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The Steelers’ Defense Stung the Killer Bs

Pittsburgh’s defensive collapse against Blake Bortles and the Jags may have prematurely ended the Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown era

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

In the Week 5 matchup between the Steelers and Jaguars, Jacksonville’s elite ballhawking defense dominated the day, picking off Ben Roethlisberger five times while scoring a pair of touchdowns in a 30-9 rout. Jags quarterback Blake Bortles threw the ball just 14 times for 95 yards and a pick in that blowout win—and after watching the fourth-year signal-caller eke out just 87 passing yards against the Bills last week, it felt like the defense coercing another meltdown out of Big Ben was just about the only way the Jaguars would be able to pull off the upset over the heavily favored Steelers a second time.

Jacksonville got the meltdown it needed Sunday, winning 45-42 to advance to face the Patriots in the AFC title game—but it wasn’t from Roethlisberger. This time around, the veteran passer was at his best, throwing for 469 yards and five touchdowns as Pittsburgh’s offense racked up 545 yards and 42 offensive points on the league’s most opportunistic defensive unit. Big Ben got some help: Le’Veon Bell totaled 155 yards from scrimmage and two scores, and Antonio Brown, playing on one leg, caught seven passes for 132 yards and two damn-near miraculous touchdowns. It was the Pittsburgh defense, though, that collapsed, utterly and entirely. The lasting image this unit will take into the offseason is allowing Bortles to lob an easy touchdown pass to a wide-open Tommy Bohanon for the game-sealing score with 4:19 left in the game.

This wasn’t how Pittsburgh’s season was supposed to end. Most of us thought that Jacksonville would make it a tough game, but the upstart AFC South champs were still meant to be only a speed bump along the Steelers’ road to the inevitable rematch with the Patriots in the conference-championship game. The Steelers’ reputation as a balanced team made them tough to pick against; Pittsburgh came into the postseason looking like the AFC’s most complete team, a squad that could beat opponents in all three phases with physicality and speed. The triumvirate of Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown formed the backbone of a high-flying offense, while Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and T.J. Watt formed the team’s intimidating front line; together, the team finished the year eighth in points scored (25.4 per game) and seventh in points allowed (19.3 per game)—one of just two squads (joining the Rams) to rank in the top 10 in offensive (third), defensive (ninth), and special teams DVOA (ninth).

But Bortles, Leonard Fournette, and the Jaguars offense exposed the Steelers’ fatal playoff flaw: a defensive unit that had been slipping for most of the second half of the season. Injuries played a part, with middle linebacker Ryan Shazier going on injured reserve following a serious spinal injury in Week 13 and cornerback Joe Haden missing five games late with a broken fibula; and after the defense’s hot start to the year, a lack of depth and playmaking talent at linebacker and in the secondary hurt Pittsburgh down the stretch.

Over the first nine weeks of the season, the Steelers had the third-ranked defense per Football Outsiders DVOA, allowing just 16.4 points per game (second) and an opposing quarterback rating of 74.4 (third), while surrendering just six passing touchdowns (second). But from Week 10 until the end of the regular season, that unit ranked 21st in DVOA, surrendering 22.1 points per game (17th), allowing an opposing quarterback rating of 90.0 (20th), and giving up 14 touchdowns through the air (tied for 27th)—all despite a pass-rush unit that grabbed 30 sacks, tied for the most during that stretch.

Pittsburgh’s defense was somehow worse at home than on the road late in the year, too, giving up 28 points to Brett Hundley and the Packers at home in a Week 12 win; 38 points to Joe Flacco and the Ravens in a Week 14 victory at Heinz Field; and another 38 offensive points (the Jaguars also scored on a strip-sack return for a touchdown) to an offense quarterbacked by the most-mocked player in the league Sunday. Though Bortles got plenty of help from Fournette and the run game, the Steelers’ pass defense had few answers for the passing attack, registering zero sacks all game while giving up far too many game-changing throws downfield late.

Plenty of the blame for the Steelers’ embarrassing loss will fall on Mike Tomlin and the team’s coaching staff for a couple of strange fourth-down play-calls and the decision to try for an onside kick with 2:18 left, when the team was trailing by just seven points. But the team’s fate never would’ve come down to those coaching decisions had the defense not completely sabotaged the offense’s brilliant performance. Against the Jags, Pittsburgh tied a franchise playoff record for points allowed, and Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in playoff history to throw for five scores ... and lose.

The defensive meltdown not only brought the team’s season to a premature close, but may have ushered in the end of an era for Pittsburgh . Roethlisberger flirted with retirement last season, and while the 35-year-old expressed interest in returning for his 15th season after the game, it’s too early to call that a certainty. Bell’s tenure with the team is also in doubt, with the electric star running back recently indicating that he’s unwilling to play on the franchise tag for a second straight year.

Time will tell, but if we’ve seen the last of this Steelers team as we know it, the lingering takeaway following another postseason exit will be that despite all of Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown’s shared accolades—all the incredible runs, jaw-dropping catches, and perfectly placed throws, their division titles in three out of the last four years and playoff appearances in each of the last four—this group could have, and maybe should have, accomplished more. In an offensive-tilted era, the so-called Killer Bs have formed one of the most dynamic, unstoppable assemblages of offensive talent the league has ever seen. But because the Steelers defense couldn’t stop a Bortles-run team, we may not get to see their magic again.