Does anyone know? Will Roethlisberger spew some more useful info on his radio show?

We know, at least, that this Pittsburgh offense is one of the best and most talented in the league. Roethlisberger, even with his interceptions, is throwing the ball 50 times a game and racking up the yards.

The offensive line has been fantastic, and is singlehandedly destroying Bell’s free agent market. Brown, lest we forget, is the league’s best receiver. Smith-Schuster should have been a Pro Bowler.

The Steelers rank fifth in offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Juju and Brown both rank in the top 10 in effective receiving yards, the only teammate duo to appear so high. The offensive line, by almost every Football Outsiders metric, is top-five in the NFL.

The offense is good. The defense, which falls noticeably lower in most meaningful statistics, is less so.

Identifying culprits on that end isn’t difficult. Keith Butler, the longtime linebackers coach, has looked out of his depth as a coordinator, and often gets out-schemed by smarter offensive coaches.

His zone coverages are exploited by shifting top wideouts like Keenan Allen and Michael Thomas into the slot to create mismatches, forcing a linebacker or safety to cover bigger and better receivers.

Tight ends feast on these favorable matchups. The Steelers’ dedication to heavy zone schemes increases the likelihood of missed assignments and unclear communication. The result is the 31st-ranked defense against tight ends by DVOA.

Allen (14 catches for 148 yards and a TD ) and Thomas (11 for 109 and a TD) had little trouble beating the likes of Vince Williams and Morgan Burnett in coverage.

Steelers’ defensive backs have struggled as well — the top corner, Haden, is far from elite, and the collapse of 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns has proved costly.

The run defense, buoyed by Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cam Heyward, has been a bright spot, and the pass rush has often come up big. Butler is an expert at designing stunts and disguised blitzes, often using defensive back Mike Hilton as a speed rusher off the edge.

But the front seven hasn’t done enough to offset the secondary’s weaknesses.

Against New England, the defense indicated it could have the talent and coaching to play better than it often has.

They gave up just 10 points in that game to an offense that traditionally has had little trouble ripping the Steelers to shreds, and the defense held Tom Brady in the red zone on a two-minute drive. That form evidently did not carry over to New Orleans.

Wasting this season to the extent that it looks like the Steelers might would be a massive disappointment. Roethlisberger, of course, is at the tail end of a Hall-of-Fame career.

Not capitalizing on the chemistry between Big Ben and Brown while we can still enjoy it would be devastating, particularly given the contributions of the rest of the offense.

Roethlisberger has said he would like to play two more years after this season, though no one really knows how much truth remains in that statement.

If the Steelers are going to have a legitimate shot at getting back to Super Bowl contention, they’ll have to find a way to return the secondary to some level of competency. Perhaps an asset like recently-released strong safety DJ Swearinger could be of use.

In addition, they have to solve the little issues that plague them in close games. Tomlin has done damage with ill-advised challenges and poor game management, going back to last season’s game-losing onside kick attempt in the divisional round.

They will have to evaluate whether they can trust Boswell with the kicking job.

Next: Has NFL leaned too far to favor offense?

With Juju at the center, the Steelers have the makeup of a sustainably good team. Avoiding the constant weirdness and uncertainty will be their next task.





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