It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.
- And you know the frustrating part?
The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.
The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.
Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion
Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”
In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.
- You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.
One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.
The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.
So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?
Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense
You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:
- The implosion of the running game
- The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes
Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.
James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.
For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.
But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:
- Receivers started dropping passes.
Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.
Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.
- Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.
But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.
- When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.
Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.
But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.
Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense
While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is straightforward:
At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.
As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.
- Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.
By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.
While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.
The Road from Here
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.
- Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
- Would the Steelers want him to?
- Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
- Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?
There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.
- To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”
But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.