BALTIMORE – By 7:30 p.m., the last of the smoke had cleared and the final mirror was broken. The Steelers had run out of ways to try to camouflage, to work around, to hide the cracks with spackle and paint. Everything in the National Football League is on video, the eye in the sky does not lie, and as a result smoke and mirrors only can take you so far.
The end of the road for them came here, at M&T Bank Stadium in a 28-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Alas, there would be no miracle, and the 2019 NFL season ended for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That it ended in late December instead of mid-September is a testament to their grit and willingness to run toward the fight, but there seemed to be little doubt that it would end prematurely, and that this would be the reason for its end.
When it became a medical certainty that Ben Roethlisberger would need surgery to repair his right elbow, and when the timetable for the procedure and then the rehabilitation was going to subtract him from the equation for the rest of their season, the Steelers prospects for 2019 started circling the drain. When an 0-3 start became 8-5 following a six-point victory in Arizona three weeks before Christmas, visions of sugar plums danced in the heads of Steelers fans all over the nation, but with each improbable victory more video became available on what they were doing and the noose continued to tighten.
At the collegiate level, you might be able to win with schemes, but in the NFL you have to win with players. And the most important player on every team is the quarterback. You might be able to win a game by surprising the opponent with the Wildcat, and you might be able to defeat another by forbidding your quarterback to throw the ball even 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. One week, the difference could be a couple of defensive touchdowns, and another week it could be a punt return for a touchdown.
Find a way to manufacture some points, add a liberal dose of stingy defense plus a placekicker who doesn't miss, and then let the opponent make the mistakes that cost teams games in the NFL. Maybe you even can start stacking victories that way, as the Steelers did in winning four in a row from mid-October to mid-November, and then bouncing back from a streak-breaking loss to win three more in a row to take up residence in your conference's playoff picture.
But it doesn't last, it cannot last, because opponents learn from their predecessors, they become familiar with what you like to do, and more importantly, what you are incapable of doing. They study the video, and they plot. And if you lack the talent and/or the experience to make those opponents play you honestly or pay the price if they don't, well, that's when victories start turning into defeats.
In the three successive losses that ended their season, the Steelers faced opponents that took pains to avoid being victimized by their ball-hawking defense, that sold out to stop the run and dared them to inflict punishment for that strategy with some down-the-field passing, that made them drive the ball down the field and convert on third downs and in the red zone to score touchdowns.
By the time the Steelers got to Baltimore, their bag of tricks was empty and they were unable to attack in conventional ways. Against the Ravens, the Steelers had 12 offensive possessions, and only two of those ended in Baltimore territory, while seven others netted less than 10 yards before surrendering possession of the ball in some form or fashion.
Things reached a nadir against the Ravens during a game the Steelers had to win and seemingly had no realistic path to do so. Certainly not with only 168 total net yards of offense, with only 77 net yards passing, with only nine completions, with only one of their 50 offensive plays gaining as many as 20 yards, with yet another week when they could score just one offensive touchdown. There is no such thing as a game plan or play-calls to fix that.
The Steelers' 2019 season was a perfect storm of injuries to key offensive personnel and blanket inexperience in too many other areas. A team might be able to overcome one of those two things, but in tandem they served as a time bomb bound to blow up in their faces.
A case can be made that the playoff-bound Buffalo Bills exposed the Steelers as the offensive frauds they had become, or that it was the 5-9 Jets who showed that simply avoiding turnovers could be sufficient to achieve victory. Either, or both, could be true, but what was apparent was that come this must-win regular season finale against a Ravens team resting a bunch of its star players, the Steelers didn't have any answers.
And they were all out of smoke and mirrors.