The number of people who expected, at any point this autumn, that the Steelers would finish the 2020 regular season undefeated almost certainly was smaller than the select group of family members gathered at Heinz Field late Monday to bear first-hand witness to the end of that dream.
Neither, though, did many expect that it would be the Washington Football Team who would do the honors.
The WFT is fighting for relevance in the most irrelevant of all NFL divisions, the NFC East, but its coaching staff entered the stadium with a solid plan mostly cribbed from the Ravens and enough quality players to make it work in a 23-17 victory. That stopped the Steelers’ perfect start to the season at 11 games; they were one of 11 teams since the 1970 merger to get that far into a season without losing.
The Steelers, whose next game is at the AFC East-leading Bills on “Sunday Night Football,” had been trending toward such an outcome but always found enough impact in their defense or their playmaking receivers to avoid defeat. This time, there were at least 11 reasons they did not reach 12-0:
1. Running on empty. The Steelers’ running game is failing on first down, failing at general productivity and failing, most glaringly, in essential circumstances. It is failing at full strength (with top back James Connor and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey) and reduced capacity (with reserve back Benny Snell and rookie JC Hassenauer handling snaps).
They’ve generated 100 yards just once in the past seven games, including a season-worst 21 yards on 14 attempts in the WFT game. First-down runs have been a ticket to second-and-long. And lately they’ve failed so regularly in short-yardage situations that the Steelers chose to pass twice when needing a single yard on the most pivotal sequence in Monday’s game.
Why they can’t run is the bigger issue. The offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack in 252 pass attempts, a span of five games. But that same group is generating no push and routinely creating traffic for their own backs behind the line. When the Steelers had a 2nd-and-goal from the 1 with 6:17 left in the first half, they pulled Matt Feiler from left guard into a planned hole on the right side — and it was Feiler who knocked Snell off his stride.
“If you can’t get a yard, in our game, you don’t deserve to win,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.
2. Unreasonable demands. Three of the most important plays the Steelers ran in short-yardage situations required players to accomplish extraordinary things to achieve the ordinary goal of advancing the football 36 inches.
On the third-down play that followed the Feiler-Snell collision, the Steelers ran a tackle-eligible play. But not the kind where he sneaks unnoticed into the end zone and catches a soft pass over the middle. Oh, no. The Steelers had 305-pound Jerald Hawkins flare to the right and twist to attempt to catch a pass in stride and then run it into the end zone. Who does that?
Well, the same team that, on third-and-1 from the WFT 28 with 4:59 left in a tie game, asked Ben Roethlisberger to throw an inch-perfect pass to a closely covered JuJu Smith-Schuster running an out pattern. And the team followed that by sending rookie back Anthony McFarland, with five career catches for 45 yards, on a streak down the right sideline and asking him to adjust in the air as though he were an All-Pro wideout.
In case it was not clear, none of those plays succeeded.
3. Slow starts. For the third consecutive game, and the fifth time in six, the Pittsburgh offense failed to produce a single point in the first quarter. The group produced one touchdown in that stretch — which is fewer than the Steelers’ defense has managed.
This is an obvious failure of game-planning, which falls on the offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, who is charged with constructing those plans.
For much of the year, the OC has been bailed out by production the Steelers have managed with the quarterback calling plays in no-huddle schemes.
Steelers beat writer Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out that the team averaged 9.3 yards on 13 no-huddle plays against the Ravens, but only 3.6 yards when operating out of a huddle. So what happened against the WFT? It appeared that there was even less use of the no-huddle approach.
4. Drops. The Steelers have dropped 32 passes, the sixth-worst figure in the league. It’s been a glaring and galling problem over the past two weeks, as tight end Eric Ebron and wideout Diontae Johnson each dropped multiple passes against the Ravens and WFT.
It’s impossible to control the football with a passing game if the receivers drop catchable passes. Not referencing particular players, Tomlin said, “They can catch the ball or get replaced by those that will catch it. It’s just as simple as that.”
