There is a saying Chuck Noll would trot out for occasions such as this. Part warning for what was to come, and part explanation after it inevitably did.
"When you lose, everything they say about you is true."
The Steelers lost to the Bengals on Sunday, and there has been and will be a lot said about the players and coaches as a result of everything that happened to result in the 24-10 defeat to drop their record to 1-2. Some of it will be strictly factual. Some will be accusatory. Some will be mocking. Some will be angry.
Starting with the factual: Sunday's loss was the Steelers' second in a row after an opening weekend win in Buffalo and dropped them to the basement of the AFC North, while Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland all stand 2-1. It marked the first time the Steelers had lost back-to-back games that both were played at home since 2003. And when it happened in 2003, on Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, they lost to the Titans, 30-13, and to the Browns, 33-13. It was their first loss to the Bengals in Pittsburgh since 2015 and dating back to 2020 it was the Steelers' sixth loss in their last eight regular season games.
And within this most recent defeat was the end of their streak of regular season games with at least one sack. Coming into the matchup vs. the Bengals, the Steelers had posted at least one sack in 75 straight regular season games, dating back to Oct. 23, 2016, vs. the New England Patriots. The Steelers didn't register a sack of Tom Brady that day almost five full years ago, and they didn't register one of Joe Burrow on Sunday.
Another element that contributed significantly to the Steelers' defeat were the penalties – 10 for 73 yards, with six of those for 51 yards coming in the first half as the Bengals built a 14-7 lead while simultaneously establishing control of the game.
The Steelers sabotaged their first three offensive possessions with penalties to varying degrees. An illegal formation penalty turned a second-and-6 into a second-and-11 on the first, and a punt soon followed; a holding penalty on Kendrick Green nullified a 10-yard run by Najee Harris, and then an offensive pass interference penalty on Chase Claypool ruined what had been a 12-yard completion to Harris on the second, and then came another punt; and on the third, a false start by Trai Turner turned a third-and-8 into a third-and-13, and Ben Roethlisberger threw the first of his two interceptions on the next snap.
"We're not playing well enough," said Coach Mike Tomlin about an offense that has not scored in the first quarter of any of the three games so far this season and only has managed 14 points in the entire first halves of those games. "We're not making enough plays, some of those one-on-one type plays, and (during) the initial part of this game you saw the penalties. Every time we possessed the ball … when you get a holding penalty, it's a drive killer. And so, the penalty aspect of play did not give us a chance to establish any rhythm, particularly at the early portions of the game."
Whether that inability to establish any rhythm early was the cause of the disjointed play that followed is debatable, but the offense never did right itself to the degree where it could be considered an asset in the team's quest for a victory. In fact, it consistently proved itself to be a liability that had to be overcome.
To label the pass protection leaky is to be overly kind, and it's also fair to point to some of Ben Roethlisberger's decision-making as being responsible for a portion of the four sacks and six hits on him that protection yielded. That Roethlisberger held the ball too long on occasion is a fact, but did any of that trace back to the inability of receivers to be open when the ball was supposed to be delivered? And the issue of putting the quarterback under center and utilizing play-action can be talked about ad nauseam, but until the running game even hints at being NFL caliber that's nothing more than lip service.
Injuries have been a factor, and among the notables who didn't participate against the Bengals included starting outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, and defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu. Cornerback Joe Haden and inside linebacker Devin Bush returned after missing the previous game, and Ben Roethlisberger was dealing with a left pectoral injury that limited him in practice leading up to Sunday's game vs. Cincinnati. But in the category of two-steps-forward, one-step-back health dance, center Kendrick Green left the game against the Bengals with a concussion, and JuJu Smith-Schuster was sent to the sideline with injured ribs.
Sunday's attendance was announced as 58,076, and the restlessness of the customers was apparent before the end of the first quarter. Boos could be heard throughout the game, and the majority of those were directed at the offense. The natives are restless and already are demanding changes. Not that what the natives want will, or should be, considered, but angry, discontented fans at the very least pose a distraction to young, inexperienced players as they work to smooth the rough spots in their individual performances. And if it is decided by the coaches or management that certain individuals are the reason for the losing or are otherwise holding the rest of the group back, then something is going to have to be done beyond staying the course and continuing to work to improve.
Tomlin was asked about this during his postgame media session.
"You know, I'm not interested in making any plans as I sit here right now," said Tomlin. "I'm just summarizing what transpired in the stadium. We have the upcoming days and hours to plot a course for how we move forward."
That needs to be time well spent, because while there can be some discussion about whether the way out of this is better accomplished by staying the course vs. making some targeted changes, whether the return of the injured can solve some of their issues, one thing is plainly obvious:
The Steelers offense as currently constituted both in terms of personnel and scheme, is not working.