Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Patriots

There are a lot of ways to view the 17-14 loss to New England on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium and gain a perspective on where that puts the Steelers two weeks into the 2022 regular season.

It was their first game without reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who is on injured reserve after sustaining a pectoral strain in the fourth quarter of the opener the previous Sunday.

It was only their second game with a starting quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger for the first time since they opened the 2004 season with Tommy Maddox as their No. 1 at that position.

It's not as though anybody's exactly running away and hiding in the AFC North, because the defending division champion Bengals are 0-2 and the other three teams sit at 1-1 a fortnight into the season.

And besides nobody being better than the Steelers' 1-1, each team in the division is showing some significant and ugly warts of its own.

The Ravens had a 35-14 lead at home vs. Miami but ended up losing, 42-38, after allowing fourth quarter touchdown drives of 75, 59, 64, and 68 yards, not to mention Tua Tagovailoa completing 72 percent of his passes for 469 yards and six touchdowns. The Browns took a 30-17 lead over the Jets with 1:55 left only to have Joe Flacco throw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis, then recover an onside kick, then take a 31-30 lead when Flacco threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson, and then clinch the 31-30 victory when Ashtyn Davis intercepted Jacoby Brissett with 6 seconds left. And the Bengals are 0-2 because Cooper Rush, who finished with more passing yards (235-199) and a better rating (95.5-89.9) than Joe Burrow, engineered a six-play, 33-yard drive that ended with a 50-yard field goal as time expired that gave the Cowboys a 20-17 victory.

In summary, the Ravens defense has allowed 778 yards and 7 passing touchdowns in two outings; the Bengals can't seem to finish games; and while the Browns have rushed for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns in two games, they've also allowed 5 touchdown passes, including scores of 75 and 66 yards.

But as Coach Mike Tomlin would say, that's nothing but seeking comfort, because no matter what issues the other AFC North Division teams have, regardless of the holes in their respective rosters and/or performances in 2022, an overriding truth is that nothing about the Steelers offense so far has been good enough to win games consistently during an NFL regular season. In fact, the best thing that can be said about the Steelers offense is that it didn't get in the way of great performances by both the defense and special teams in what ended up being a 23-20 overtime victory in Cincinnati on Sept. 11.

Against the Patriots, the Steelers didn't get similarly dynamic play from their defense or special teams, and the offense wasn't up to the challenge of compensating for that. With no sacks and only one takeaway – a Minkah Fitzpatrick interception in the first quarter that led to a red zone field goal – the defense still turned in a representative performance, maybe even one that deserves to be upgraded since it happened in the first game minus Watt, but it wasn't sufficiently dynamic to carry the team as it did vs. the Bengals.

Same thing with special teams. Chris Boswell made both of his field goal attempts – from 36 and 52 yards – and Pressley Harvin III averaged 51.8 yards on four punts with a net of 41.3, but Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that became a turnover and presented the Patriots with a short field they turned into a 10-yard drive to a touchdown and a 17-6 lead late in the third quarter.

Both of the Steelers games so far this season – the overtime win in Cincinnati and the 3-point loss to the Patriots – have been close enough throughout that it's logical to point to a few snaps of the ball over the course of those eight quarters plus a 10-minute overtime as being the difference between a 2-0 start to the season and where the team currently sits at 1-1, and even between where it currently sits at 1-1 and the worst case scenario of 0-2. While viewing their games that way is accurate and easily defensible, there also are a few ominous elements to the start of this season.

One of those has to do with the offense's inability to execute plays that gain chunks of yardage. Against the Bengals, there were five plays that gained 15-plus yards, and against the Patriots that number dropped to three. What's even more of an issue seems to be that on just half of those eight plays did the ball travel even 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Jet sweeps and well-blocked screen passes count, too, but in the NFL an offense has to be able to threaten a defense down the field if for no other reason than to back opponents off the line of scrimmage a bit. The Steelers haven't been doing that, and so as games progress the opponent comes to learn it doesn't really have to defend the whole field, which in turn makes things even more congested for the offense.

As one example, George Pickens, who was something of a daily human highlights film at training camp, has been targeted just six times total in the first two games. That's simply not enough, and if the reason for him disappearing for too-long stretches of games is because opponents are committing multiple defenders to neutralize him, then Diontae Johnson and/or Chase Claypool should be taking advantage in other regions down the field, which doesn't seem to be happening either.

Some will blame Mitch Trubisky for this, others will point to offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and maybe the real issue is some combination exacerbated by an inability to protect the passer long enough for these kinds of plays to develop. Assigning blame might make for a lively talk show, but it serves no purpose when the goal is to develop an offense capable of sustaining the kind of production that's necessary to win in the NFL. There can be room for check-downs and hitting receivers in stride with short throws into seams of coverage, but that must be supplemented with some attempts down the field, because the previous couple of seasons illustrated what eventually happens when there's too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

It's still early enough in the season, and the Steelers have a defense capable of holding up its end even with Watt sidelined and on the mend. Their placekicker is money, and the mind-set of their roster is to fight and compete until the scoreboard clock shows all zeroes. But if something isn't done to enable, or help, or even force, the offense to start attacking down the field and break out of the style of trench warfare in which it's currently mired, none of that other stuff will much matter.

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