5. The long game. There has been a logic to the Steelers’ move to a controlled passing game, particularly with the rushing attack so meager. It’s allowed them to rank high in time-of-possession stats and keep Roethlisberger on his feet. But it ought not to represent the entirety of the offense.
Even facing stacked boxes the past two weeks, the Steelers have not attempted to push the ball downfield. That they’re averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt is a problem. That they’ve had only six touchdown passes that traveled longer than 30 yards is evidence of a challenged offense.
6. Personnel decisions. Rookie wideout Chase Claypool, the team’s leader in touchdown catches and yards per reception, was stranded on the sideline for 56 percent of offensive snaps in the WFT game. Claypool had only two catches but generated an average of 19 yards on those plays.
He would have been a better option, on multiple levels, than Ebron on a number of plays. On the fourth-and-goal call that ended the second-quarter sequence, Ebron was in for a called run. He was sent in motion and assigned to block the defensive end, in this case gifted rookie Chase Young. Ebron ran past Young in the formation and left him a clear lane to attack Snell. It was Young’s tackle that kept Snell from reaching the goal line. Claypool would make that block.
7. Intransigence. One can’t say a lack of imagination from the Steelers’ offensive staff led to the absence of adjustments in Monday’s defeat. Because this is the same team that jet-sweeped the Browns into submission and once got a 58-yard carry out of return man Ray-Ray McCloud. But none of that was revisited when the Steelers went stale against the Ravens and WFT. In the rushing game, instead of trying to make great use of 5-8, 208-pound McFarland’s speed and elusiveness in the open field, they’ve sent him on off-tackle sojourns as if he were Jerome Bettis.
“We’re open to doing anything that’s required of us to find the fluidity we once had,” Tomlin said. That was not the approach Monday.
8. Communication. Because of injury, the Steelers were in a scramble with multiple non-regulars in key defensive positions as the game advanced — and one starter missing was inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who typically wears the radio device connecting the field to the sideline. The gradual disintegration of their pass coverage appeared to be related to the inability to assure that all defenders recognized their assignments. With Spillane expected to miss time with a knee injury, if the Steelers try to use Avery Williamson in this role, they’ll be handing it to someone who just joined the team a month ago; if they use Vince Williams, it’ll be someone they typically don’t want to play three downs.
9. Injuries. The absence of Pouncey and Conner certainly impacted the offense, but the first game played without budding star linebacker Bud Dupree revealed a defense that had lost some of its sting. Rookie replacement Alex Highsmith did a fine job. He played 83 percent of defensive snaps and delivered five tackles, but he was unable to exert the degree of pressure that might have been expected of his predecessor.
They finished this game without their top two corners; Steven Nelson missed with a knee injury and Joe Haden left with a concussion. And they were down to their third choice at inside linebacker.
10. Aggression. The Steelers sacked Smith three times, but he got plenty of time as he heated up in the second half. The Steelers chose to blitz less frequently, even though they’d had great success with attacking schemes in the first half — and even though they were leaving receivers wide open without sending extra rushers after the QB. Taking the same tone as their offense, they played not to lose.
11. Luck ran out. Throughout their perfect start, the Steelers frequently benefited from timely penalties against the opposition that continued drives. Passes thrown by Roethlisberger that were deflected at the line, and those thrown into too-tight coverage, fell harmlessly to the grass.
This time, it was Washington’s drive inside the 10 that was revived by a holding call against linebacker T.J. Watt and subsequently turned into a touchdown. It was the Steelers punished by a clock situation mismanaged by officials at the end of the first half, which led to WFT getting a field goal it might not have deserved. Roethlisberger’s attempt at conjuring a game-winning drive ended when his first pass was deflected — too typically, it was a modest sideline route that would have netted just a few yards if completed — and intercepted by former Steeler Jon Bostic.
There’s not much in all of this that is beyond the Steelers’ control.
Tomlin seemed inclined to make the changes necessary to avoid the season’s first losing streak. He did note, however, that the Steelers again will be operating again on a short week. And, this time, they’ll face an opponent few question as a contender.