Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Seahawks

0-2.

That won-loss record tells us what the Steelers are, and the particulars of those first two games of the 2019 season say that’s what they deserve to be.

Nobody saw this coming, especially not in the way it has unfolded. After being completely outclassed in the opener against New England, yesterday’s home game against West Coast Seattle in the early time slot on the East Coast that was supposed to set the stage for a bounce-back mostly served to show that their inadequacies were more deeply-rooted than casual observers suspected.

Yesterday’s loss to the Seahawks was by 28-26, but the margin does not reflect the Steelers failures in all three phases of the game in critical situations. And when a team fails in critical situations in all three phases early in a regular season, what it is doing is casting itself as an outfit that finds ways to lose.

There have been some carry-overs from the first loss to the second, too many of which have centered around an offense that has gone from a unit capable of causing the league’s defensive coordinators more than a few sleepless nights to one struggling to find an identity and establish some measure of consistency.

For the second straight week, the running attack was ineffective, despite three Pro Bowl linemen blocking for a Pro Bowl running back. The statistics might tell you the Steelers averaged 5.1 yards on their 16 attempts, but one of those was a short-yardage situation where Benny Snell burst into the secondary for a 23-yard gain and another was a 7-yard scramble by Mason Rudolph when he could find no receivers open.

And that business of finding no receivers open has been happening a lot more often than it seems it should. Not that NFL defenses are going to allow opposing receivers to be running free through the secondary – especially New England’s and Seattle’s defenses – but Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph in the second half yesterday often were forced to hold the ball and/or move around in the pocket before finding somewhere to go with the football.

JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team with 84 receiving yards, and he made a combat-catch for a 45-yard gain in the third quarter that proved he can and will make plays with the ball in the air, but there just hasn’t been enough of that. And for every play like that one, or the one Diontae Johnson made when he reached back to snag a pass with one hand to convert a third-and-8 with a 17-yard pickup, there seemed to be a near miss and a gaffe to cancel them out.

Once again, there was a near miss on a deep ball to Johnny Holton, who this time laid out for a Roethlisberger pass that turned out to be slightly overthrown; and then there was the throw from Rudolph that went through Donte Moncrief’s hands and was intercepted off the carom by Bradley McDougald. That drop plus his poor outing in New England kept Moncrief on the sideline for the rest of the game.

Fans who visited Saint Vincent College this summer and managed to pay attention during special teams periods of practice had to have heard Danny Smith preaching to the players about the rules prohibiting contact with the long-snapper. But there it was, in the second quarter, when Seattle had settled for a 46-yard field goal by Jason Myers to cut the Steelers lead to 7-3 that Dan McCullers was penalized for unnecessary roughness for doing exactly what Smith had warned them against doing. Coach Pete Carroll took the three points off the scoreboard, accepted the penalty, and was rewarded with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Will Dissly on the next play that tied the game, 7-7, instead.

The defense continues to be a work in progress, and against the Seahawks at least the unit had two takeaways – both fumble recoveries, one by Mark Barron on a fumble forced by T.J. Watt and the other by Devin Bush on an aborted handoff – that set up two short touchdown drives. But then again, in keeping with the theme of this season so far, a couple of big mistakes cancelled out all of the good and contributed mightily to the defeat.

Anthony Chickillo missed a tackle at the line of scrimmage on a play Rashaard Penny then turned into a 37-yard touchdown run, and then on the play before the two-minute warning – a third-and-16 from the Pittsburgh 48-yard line – Bud Dupree had a shot at a scrambling Russell Wilson who escaped for the 15-yard gain that enticed Carroll to go for the first down, and make it, on fourth-and-1 to set up victory formation for the Seahawks.

In the end, it was another loss, another defeat in which all areas of the team contributed to the outcome, in which no areas of the team did enough to alter that outcome. And now, aggravating the situation are the injuries to Roethlisberger, Conner, Vince Williams, and Sean Davis.

After New England, there was some solace in believing that it was only one game and potentially an aberration. Today, it’s two games, and that’s the start of a trend.

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