The difference between Tua Tagovailoa and Kenny Pickett on Sunday night was the same as the difference between winning and losing the game. Pickett threw three interceptions and Tagovailoa threw none, and as a result the Steelers were minus-3 in turnover ratio, while the Dolphins were plus-3 in turnover ratio.
That minus-3 turnover ratio was the difference in the Steelers' 16-10 loss to the Dolphins, a defeat that dropped them to 2-5, kept them in the AFC North Division basement, and snapped their modest win streak at one in a row. Or maybe a better way to describe the difference in the game was that the Steelers secondary dropped four potential interceptions, while Miami's patchwork secondary caught them all.
"They made the necessary plays to secure victory, and really we didn't," said Coach Mike Tomlin, "and oftentimes, particularly when's it's a defensive battle the way the game developed into, it's about who catches the interception opportunities and who doesn't. That's just kind of the lens in which I see it.
"The Dolphins caught theirs and we didn't catch ours. That's probably the difference in the game. Sometimes when it's a one-score game, and it's back and forth like that and the defenses are controlling it, defensive splash is ultimately the deciding factor.
We didn't give our offense a short field by producing a turnover or two, and they did."
There can be no argument that the Steelers defense didn't make the big plays when the opportunities presented themselves, and when Tomlin explained during the preseason that a dominant defense is "to be what we need them to be whenever we need them to be it, and so dominant defenses are ready in a moment's notice, to put out a fire, to provide a winning edge, to take the ball away, to do the things that positions your team for victory" a situation such as the one Sunday night vs. the Dolphins is exactly what he meant.
Acknowledging there are no moral victories in the NFL and that "almost making the necessary plays to win" is nothing but a flowery way of saying "didn't make the necessary plays to win," the Steelers defense did a nice job in some of the challenging aspects presented by the Miami offense.
Primary among those challenges are Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, who as NFL wide receivers would make half of a heckuva 4X100 relay team. Hill and Waddle have what Chuck Noll once referred to as "beep-beep" speed in an homage to the roadrunner cartoons from the Looney Tunes animated series, and that speed can be fatal to opponents by running away from the coverage to catch the ball, or by catching the ball and then running away from the people defenders gathering to make the tackle.
Based on what the pair had done to the Ravens in Baltimore, with Hill finishing with 11 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns, and Waddle right behind with 11 catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns, the Steelers did a representative job. On Sunday night, Hill finished with 7 catches for 72 yards, while Waddle added 4 catches for 88 yards, but neither one got into the end zone, and the longest reception for either was 25 yards.
The Dolphins got the ball into the end zone only once and were shut out in the second half. Had the Steelers gotten a similarly representative effort from their offense, they likely would have left South Florida with a two-game winning streak and a 3-4 record.
Once again, the numbers were staggering. The Steelers offense had 11 possessions in the game, with four of those ending in three-and-outs, and another ending in a two-and-out because of Pickett's first interception. The unit could not record a first down in the first quarter and managed only one in the third quarter. For the game, the Steelers converted 4-of-14 third downs and gained 20-plus yards on exactly two of their 69 offensive plays – a 30-yard reception by George Pickens, and a 21-yard reception by Pat Freiermuth.
As for the running game, Najee Harris finished with 17 carries for 65 yards, and on about half of those 17 he was unable to get back to the line of scrimmage without first contacting a Dolphins defender. And while the Steelers were penalized just 5 times for 40 yards, the timing of four offensive penalties was damaging.
On a second-and-8 with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter in a game where the Dolphins were leading 16-10 but not getting much accomplished offensively, Pickett completed a 4-yard pass to Freiermuth for 4 yards to set up a manageable third-and-4, but the play was nullified when James Daniels was flagged for being illegally downfield. So, it went from second-and-8 to second-and-13, and after Pickett completed another short pass, this one to Diontae Johnson, but that play was nullified by an offensive pass interference call on Johnson before the ball arrived. That set up a second-and-23, and what followed two plays later was one of Pressley Harvin III's 6 punts.
Another two-play snippet, this one in the fourth quarter, definitely cost the Steelers the opportunity to slice Miami's 16-10 at least in half. On a third-and-1 from the Miami 13-yard line with 3:17 remaining, a sneak by Pickett seemed to be enough for the first down, but Miles Boykin was flagged for an illegal shift. After the 5-yard penalty, Pickett scrambled for 5 yards on third-and-6 that apparently set up a manageable fourth-and-1, but that chance went out the window when Dan Moore Jr. was flagged for holding. That made it third-and-16 from the 30-yard line, and Pickett threw an interception when attempting a short pass to Diontae Johnson.
The Steelers have scored no more than 17 points in four of their last seven games, and their 10 touchdowns to this point in the season are the fourth fewest in the NFL. There are other available statistics to belabor the contention that the Steelers offense is underperforming, but at some point, it all becomes overkill.
While statistics can come across as nothing but numbers in cyberspace, the visual is not kind to everyone involved. The game plans, the play-calling, the execution, none of it has been good enough, and the same issues seem to be repeated over and over again. The Steelers continue to ignore the middle of the field when throwing the football, and they continue to throw short of the sticks on possession downs – there actually was a 1-yard pass on a third-and-3.
Pickett's supporters might shift the blame elsewhere or cite his inexperience, but his decision-making has been too rookie-esque at times, and while he can be praised for being aggressive and trying to give his receivers the chance to make plays that could lead to a win, 7 interceptions in six halves of football is way too many.
Alas, there are no easy or simple solutions, and even though the players deserve credit for resisting the temptation to go public with their frustration, it would be naïve to expect that to last for the two-plus more months left in this regular season.
The Steelers defense actually has found a way to hold its own, despite injuries that landed T.J. Watt on injured reserve and gutted the secondary the week before facing Tampa Bay, to allow 10 touchdowns in the last five games that weren't the blowout in Buffalo. In three of the last six games, the defense has kept the opponent in the teens, but that was good enough to win only once, because what's missing is complementary play from the offense and/or special teams.
One of the things Chuck Noll always preached was that "when you lose, whatever they say about you is true." After Sunday night at Hard Rock Stadium, the Steelers are 2-5, and their offense is not working. Today, those are the truths staring them in the face.