Professional football, as it’s played in the NFL, is a purely bottom line business, and the bottom line for the Steelers following their home opener at Heinz Field yesterday is that you cannot play that poorly on defense and expect to win.
Understanding that the rules of the sport as it’s being played on the professional level have been tailored toward creating more offense, and that college football is reinforcing the NFL every April with multiple quarterbacks and wide receivers who have dynamic skill-sets, and that the first two statements have been proved by the fact that while there were eight 400-yard passing performances in all of 2017 there already have been six of those through two weeks of 2018, there still is a place for defense in professional football.
Yes, even with all that, there still is a place for defense in the NFL, but Heinz Field was not that place, at least not yesterday.
Ben Roethlisberger completed 65 percent of his 60 pass attempts for 452 yards and three touchdowns, and he was on the losing side, because second-year pro Pat Mahomes completed 82 percent of his 28 attempts for 326 yards and six touchdowns. It wasn’t so much that Mahomes was a better version of Roethlisberger as much as it was a situation where the resistance provided by the Steelers defense was tantamount to a speed bump on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The final score was 42-37 in Kansas City’s favor, and that result can be explained by any number of statistics from the game. Such as the Chiefs offense ran 54 plays and only faced a third down situation five times. Or that each time Mahomes dropped back to pass, the Chiefs gained an average of 11.1 yards, which supports the previous stat about the small number of third downs. Or that the Chiefs offense was perfect in the red zone, or that it needed to run only 13 plays in the first quarter to take a 21-0 lead, or that it needed 17 plays in the second half to turn a 21-21 tie into a 42-28 lead.
All of those statistics are accurate, and any of them can be cited as the reason for the outcome, but worse than the numbers or the impact of those numbers was how they were achieved.
The Steelers spent the better part of a whole offseason working on fixing their defense. They signed some veteran free agents, they swapped out some assistant coaches, they spent their first-round draft pick on a guy they saw as capable of re-defining his position. They flip-flopped their outside linebackers, both of whom also had been first-round picks. They tinkered with some personnel groupings in some cases and came up with completely new ones in others. They emphasized communication, and then they spent countless hours in classrooms and on the fields from OTAs through the preseason drilling it to hammer out the kinks.
No, it wasn’t necessarily a smooth process, nor did it yield consistently better results from one day to the next, one practice to the next. There were fits and starts, times where it looked as though there was one step back for every couple of steps forward. Then as the regular season dawned, it seemed it was on track to be better, but after yesterday the impression is that was the result of looking at it all through rose-colored glasses.
Chiefs receivers were open all afternoon, and Mahomes’ decision-making and accuracy were excellent. (And just as a side note: any observers who are so quick to anoint the Steelers offense as the most talented unit in the league would be wise to temper that opinion until they get a load of the Chiefs. And remember, the criteria is the assemblage of talent rather than NFL pedigree or resume.) Now, back to regular programming.
The issue wasn’t that the Kansas City receivers were open and/or that Mahomes has a great arm, but it was the ease with which they were playing pitch-and-catch all afternoon. Again to the statistics: the only pass defensed by the Steelers came when Stephon Tuitt got a hand on a ball close to the line of scrimmage, and the only sack came when Mahomes fell down and was touched by Dan McCullers.
The progress the Steelers defense seemingly made through a steady rain in Cleveland one week earlier evaporated on a sunny Sunday in Pittsburgh, and today there are far more questions than answers. There certainly were no answers from the players in the immediate aftermath, nor should any have been expected because the shock of what had just happened had yet to wear off.
They vowed to get back to work, and there can be some comfort in that they’re still closer to the beginning of the season than they are to the end. But they also should realize that unless the work they vowed to do starts showing results, the end will just be a matter of time.