One week after there seemed to be progress, after so many things had gone right for the offense, it was back to the beginning. Not just back to the beginning as in the drawing board, but back to the beginning of a regular season characterized by the kind of offense that cannot hold up its end to win consistently in the NFL.
Remember how it began against San Francisco back on Sept. 10, specifically the first series of the first game? It was a third-and-5 from the Steelers 30-yard line, and instead of Kenny Pickett delivering the ball on time and on target to George Pickens, who was breaking into the open down the middle of the field for what shoulda coulda been a touchdown, he was sacked by defensive lineman Drake Jackson.
On Sunday against the Jaguars, it was the same type of missed opportunity with a few minor variations of the particulars. Because Jacksonville won the toss and elected to defer, the Steelers received the opening kickoff, and after a touchback, play began at their 25-yard line. This time it was the first play of the first series, it was Diontae Johnson who breaking free down the middle of the field, and this time Pickett delivered the ball on time. But it wasn't accurate, slightly overthrown or maybe just a little high, and it glanced off Johnson's outstretched fingertips. But the outcome was the same – a missed opportunity for a big-play touchdown that could have set a dramatically different tone for a game that then turned into a three-hour, 14-minute commercial for extra-strength antacids.
Once again, the statistics offered a stark assessment of the offense's afternoon. Four straight three-and-outs. A first quarter that ended with the Steelers having no first downs, no third-down conversions, just 4 rushing yards and 3 passing yards, and four minutes and 11 seconds of time of possession. Add it all up, and the Steelers found themselves on the wrong end of the 20-10 final despite a defense that recorded three sacks, had three takeaways, and did not allow a touchdown on any of the Jaguars three possessions in the red zone.
"We missed a big play down the middle early," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We missed another corner route early. We've just got to execute better at the early portions of football games."
The missed corner route referenced by Tomlin came on a third-and-2 from the Pittsburgh 33-yard line with 4:42 remaining in the first quarter and the Steelers trailing, 6-0. On the play Pickett's pass this time appeared to be a tad underthrown, which slowed George Pickens and allowed cornerback Darious Williams a chance to get back and tip the ball away. That possession ended up being the Steelers' third straight three-and-out of the first quarter.
"The early portions of the game don't decide the outcome," said Tomlin. "It doesn't. It didn't today. Obviously you want more fluid starts, but it didn't determine the outcome of the game. I thought the critical things were the things that transpired in the second half. The long score (by Jacksonville), the turnover, the things you can't do as you're leaning in on the last portion of a football game."
Accepting the premise that the first half was just aggravating to watch while the game actually was lost because of the inadequacies during the second half, let's explore that.
It was midway through the third quarter, and despite losing Minkah Fitzpatrick to a hamstring injury in the first six minutes of the game and Pickett to a rib injury late in the first half, the Steelers were one score away from being in the lead despite having more three-and-outs (5) than points (3) to that point.
On a third-and-7 from their 27-yard line, Mitch Trubisky went deep down the right sideline to Pickens, who initially was ruled to have made a pretty play for a 16-yard gain. But after a Jacksonville replay challenge, the call on the field was overturned and instead of getting their third third-down conversion of the game the Steelers got a 29-yard punt from Pressley Harvin III, and Jacksonville's offense was back on the field with a first down at the Jaguars 44-yard line.
Allow Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence to pick up the narrative. "We were in empty (set with running back Travis Etienne and wide receiver Calvin Ridley among a group of three aligned wide to the right)). I don't know if we ever have thrown that ball to the running back out there. Honestly got to give a lot of credit to Travis for staying ready, knowing what the look is. (The Steelers) played Cover-2. Calvin at number two, the corner jumped that. Travis was rolling down the sideline. The safety, instead of getting high over the top, he drove as well. I think he thought I was throwing it to Calvin. Got fortunate because I put enough air under it, because that could have been bad. (The safety) had a jump on it if I threw it flat."
The way it was explained in the Steelers locker room, there was a blown assignment involving Joey Porter Jr., and instead of having both Ridley and Etienne covered, there were two guys on Ridley while Etienne had been released to run free deep down the sideline. Lawrence didn't miss the throw, Etienne completed the catch and run for a 66-yard touchdown and then made it an 8-point play with a sweep to the right for the 2-point conversion. The Jaguars' lead had become 17-3. Such are the risks of having a rookie playing significant snaps at cornerback – a false step, a bad angle, or a misunderstood call, and what often follows is an end zone celebration.
The eight plays that came after the ensuing kickoff represented the Steelers' offensive highlight of the game. Eight plays, 75 yards. Trubisky completed 5-of-6 for 60 yards and he scrambled for 7 more. The touchdown came on a slant to Pickens, who turned it into a 22-yard score when he jumped over safety Andrew Wingard and cornerback Montaric Brown on the way to the end zone. Back to a one-score game, 17-10.
It stayed that way until a series of events unfolded with 10:14 left in the fourth quarter. A sack of Trubisky was nullified by a defensive offside penalty, and on second-and-3 he took a deep shot down the right sideline for Allen Robinson, but it was into what ended up being triple-coverage because Jacksonville's secondary swarmed the area with the ball in the air. Wingard did the honors at the Jacksonville 41-yard line for Jacksonville's 10th interception of the season.
It took the Jaguars 7 plays to move 40 yards – tight end Evan Engram taking a short pass and weaving 34 yards through the secondary accounted for almost all of it – Jacksonville iced the outcome with a 37-yard field goal from Brian McManus. Well, the game wasn't really iced because there was 4:35 remaining and the Steelers' deficit was still mathematically reasonable at a touchdown and a field goal (20-10), but it sure felt insurmountable at the time.
In terms of the AFC North as the regular season crosses into November, the Ravens are at 6-2 and own a 1.5-game lead over the Steelers, Browns, and Bengals, but the feel of each of those 4-3 records hints at a clear order.
The Bengals opened their season with back-to-back losses to AFC North opponents and were doing it with a franchise quarterback nursing a calf injury that was a ticking time bomb. After taking down the 49ers in San Francisco by 31-17, the Bengals are 4-3 with Joe Burrow looking better each week punctuated by a 28-of-32 (87.5 percent), 283-yard, 3-touchdown, no-interception performance in his most recent outing.
On the other hand, the Steelers' 4-3 is not indicative of a team on the rise. The defense is opportunistic, and sometimes dynamic, but it's not shut-down stingy. With 113 points, only Las Vegas and the New York Giants are worse, the Steelers stare at the likelihood of having to hold an opponent to 14 points or fewer each week to have a reasonable chance to win. Scoring might be down across the NFL this season, but it's not "9 offensive touchdowns over a seven-game span" down.
"No time to sit and sulk," said T.J. Watt. "We have a game on Thursday. That's part of the beauty of the NFL. We have to move past it, but at the same time, we also can't just can it. We have to look at the film and learn from it."
If it's part of the beauty of the NFL to have another game four days after a loss like the one to the Jaguars, it's also ominous to have Tennessee coming to town after a 28-23 win that included 149 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns passes from a rookie starting quarterback taking his first NFL regular season snaps. In four days.