No matter which way you choose to look at it, it's inexplicable.
How does a team that plays its way into a 29-0 hole through two-and-a-half quarters by being inept on offense, a sieve on defense, and a zero on special teams do a 180 and come within a couple of fingernails of the tying touchdown on the final play of the game? Or flip it around. How does a team that can come together so completely to have its offense and defense work in harmony to mount such a comeback from a 29-point deficit get itself in a position where it's losing 29-0 in the first place?
It makes no sense. It's not a video game. There are no switches to flip on or off. It's played by flesh and blood men who are professionals. None of this makes any sense. How can a defense allow 300 yards of offense in a first half, with 153 yards of that on 14 carries (10.9 average) to one running back, and then after a 12-minute halftime come out with the same personnel and cut those totals by more than half?
I'm not buying the adjustment theory, or the pep talk scenario. There are no possible adjustments to be made in 12 minutes to make such a significant difference, and pep talks don't have this kind of impact on grown men. Besides, the venue was Minneapolis, and the game was played at U.S. Bank Stadium; this wasn't some cliched sports movie that was staged on a back lot at MGM Studios in Hollywood.
"Just to be blunt, we're getting handled up front on both sides of the ball, and that makes it difficult," said Coach Mike Tomlin in the immediate aftermath of Vikings 36, Steelers 28. "It makes it difficult to do what we desire to do. It makes it difficult to maintain balance. It makes it difficult to dictate to our opponents what happens or what happens next."
But wasn't Tomlin delivering virtually the same critique using many of the same words on Nov. 28 in Cincinnati? And in between 41-10 and 36-28 didn't this same group of Steelers pull a George Costanza and "just do the opposite" against a gang of Ravens that had a better record than either the Bengals or the Vikings and arrived as the No. 1 seed in the AFC? How does that happen? Why? Are the Ravens a mirage, or are the Steelers schizophrenic? Maybe both?
During the FOX telecast of the game against the Vikings, analyst Troy Aikman, a Hall of Fame quarterback in his own right, had trouble throughout the first half trying to explain what he was seeing from the Steelers and put it into some perspective that made sense. At one point, he likened what the Steelers defense was "doing" to a practice session where things are scripted to allow for huge holes for the backs to run through and wide-open spaces for the quarterback to throw the ball to receivers as a teaching tool.
That was an apt description, but it didn't make any sense, certainly not in the context of what that same defense had done the previous week vs. a better team (if records are to be trusted) and then what that same defense did in the second half against the Vikings, with the exception of three plays when Minnesota covered 75 yards and scored a touchdown on a 62-yard pass play from Kirk Cousins to K.J. Osborn. A defender gets beat, a blown coverage. It's one snap of 130-plus over four quarters. It can be costly, even the difference in a game's outcome. It happens. But that first half looked like the football version of Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals, with apologies to the Washington Generals.
It's especially frustrating, because it feels as though the Steelers are wasting the final games of Ben Roethlisberger's Hall of Fame career, if in fact he does the expected and retires at the end of the 2021 season. As he did against the Ravens, Roethlisberger was everything his team needed down the stretch to drag it to a victory. He completed 28-of-40 (70 percent) for 308 yards, with three touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 107.1, while taking a physical beating from the Minnesota defense.
And on the game's final snap, Roethlisberger made the kind of play that defines the greats at his position – with three seconds left and the ball at the 12-yard line, he made the right read under pressure from Amon Watts and then delivered a perfect pass to Pat Freiermuth in the end zone, but veteran safety Harrison Smith made the kind of play that has made him a five-time Pro Bowl selection and separated the ball from the receiver.
"Pat's taking this pretty hard," said Roethlisberger after the game. "He'll eat this one for a while, but he shouldn't. It's not his fault."
During the time of a season when good teams, playoff-bound teams, are rounding into form, smoothing over the rough edges of their performance, cementing their offensive and defensive identities, the Steelers are still all over the map. A good half, a bad half. Staying in the fight and battling back are admirable, but too often first digging themselves a hole because someone lost his poise or did something selfish. And way too often losing the battle of the hitting.
"It's going to be tough sledding for us until we get better in that area," said Tomlin. "We're not good in that area. We were JV again tonight, and I'm talking about up front on both sides. We lost the battle in the lines of scrimmage, and that's football. We make no excuse. It is what it is. We've got to be better than we were."
And their inadequacies are manifested in the running game, both offensively and defensively. In 2020, the Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing offense. This season, they rank last in the NFL in average yards per rush allowed. As FOX noted on the broadcast, in the first 234 regular season games of Tomlin's coaching career with the Steelers, the team never had allowed a back to gain 100 yards in a half of one game, but in the last three weeks it has happened twice – Joe Mixon on Nov. 28 and Dalvin Cook on Thursday night.
"We have to get off the blocks, say it every freaking week," said Cam Heyward. "Effort, technique has to be a lot better. We have to know where we fit, and everybody has to be accountable. It's Groundhog Day. It's unacceptable. We have a long weekend to think about it, and we are 6-6-1 so 13 games, that leaves four more. Time will tell."
And time is running out.