Don Wright/Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Steelers no longer operate on a Super Bowl standard. Their current trajectory doesn’t even place them in the playoff picture, let alone championship contention.
Sunday’s 26-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field merely highlighted all the deficiencies found on the Steelers roster.
Le’Veon Bell’s absence looms large. Ben Roethlisberger‘s inconsistency becomes more glaring with each passing week. Antonio Brown isn’t on the same page with his quarterback. Finally, the defense is counted among the league’s worst.
Pittsburgh tends to get the benefit of the doubt because of the organization’s long-term stability and overall consistency. Yet, the roster has continued to erode, and the off-field drama grows louder with each passing week.
As the game becomes more geared toward offense, specifically the quarterback, Roethlisberger’s performance is most glaring.
When the Steelers are clicking, they can score with any team in the league. They’re dynamic behind a sturdy offensive line with weapons all over the field. Although, the unit’s performance is reliant on its triggerman.
Roethlisberger is the NFL‘s version of Two-Face: It’s just a flip of the coin whether the good or bad rendition will make an appearance.
The 36-year-old signal-caller still flashes greatness. Vintage Roethlisberger showed himself with a 26-yard second-quarter touchdown to Brown after the quarterback moved in the pocket and created outside the play’s original structure:
Stretches of poor play are now part of the equation, too.
The two-time Super Bowl champion threw for 1,140 yards through the first three games because game flow dictated he did so. The Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t feature top defenses, though.
The Baltimore Ravens do.
Roethlisberger threw for 50 yards during Sunday’s second half. His lone interception came in the fourth quarter with the Steelers trailing 23-14:
.@ALevine41 intercepts Big Ben!
@Ravens take over. #BALvsPIT
📺: NBC https://t.co/CxlSt2uZSK
What makes the throw especially concerning is the fact the 15-year veteran never saw linebacker Anthony Levine undercutting the route. Roethlisberger stood tall in a perfect pocket, never had to worry about pressure and still threw an ill-advised pass.
The mistake only magnified Roethlisberger’s inconsistencies with poor ball placement and mistimed throws throughout the contest.
“I don’t think I’m on the same page with anybody right now,” Roethlisberger said after the game, per ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler. “I’m not playing well enough. I need to play better. Today was just a bad day at the office. … I promise I’ll be back to play better.”
Of course, a quarterback’s best friend is a strong running game and a back who serves as his security blanket. But Le’Veon Bell is nowhere to be found. The Steelers have even reached the point where they no longer seem concerned about getting him signed.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Pittsburgh is actively shopping Bell and prefers a second-round draft pick and “a good player” in return—which only adds to the internal issues the franchise faces.
James Conner proved himself a competent replacement capable of carrying the load in key instances and serving as a suitable outlet receiver. His overall production has been suspect in two of the first four games, though.
The second-year back managed only 44 yards from scrimmage against Baltimore and averaged 2.1 yards per carry. After rushing for 135 yards in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, Conner has 97 rushing yards over the following three contests on 3.0 yards per carry.
Fred Vuich/Associated Press
Bell’s absence and Conner’s decline can still be offset by a talented wide receiver and tight end group. It has to an extent.
Right now, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the team’s leading receiver. He caught four balls for 60 yards against the Ravens. Veteran tight end Vance McDonald became a much bigger part of the offense the last two weeks with nine catches for 174 yards. Jesse James continued to serve as a threat down the seam with another catch over 20 yards. Ryan Switzer led the team with seven receptions, albeit for 32 yards, working out of the slot.
All of this is fine and dandy. The Steelers can’t rely on one or two guys. But it’s easy to understand Brown’s growing frustration.
“My statistics are already there,” he said Monday, per Fowler. “I’ve already done everything from a statistical point. Obviously, it’s out of my control. I can’t throw it to myself.”
The game’s best wide receiver hedged his remark by adding, “What’s important is we continue to win.”
Well, the Steelers now hold a 1-2-1 record, and Brown still isn’t getting the ball enough. Instances can be found throughout Sunday’s game where the Ravens singled Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver and Roethlisberger never looked his way, as NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala noted.
Despite many concerns, Randy Fichtner’s offense is still moving the ball and scoring points. Keith Butler’s defense, on the other hand, is a disaster. The days of a stout Steelers defense are long gone, and they’re not coming back any time soon.
Pittsburgh surrendered 90 points and 410.3 yards per game through the first three contests. Technically, the unit improved from a scoring perspective, but the Ravens still managed 451 yards of total offense. Joe Flacco and Co. aren’t exactly the league’s most explosive group, either.
The Steelers linebackers couldn’t cover Baltimore tight ends. Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews combined to make 10 receptions for 99 yards.
John Brown, meanwhile, burned Pittsburgh’s best cornerback, Joe Haden, on a couple occasions, including the game’s opening touchdown:
.@Jwalk_back12 gets behind the defense and catches the TD!
@Ravens lead early. #RavensFlock #BALvsPIT
📺: NBC https://t.co/kFw49YBjiF
The secondary continues to suffer from coverage breakdowns and poor angles. Sean Davis’ strip of Ravens running back Alex Collins at the 1-yard line became Pittsburgh’s only defensive play of significance. Otherwise, the group lacks the fundamentals and discipline to hold offenses in check.
It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Either the team’s talented front, including its edge-rushers, creates pressure, or the Steelers have little-to-no answer for an opponent’s passing game.
As the league continues to trend toward wide-open offenses and shootout scores, Pittsburgh is incapable of making the necessary stops needed to place the team in a winning position.
Furthermore, the teams within the AFC North are only getting better. Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict return from their suspensions this week. The Cleveland Browns should be 4-0 instead of 1-2-1, and they now have the No. 1 overall pick, Baker Mayfield, in the lineup and playing relatively well.
Life is only going to get harder for the Steelers in the coming weeks, as the Atlanta Falcons, Bengals, Browns, Ravens, Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars are their next six opponents.
At this point, reaching and staying around .500 would be a lofty goal. But that’s not supposed to be Steelers football. Time to readjust expectations.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.