The Steelers’ weaknesses are catching up to them. After starting 11-0, they have dropped two straight games and fallen out of the AFC’s top seed. They now have just a 5 percent chance of getting a first-round playoff bye, according to FiveThirtyEight. Worse, