GREEN BAY – Awful. In a word, that’s an apt description for what the Steelers put out there last night at Lambeau Field.
Granted, it was just a preseason game, the second of four, which means there still is time before the opening of the regular season. And yes, the Steelers played without a bunch of their front-line guys, some injured, some held out of the game for various reasons, which means reinforcements are just waiting to be called upon.
But 51-34 wasn’t about Coty Sensabaugh not being as good as Joe Haden, or Jake Rodgers not being as good as Marcus Gilbert, just to cite a couple of examples. It wasn’t about a list of non-participants that included Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and Haden and Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt and Vance McDonald and Maurkice Pouncey and Sean Davis.
This was about turnovers ending up on the scoreboard, and twice at that; about allowing a couple of different quarterbacks to escape contain and make plays down the field; about penalties and missed tackles and bad angles; about punts of 30 and 28 yards from deep in their own territory.
This was about the Steelers doing all of the bad things they didn’t do exactly one week earlier in their preseason opener against the Eagles in Philadelphia. This was about the Steelers regressing.
The Steelers have been preaching ball security to Mason Rudolph for months now, all the way back to OTAs in late May. Against the Packers the decision was made to split the playing time between the youngest of the four quarterbacks, and Rudolph started the game because Joshua Dobbs’ escapability was seen as a nice counter to what reasonably could be expected from the third-team offensive line.
Rudolph fumbled twice in Philadelphia, but the Steelers recovered both, but there was no recovering from his first play in Green Bay. Attempting to get the ball to Darrius Heyward-Bey on a quick out route on a first-and-10 from the 21-yard line, Rudolph fell into the trap baited by veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who welcomed him to the NFL with a 25-yard pick-six.
That set the tone.
From there, Green Bay’s second touchdown drive was aided by a 6-yard pass turning into a 27-yard gain because Morgan Burnett took a bad angle that allowed Davante Adams to break into the open field; then a 12-men-on-the-field penalty wiped out an incomplete pass on third-and-13, and Aaron Rodgers capitalized on the second chance with a touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham.
Sure, the Steelers delivered some counter-punches, the first coming on a three-play drive when James Conner accounted for all 73 yards – 58 rushing and 15 more on the facemask penalty he drew – for the touchdown that halved Green Bay’s 14-0 lead, and then another when Terrell Edmunds forced and recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff to set up Rudolph completing a 21-yard pass to Jesse James and then a 4-yarder to JuJu Smith-Schuster to tie the game, 14-14.
But by the time the Steelers scored again – on 22-yard pass from Dobbs to James Washington in the third quarter – they were cutting into a deficit that had grown to 41-14.
That deficit was built at least partly by the Steelers’ inability to contain two of Green Bay’s backup quarterbacks – Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer – and in this instance the word “contain” can be taken literally. Hundley ran for a touchdown and Kizer passed for two, and along the way to all three of those scores came plays each quarterback made after using play-action and then rolling out to get outside the pass rush to make plays, or by getting away from the pass rush when they were about to be trapped in the pocket and possibly sacked.
Both Hundley and Kizer have mobility, sure, but neither would be confused with Michael Vick in his prime, and so what happened was guys either were being sucked inside with play-action, or they were sloppy in their rush-lanes, or both. Being unsuccessful in getting to the quarterback is one thing, but running yourself out of the play is a whole other kind of sin.
Halfway through this preseason, it’s apparent the Steelers have a lot of work to do on their defense, that any perceived improvements are only theoretical at this stage. Getting their front-line players back onto the field should help, but assuming that alone will make the difference is somewhat naïve.
“I understand this process is a learning one, but, boy, we’ve got a lot to learn from that video,” said Coach Mike Tomlin, “and we will. How we respond to this performance is probably more important than the performance itself. So we will learn a lot about ourselves in the upcoming days in terms of acknowledging what we did and taking the proper steps to rectify some of those things.”
That response – on Saturday, Aug. 25 vs. Tennessee at Heinz Field – could end up revealing a lot about what these 2018 Steelers are. Or are not.