The Pittsburgh Steelers 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium was a debacle in every sense of the word.
And perhaps that is how it should be.
Because even with three games remaining on the schedule, the Steelers meltdown in Indy serves as a perfect microcosm for the 2023 season.
Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review
Strong Start Signals Sinkhole to Come
The Steelers had lost two ugly games against bad teams that had no business beating Pittsburgh, at home no less. Yet, Jim Wexell reported on WESA, that the Steelers had had a strong week of practice.
And as beat writers will tell you, performance in practice during the week is almost always indicative of performance on Sunday. And besides, Mike Tomlin always rallies the men when their backs are two the wall. Doesn’t he?
Mike Tomlin boldly elected to take the ball to open the second half, giving his offense a chance to grab the proverbial bull by the horns….
And, he was rewarded by a Najee Harris run for no gain (wasn’t the Colt’s rushing defense supposed to be weak?), a Mitch Trubisky sack (what was it about the Colts not blitzing), and a 4 yard pass to Jaylen Warren on 3rd and 14. Oh, and Pressley Harvin only managed 42 yards on his punt.
But T.J. Watt wrecked the Colt’s next possession with a sack, and Indy’s Matt Gay bounced a 56 yard field goal off of the crossbars. The Steelers had won several games earlier in the season by combining big plays on defense and capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes.
Might they be reverting to form. For the next 8 minutes or so, that seemed to be the case.
- But as always is the case with the 2023 Steelers, there was a big “BUT” attached to it.
Mitch Trubisky moved the team effectively following the blocked field goal. Nothing spectacular. But the Steelers keeping the sticks moving. But even then there were danger signs, both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were getting stopped regularly.
After a one yard run by Harris, Trubisky moved the Steelers into the Red Zone with a 14 yard strike to George Pickens. Jaylen Warren followed by ripping off a 6 yard run on 1st and seven in a play that saw Pickens…
…Stand there and watch instead of blocking, costing Warren at least a yard if not a touchdown.
Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review
Two plays later, Mitch Trubisky’s second attempt to sneak the ball into the end zone succeeded, but only after replay ruled he had crossed the goal line before fumbling.
But all’s well that ends well, right?
- Maybe not, because Chris Boswell’s extra point bounced off the cross bar.
Given the way the defense and special teams were playing it looked like Boswell’s missed extra point might be a mere footnote. Larry Ogunjobi wrecked the next drive with a sack and Connor Heyward blocked Rigoberto Sanchez with Nick Herbig recovering at the one.
Najee Harris 3 yard loss on first and goal at the one might have been ugly, but Mitch Trubisky hit Diontae Johnson for a touchdown one play later to put the Steelers up 13-0.
Barely a minute had elapsed in the 2nd quarter and the Steelers had already made it a 2 score game.
Anatomy of a Meltdown
How does a team go from starting a game 13-0 in the first 16 minutes to losing 30-13? Let’s count the ways:
1. Getting burned deep
The Steelers defense is hurting. But even before losing their two starting safeties, Gardner Minshew burned the Steelers for two deep strikes to Michael Pittman.
2. Being Soft in the Middle
There’s a reason why Mykal Walker was unemployed in October. The Cardinals and Patriots exploited him in the previous two weeks, and the Colts followed suit.
The Colts got their first touchdown courtesy of items number 1 and 2.
3. Turnovers I
The faults of the Steelers offense are legion. But one of the things they did not do was this: Turnover the ball.
That was early in the season. For the last 3 weeks? Not so much. Pittsburgh seemed primed to answer the Colts’ score, as both Harris and Warren had a couple of strong runs. Then Mitch Trubisky thought it was a good idea to target George Pickens in triple coverage. He almost pulled it off, but the ball was a bit high and napped by Nick Cross.
The Colts didn’t covert that turnover into a penalty, but did back the Steelers up to their own won.
4. Attrition I
The game of football has changed. Back on November 15th 1993 the Steelers were already leading the then-AFC Alpha male Buffalo Bills, Gary Jones laid this hit on Don Beebe:
Beebe left the game, there was no flag, no fine just Gary Jones getting his 15 minutes of Steelers history fame. Now compare this to the hit that Damontae Kazee laid on Michael Pittman.
There are some difference in the mechanics of each play, but the big difference is what came after, not only did Kazee get a 15 yard personal foul, he got thrown out of the game. That forced 4th string safety Trenton Thompson into the game.
On the next series Minkah Fitzpatrick got hurt and left the game, leaving the Steelers with Miles Killebrew to play.
While still behind, Gardner Minshew hit D.J. Montgomery over the middle, for a 42 yard pickup. Joey Porter Jr. gave them another 26 yards on pass interference on Alec Pierce. Two plays later Minshew was connecting with Montogmery to put the Colts ahead. For good.
6. Turnovers II
It is easy to pinpoint where the bottom fell out for the Steelers in this game. The Colts got the ball to start the second half, but the short-handed Steelers forced a three and out.
Najee Harris fumbled the ball right back to them, and the Colts scored on the next play.
7. Penalties II
Steelers responded with a punt, the Colts got a field goal and on the next drive Pittsburgh held the ball for nearly six minutes. Good. They also suffered 3 holding penalties on that same drive. They reached Indy’s 39, but Mike Tomlin opted to punt rather than try a 57 yard field goal.
At this point it serves no narrative purpose to enumerate the Steelers breakdowns, because they simply repeated themselves. The Colts ran the ball down the Steelers throats, with Pittsburgh knowing it was coming an unable to stop.
Mitch Trubisky threw another ugly interception. The Steelers kept killing themselves with penalties. Mason Rudolph came in for mop up duty and managed to complete 2 passes, one for negative yards and get himself sacked.
For the record this game wasn’t the worst loss of the Mike Tomlin era – a couple of candidates from the 2009 5 game losing streak would top this – but it clearly makes any top 5 list.
Can the Steelers Recover from Shell Shock?
The Steelers offense lacks talent at some positions and desire at others (see wide receiver.) It lacks coordination. Despite some of the results of the last week, the defense is in much better shape, or at least it would be if it weren’t so deeply depleted.
- But even that doesn’t account for Pittsburgh’s poor performance against the Colts.
This team is shell shocked. It is playing with zero confidence and self-destructing as a result of it to the extent that one would be surprised if they win another game this year.