EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ten points isn't enough. Twenty points over a two-week span is doubly insufficient. Should the masochists in the audience care to explore this futility further, they have scored just one offensive touchdown in seven of their last eight games, and after scoring 15 offensive touchdowns in their first seven games, they have nine offensive touchdowns in their last eight.
The Steelers were defeated by the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, a defeat that put their playoff hopes on life support just two weeks after they were in a position to be playing for seeding within the postseason. In those same two weeks, the Steelers have gone from being in complete control of their postseason fate to now being in need of help from a Houston Texans team that already has clinched its division's championship and is unlikely to be able to improve its seeding by winning its regular season finale.
In the immediate aftermath of Jets 16, Steelers 10, Coach Mike Tomlin charted the course for the postgame narrative when he spread responsibility for the outcome equally to all three phases of the team's performance. And while noble and accurate to a degree, that perspective doesn't pass the eye test.
Sure, the Steelers defense allowed the Jets to take the opening kickoff and march 75 yards in 11 plays and take a 7-0 lead on a 23-yard pass from Sam Darnold to Robby Anderson, who caught the ball in the end zone between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds. And yes, giving up an opening drive touchdown to a 5-9 opponent coming off a 42-21 pasting the previous weekend undoubtedly was a confidence boost that would make the Jets more difficult to defeat, but let's remember from the moment the extra point sailed through the uprights those same Jets would gain only 184 more yards and not cross the goal line again for the rest of the game.
The Steelers defense managed only two sacks and one takeaway against the Jets, but their own offensive deficiencies contributed to that, too, because there was little need for second-year quarterback Sam Darnold to take the kind of chances that often lead to big plays by the opposing defense because there was no fear the Steelers would put a couple of quick scores together and threaten to run away and hide.
And while the Steelers constantly are reminded by their coach that injuries are not an excuse but just a part of football, and that the next man up is required to play competently in place of a fallen teammate, the Steelers are reaching critical mass when it comes to the task of compensating for injuries to their key offensive personnel.
That doesn't even take into account the loss of Ben Roethlisberger, which seems as though it happened years ago, but against the Jets it was another case of one step forward and two steps back in terms of players returning from injury and losing players to injury.
After missing five of six games with a shoulder injury, James Conner was playing in his second straight game and looked to be rounding into form with 32 yards on six carries through the early stages against the Jets when he was sent to the sideline with an injury to his quadriceps and didn't return.
When Devlin Hodges threw interceptions on two of the Steelers first three possessions against the Jets, following a game against the Bills when he ended that one by throwing interceptions on the final two possessions, Coach Mike Tomlin pulled on the leash and sent Mason Rudolph into the game.
Rudolph quarterbacked the offense to two scoring drives and brought the Steelers to a 10-10 halftime tie with a pretty 29-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson in the final seconds of the second quarter. It seemed as though the Steelers had a chance to make some things happen offensively with Rudolph pulling the trigger, because come halftime he had completed 9-of-12 (75 percent) for 105 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions and a rating of 128.8. But not all that long into the second half, Rudolph somehow injured his left shoulder and was forced from the game, and as the team charter was landing in Pittsburgh it was very much unknown whether he would be able to play in the regular season finale in Baltimore.
Also in the second half, Maurkice Pouncey sustained a knee injury that sent him to the sideline, and the severity of that was to be determined. No Conner, no Rudolph, no Pouncey, and with a less-than-100 percent JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers would have six offensive possessions in the second half against the Jets. They punted on five of those and turned the ball over on downs on the sixth.
It's a testament to NFL parity that the Steelers still can squeeze into the postseason, and their most direct path there will require a victory in Baltimore coupled with a Tennessee loss to the Texans in Houston. That could happen, both of those things, but for the Steelers to hold up their end of the bargain they're going to have to score more than 10 points. And managing more than one offensive touchdown would be a good place to start.