There is no wrong answer. If the object is both to pinpoint why the Steelers haven’t played winning football through the first quarter of the 2018 regular season and to assign culpability for their spot alongside the Cleveland Browns in the basement of the AFC North Division, anything and anyone is fair game.
That’s certainly the case following Sunday night’s stinkeroo against the Baltimore Ravens, officially a 26-14 defeat that never felt as close as the score indicated. The Steelers started slow and finished with a whimper, and in between they were outplayed in some ways that could be supported by statistical evidence and in some others where the visual spoke louder than any collection of numbers could.
Football is a team sport, and that was a team loss, a game where selecting the best player in a Steelers uniform came down to picking the one with the fewest warts.
We’ll start with the statistics because everyone can understand the ways in which numbers can paint a picture, and it’s not a pretty one.
A common axiom in sports is that it’s not how you start but how you finish, and the 2018 Steelers haven’t done either of those particularly well. After the first quarter on Sunday night, the Steelers had been outscored in the first quarters of their regular season games, 42-6, with the particular deficit against the Ravens working out to 14-0. And since they were outscored, 9-0, on Sunday night in the fourth quarter, that made their composite deficit in that period a significant 44-9, and that during the 15-minute segment of each game where good teams are finding ways to win.
Specifically against the Ravens, the two touchdown deficit right from the start was fashioned by a defense that couldn’t get off the field on the game’s opening possession, which then was compounded by a three-play possession by the offense ending with a turnover that sent the defense back onto the field at the Pittsburgh 31-yard line.
The Steelers gathered themselves to forge a 14-14 tie at halftime, and they did it the way they had dug themselves into that early hole – through the combined efforts of all three phases, and it was through the same combination, albeit in the opposite way, that sent them to their doom in the second half.
Depending upon the particular viewpoint, what happened in the second half at Heinz Field either resulted from the Steelers offense’s inability to convert on third down, or their defense’s inability even to get the Ravens into a third down situation they couldn’t convert. Either way, Baltimore possessed the ball for almost 22 of the half’s 30 minutes, and that was reflected on the scoreboard by four Justin Tucker field goals and the Steelers offense not being able to cross midfield.
All things considered, based on the way games are now trending in the NFL, a defense that allows only two touchdowns and is tough enough in scoring territory to hold the opponent to a 1-for-5 efficiency in the red zone – especially an offense that came into the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in red zone efficiency – that should be enough to contribute to a victory.
In no way should the above paragraph imply a stout performance by the Steelers defense, because the unit allowed 451 total net yards, including 355 passing by Joe Flacco, who got there by completing 66.7 percent of his attempts. But allowing that point total would’ve been good enough to win nine of the other 14 games played over the weekend, which shows how little defense is actually played in the NFL these days and how underachieving the Steelers offense was on Sunday.
After the game, Ben Roethlisberger faced the microphones and laid the blame on himself. “You know, I don’t think I’m on the same page as anybody right now. I’m not playing well enough. I need to play better. Today was just a bad day at the office, we all have them. I had one today and I promise I’ll be back to play better.”
A noble sentiment, and not untrue, but way too simplistic for where the Steelers are one quarter of the way through their regular season. Sticking with the offense, the running game either was ineffective and abandoned, or abandoned and therefore ineffective, but 19 yards on 11 attempts is pathetic production either way.
And regardless of how many three-and-outs the offense posted in the second half, the defense has to be better than allowing the opponent to put together four scoring drives in five second half possessions before take-a-knee time. And hey, there’s nothing in the rule book preventing special teams from making a big play at some point, either.
Today, the Steelers are 25 percent of the way through their regular season schedule and they’re tied for last place in the AFC North with the Cleveland Browns. There still is a lot of season left, but at this point it’s really unclear whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Because while it might still be too early to say they can’t, it’s also accurate to look at their body of work to this point and say they aren’t.