BALTIMORE – So much of a team's season comes down to numbers, and the numbers all are working against the Pittsburgh Steelers right now. Three losses in a row. Four losses in a row to the Baltimore Ravens. As a result of those two sets of numbers, four losses on a season that still has eight games to go.
After yesterday's 21-14 loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, there can be little argument that the Steelers currently are a team living somewhere between in-a-slump and not-very-good, and while their first order of business has to be to get better in some of the many areas that currently are killing them on any given Sunday, there also needs to be a sense of urgency because they're failing to position themselves for the final eight games of this regular season.
The whole idea was that this time the Steelers would do a better job of positioning themselves within the AFC hierarchy so that they might be able to enjoy the fruits of the playoffs instead of having their record force them to be vagabonds during the postseason, because that path so rarely works out well.
Such talk now, in the immediate aftermath of what has grown into this three-game losing streak, sounds ridiculous, and it is ridiculous. It's ridiculous because at the midway point of the 2016 season, these Steelers haven't been consistent in any aspect of their game.
The alleged high-powered offense, the one with a stated goal of 30 points per game, didn't convert a third down against the Ravens until the 12-minute mark of the fourth quarter, just as one example. Around the time this losing streak started, the punt team was being identified as the team's best unit, but it's no longer true after the unit allowed a blocked punt/scoop-and-score that turned out to account for the points making up the margin of defeat in the final score.
It's too simplistic to hang this loss on a bonehead play by the punt team, but that just serves to illustrate the dramatic swings in performance plaguing this team so far this season. And this applies to individual players and units alike.
Game action from Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens.
At times this season Ben Roethlisberger has been magnificent, but that wasn't yesterday. It's fair to add the disclaimer that he was playing just 20 days after having a procedure to repair his meniscus, and his want-to is an admirable trait, but 9-for-21 for 61 yards with an interception through the first three-plus quarters of the game is a killer. As are 10 penalties. As is a 95-yard catch-and-run off a simple quick timing route. As is the total of 36 rushing yards in 18 attempts on a day when the quarterback is playing just 20 days after having a procedure to repair his meniscus.
Artie Burns made his first NFL start for the Steelers against the Ravens, and he showed why playing rookies at cornerback in the NFL can be a high-wire experience. He made a nice play on the ball for his first career interception and he was competitive, made a tackle in the backfield, and broke up a couple of passes. But he also misplayed that short timing route on the Ravens series that followed his interception, and his error opened the gate for Mike Wallace to go 95 yards for the game's first touchdown.
Already mentioned was the paltry rushing total posted by the Steelers, and the offensive line has to account for its contributions in that area. But inexplicable is a description for turning Terrell Suggs loose for a clear path and a free shot at Roethlisberger on a third down midway through the first quarter.
A popular answer to the question of how can stuff like that happen is it's Mike Tomlin's fault, and as the head coach his job title assures him the biggest portion of the responsibility. If assigning blame is your thing, there's enough to go around to every aspect of football operations after three straight losses and a 4-4 record at the midway point, but that doesn't solve anything.
The Steelers will be hosting the Dallas Cowboys this coming Sunday, and their season is hanging in the balance as they begin working toward what's looking very much like a pivotal game for them. It will be pivotal, because of the numbers. Because the idea is for a team to find ways to win enough games through the initial portion of the schedule to have a good enough record to make itself relevant down the stretch when things like division titles and home playoff games and playoff byes can be earned.
There are a lot of things the Steelers must work to improve, but right now they need nothing so much as to win a game. One. By whatever means necessary. Aesthetics be damned.
Because the numbers don't lie.