Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Raiders

The first Sunday of an NFL regular season sometimes is referred to as Overreaction Sunday, because the winning teams are acclaimed for performances that might have been nothing more than a one-off, while the losing teams' warts can end up being portrayed as devastating and unfixable. The second Sunday of an NFL season then inevitably becomes Redemption Sunday, when the league settles into its natural state, which can be described either as parity or mediocrity, depending upon the level of cynicism of the individual observer.

The 2021 regular season is two weeks old and at the conclusion of the Monday night game between Green Bay and Detroit, a couple of 0-1 teams after Week 1, 18 of the league's 32 teams should be sitting at 1-1. While it's a scientific fact that water always finds its level, it's a fact of life in the NFL that the most common winning streaks and losing streaks both happen to be one in a row.

The Steelers were among the teams that had their one-game winning streak snapped during Week 2's schedule, and putting an analogy on why they lost, 26-17, to the Raiders at Heinz Field was because they tried to bake bread without the yeast.

You see, the Steelers are one of those teams that can win just about any game against any opponent if they play well, just as they can lose any game to any opponent if they don't. There are no Alabama vs. Mercer matchups in the Any Given Sunday League. Against the Raiders, the Steelers didn't play well, they didn't follow the recipe, so to speak, and so what came out of the oven after three-plus hours was inedible.

The Steelers have a specific recipe for winning this season because they are a flawed team, one that goes into every game they play with certain deficiencies in addition to being one that goes into every game being an injury or two away from additional, or more pronounced, deficiencies. The Raiders successfully exploited some of those, and attrition increased the misery. Add it up, and it turned an otherwise perfect mid-September Sunday afternoon into a letdown for the 63,707 paying customers.

On Sept. 12 in Buffalo, the Steelers had followed the recipe religiously and were rewarded with a 23-16 win over a Bills team that bounced back with a 35-0 shellacking of the Miami Dolphins the following Sunday. Anyway, the Steelers very likely aren't as good as they showed in Buffalo, and the Dolphins aren't as worthless as they showed against the Bills.

The Steelers' issues actually began about 48 hours before they received the opening kickoff against the Raiders. Joe Haden and Devin Bush both had appeared on the injury report with bad groins, and the Steelers were in danger of being without two critical components to a defense that was going to be dealing with an offense that had rolled up 491 total net yards and scored 33 points against Baltimore's historically stingy and physical defense. Both Haden and Bush were inactive against the Raiders, and it wasn't long before the Steelers lost two more important pieces – Tyson Alualu to a broken ankle and T.J. Watt to a groin injury.

Knowing it was going to take a village to deal with Darren Waller, a tight end by description who was more of a Chase Claypool athletically, the Steelers defense was being neutered by the losses of Haden, Bush, Alualu, and Watt. The pressure on quarterback Derek Carr was less ferocious, and the coverage possibilities on Waller and Henry Ruggs became more predictable to fit the skill-sets of the players who had to step up and play more minutes and fill more significant roles.

That may have been a big part of the problem, but still it was only part of the problem. The open-field tackles made against the Bills were not made with the same regularity against the Raiders. The way the coverage minimized Stephon Diggs didn't happen against Henry Ruggs, who ran past Ahkello Witherspoon and got behind Minkah Fitzpatrick for a 61-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that turned a two-point Raiders lead into a nine-point Raiders lead.

And the way the different phases complemented each other in Buffalo was missing at Heinz Field. There were no splash plays on special teams, where there was a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Bills. In the second half against Buffalo, the offense responded to the Bills scoring points by putting together a drive that came right back and restored the size of the lead. Against the Raiders, it was working the other way, with the defense unable to keep Las Vegas off the scoreboard following scores by the offense that ultimately negated any progress being made toward a comeback.

When JuJu Smith-Schuster ran 3 yards for a touchdown to turn a 6-0 deficit into a 7-6 lead, the Raiders went right down the field and re-took the lead, 9-7, with a 53-yard drive that netted a 41-yard field goal. When Najee Harris' 25-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown sliced a 16-7 deficit to 16-14, the Raiders answered with that 61-yard touchdown pass to Ruggs. And when Chris Boswell nailed a 56-yard field goal to make it a one-score game, 23-17, with 3:42 left in the fourth quarter, the Raiders answered yet again by moving 46 yards to set up a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to ice the outcome.

When Ben Roethlisberger had said before the regular season began that the offense was going to be a work in progress, that there would be struggles to endure as a result, it was assumed the defense would be there to support the process. But now with Alualu maybe done for the season, and with Watt, Haden, and Bush all dealing with soft tissue injuries of unknown severity, it would be helpful if the offense could accelerate its development. Because right now, the 2021 offense looks too much like the 2020 version that ultimately descended into one that couldn't run the ball effectively and had to rely too much on short passes and hoping the receiver could then run for the first down or get it into the end zone.

Roethlisberger completed passes to seven receivers, and only two averaged more than 10 yards a catch, while Carr completed passes to nine receivers and six averaged more than 10 yards a catch.

"I think we're still working through it," said Roethlisberger about the offense's identity after two games. "I think the good news, if you will, is that it's still early and we can try – we still have time to figure it out. We have a good (Cincinnati) team coming in here (next Sunday), a divisional opponent. We got to get it right. And it's frustrating. The best way to figure out an identity is for the quarterback to play better. So that's what I need to do. So, I'll work on me getting myself ready to go and making better reads, better throws, and trying to put us in a situation to win a football game."

And the thing about it is: It can happen. But they have to follow the recipe.

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