It had an air of inevitability. Through three months, spanning 11 games over 12 weekends, as the mounting injuries gradually drained their lineup of some significant playmakers, as their offense became more decidedly one-dimensional and opponents used the time and video of their past victories to scheme and plot to make each succeeding one more difficult to achieve, time was slowly but surely running out on their undefeated season.
Officially, it ended at 8:30 p.m., EST, when the game clock on the Heinz Field jumbotron reached triple zeroes on Washington's 23-17 victory, but for all intents and purposes it ended a couple of hours earlier during a four-minute span of the second quarter.
That the Steelers are no longer undefeated, that they are 11-1 and did not clinch a playoff spot this weekend, which they would have done with a victory over Washington, does not deserve to be viewed as a failure to take the opponent and the preparation for that opponent seriously. They didn't carry a false sense of invincibility into the game. They didn't lose because they overlooked this opponent.
No, they got beat, which happens to teams in the National Football League every weekend. On Monday, it happened to the 2020 Steelers for the first time, and being that it's December it stung a bit more than normal.
Washington brought a 4-7 record along on its trip to Pittsburgh, but it was a more formidable team than those numbers would indicate. Its quarterback was a tough, savvy veteran who was determined enough to endure 17 surgeries on a badly injured leg just to have more afternoons like Monday's at Heinz Field, and its defensive line was constructed with years' worth of high first-round draft picks, which in turn anchored a unit that entered the weekend ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in eight significant defensive categories. Yes, the Steelers' unit was better, but not by much because it entered the game ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in 10 significant defensive categories.
So at least when it came to playing quality defense over a sustained period of a season, 4-7 wasn't all that far away from 11-0. And the start of Monday's game reflected that.
In the game's first six offensive possessions – three per team – there were a combined four first downs earned, neither team penetrated the opponent's 40-yard line, and each of the six ended with a punt. Clearly, this was not going to be 60 minutes of the kind of firewagon football that the NFL was turning out so often in 2020.
When the Steelers finally broke through with a 14-play, 72-yard drive that ended in the end zone thanks to a 3-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson, it seemed to signal a return to normalcy for the residents of Heinz Field. Roethlisberger passed on each of the 14 plays, he completed 11 of those for 77 yards (a 5-yard offensive penalty accounted for the discrepancy), he converted 4-for-4 on third downs, and of course the points were scored on the last of those completions.
It was 7-0, and shortly after the ensuing kickoff it seemed as though the cream was rising to the top and the Steelers were about to assume control of this game by halftime as they had in so many of the ones preceding it
After the ensuing kickoff went for a touchback, Washington committed consecutive pre-snap penalties to put itself in a first-and-20 hole, and then the next three plays gained 19 yards to set up a fourth-and-1 from its 34-yard line. Traditionally, this situation would call for a punt, but with Washington staring down the barrel at 4-8, Coach Ron Rivera decided he had little to lose and left his offense on the field.
A slick play by Mike Hilton on an attempted run led to a 3-yard loss back to the 31-yard line, and the Steelers took over with control of the game in their grasp. Three plays later, after a 30-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Chase Claypool and a 4-yard run by Benny Snell, the Steelers had a second-and-goal at the 1-yard line. It was a perfect situation to build some confidence, and that's what the Steelers did, only it was Washington's confidence they built.
The Steelers ran five consecutive plays from the 1-yard line – one didn't count because of a roughness penalty on Washington that provided a fresh set of downs – and they gained exactly nothing. Not 1 yard. They tried power. They tried trickery in the form of a pass to tackle-eligible Jerald Hawkins. They went back to power. Nothing. Not 1 yard. And they couldn't gain that 1 yard because on every play their offense was handled physically by Washington's defense. Five cracks at the end zone from the 1-yard line, and 11-0 couldn't get it across the goal line against 4-7. That's when 4-7 knew for certain that 11-0 could be had.
After that it really didn't matter that the Steelers got their touchdown after their defense forced a punt and Roethlisberger combined with James Washington on a nifty 50-yard catch-and-run for a 14-0 lead. It didn't really matter because by then Washington knew it could slug it out on the line of scrimmage with the NFL's last undefeated team and come out on top. The Emperor had no clothes.
That wasn't the only snippet of Steelers' incompetence on Monday. For the second consecutive game, there were dropped passes, too many and too annoying, three each by Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson for starters. And maybe because the team was playing without Steven Nelson and James Conner and Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Boswell, and without Joe Haden for a portion of the second half, in addition to the rest-of-the-season absences of Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, there were the first examples of guys trying to do too much to pick up that slack. T.J. Watt attempting to scoop and score with a fumble instead of just recovering it being a prime example.
Anyway, the Steelers are undefeated no longer, and they didn't clinch a playoff spot, and they have games at 9-3 Buffalo, 9-3 Cleveland, and vs. 8-4 Indianapolis during the final quarter of their regular season schedule. But this was just one loss, and with the exception of Bush and Dupree, all of the guys they had to play without against Washington should be back in the lineup soon. And they're still the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But if they don't stop dropping passes, and they don't find a way to be more physical at the line of scrimmage on offense, and they don't return to playing within themselves on defense, a premature end to their season has an air of inevitability.