Thirty-two days ago, the Steelers hosted the Panthers in a Thursday Night Football game that was billed as a clash between two contending teams. Pittsburgh was 5-2-1 and had won four straight games (including a decisive victory over the Ravens one week earlier) after starting the season 1-2-1. The Panthers, similarly, were 6-2 and coming off three straight wins.
On that November night at Heinz Field, the Steelers used their prime-time matchup with Carolina to showcase just how frightening this team could be when all of its pieces were working in tandem. The Steelers decimated the Panthers defense, thanks to a near-perfect performance from Ben Roethlisberger (22-of-25 for 328 yards and five touchdowns) and huge nights from both JuJu Smith-Schuster (three catches for 90 yards) and Antonio Brown (six receptions for 96 yards). The 52-21 win was an utter annihilation, and Pittsburgh emerged from the game looking like a team that was ready to reclaim its place among the league’s upper echelon. So much for that.
After falling to the Raiders 24-21 on Sunday, the Steelers have now lost three straight, and their lead in the AFC North has dwindled to just half a game. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. If not for the atrocious, conservative second-half game plan deployed by the Jaguars during the teams’ Week 11 matchup, Pittsburgh’s losing streak could easily sit at four games. And with games against the the Patriots and Saints looming over the next two weeks, things aren’t going to get any easier. To put it simply, the Steelers are in trouble.
Examined on their own, each of Pittsburgh’s recent losses would be relatively easy to explain away. First was Week 12 against the Broncos, where Roethlisberger threw for 462 yards while Smith-Schuster ran amok. If not for a few untimely turnovers, the Steelers would have likely won handily—instead, they fell 24-17. Then last week, against the Chargers, Mike Tomlin’s team coughed up a double-digit lead in the second half before eventually losing 33-30 on a last-second L.A. field goal. And on Sunday, a Roethlisberger rib injury forced Josh Dobbs into action and stifled the offense for almost all of the second half. The three losses came by a combined 13 points, and with a few different bounces of the ball, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the Steelers sitting at 10-2-1 and fighting for a first-round bye in the AFC.
Taken collectively, though, this recent swoon has also shown that for all their strengths, a new facet of the game seems to sabotage the Steelers each week. The four turnovers against the Broncos weren’t what allowed Phillip Lindsay to rack up 110 yards on just 14 carries. Desmond King’s game-tying punt return for the Chargers last Sunday wasn’t the reason that Pittsburgh’s defense seemingly forgot who Keenan Allen was for much of the contest. And Roethlisberger’s rib injury didn’t give Oakland tight end Jared Cook passage into the Pittsburgh secondary on play after play against the Raiders. The Steelers have been haunted by their shortcomings in the secondary for years, and this season has been no different. When Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett are getting worked over all game, it doesn’t matter how amazing Smith-Schuster plays.
The Steelers’ flashes of brilliance are so mesmerizing—and so familiar—that it’s tempting to get swept up in them. But for as tantalizing as the best version of this team can be, the harsh reality now is that Pittsburgh’s lead in the AFC North—and, should it lose that lead, a shot at a wild-card spot—now hangs by a fraying thread.
The Ravens, Pittsburgh’s primary competition in the division, lost in overtime to the Chiefs on Sunday, which helped the Steelers avoid total disaster on the day. But aside from the actual outcome of the game, nearly every aspect of Baltimore’s performance against Kansas City should be cause for concern in the Steel City. For one of the first times all season, Patrick Mahomes II looked visibly uncomfortable in the pocket. Mahomes was hit 15 times on Sunday, and while he may have finished with 377 yards passing, it took 57 dropbacks for him to get there. If the Ravens can slow down Kansas City’s league-leading offense—even in spurts—they can slow down any unit in football. Combined with an invigorated, unique offense built around rookie QB Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability, the Ravens are more dangerous now than they’ve been at any point this season.
Baltimore’s schedule is also much easier than the Steelers’ schedule down the stretch, which doesn’t help Pittsburgh’s cause. Over the final three weeks, the Ravens will face the paper-thin Buccaneers defense and the Chargers before closing the season with a home tilt against the Browns. It’s not a stretch to picture Baltimore winning at least two of those matchups, and if the Steelers fall to both the Patriots and the Saints, that would be enough to knock Pittsburgh from atop the AFC North standings.
It’s also far from a guarantee that the Steelers would be able to sneak away with a wild-card berth if they do relinquish the division title. After crucial upset wins on Sunday, both the Colts and Dolphins are 7-6 with considerably easier matchups to close out the season (the Colts finish out with home games against the Cowboys and Giants, and a road tilt against the Titans; the Dolphins play at Minnesota, home against Jacksonville, and end the year at Buffalo). Pittsburgh is now in serious danger of missing the postseason entirely, which would have been an inconceivable idea even a few weeks ago.
From nearly any other franchise in the league, this type of collapse would raise plenty of questions about the future. The postmortems would include considered examinations of what changes need to be made and which deficiencies most need to be addressed in the offseason. But in Pittsburgh’s case, there isn’t much to be done. As currently constructed, the Steelers are about as set in stone as an NFL franchise can be in 2018. Pittsburgh is slated to have just over $9 million in cap space in 2019, with nearly $20 million more set to roll over from this season, thanks in large part to Le’Veon Bell electing not to sign his franchise tender. In the modern NFL, where the 7-6 Colts are projected to have nearly $115 million to work with next season, that’s a modest amount of cap room. Releasing Joe Haden would free up another $10 million, but it would also leave Pittsburgh without a reliable outside cornerback on the roster. And most of the Steelers’ larger contracts (including Brown, Alejandro Villanueva, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, and David DeCastro) were signed relatively recently, meaning they have plenty of dead money remaining. Pittsburgh is a team built to win now, which is precisely why squandering a playoff spot this season would be so distressing.
It’s natural to lump the current iteration of the Steelers—the one characterized by offensive dominance, specifically the unceasing greatness from Brown and the passing game—in with the other elite franchises of the past decade. At first glance, they seem to belong on the same level as the Seahawks and Patriots as the teams that have defined the modern NFL. But in the eight years that Brown has spent as a full-time receiver, the Steelers have played in just one conference championship game. They’ve been bounced in their first playoff game three different times, including last year’s divisional-round loss to the Jaguars. Seattle may have missed the postseason last year, but in the Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks have never been bounced in their playoff opener. Since 2011, the Patriots have more Super Bowl appearances (four) than the Steelers have playoff wins (three).
Holding the Steelers to that standard may seem unrealistic, but for a franchise that views itself as the class of the league, with an unwavering dedication to an organizational ethos that’s remained steady for nearly half a century, it’s hardly unfair. For nearly every other team in football, what Pittsburgh has accomplished over the past decade would be a banner run of success—which is why missing the playoffs probably won’t bring any significant changes. Mike Tomlin and this core will have a chance to run it back next season, with the majority of the roster intact.
But all windows close eventually. Roethlisberger turns 37 in March. Underrated cogs cornerback Mike Hilton and guard Ramon Foster are both set to be free agents. With a roster constructed for the present, every missed opportunity hurts that much worse, and if the Steelers do fall out of the playoffs over the next three weeks, that sting could linger for quite a while. Four playoff appearances in five years would be viewed as a considerable achievement by almost any organization in the league. But for the Steelers, this year is shaping up to be yet another disappointment—and this era has the potential to become a glorified exercise in what could have been.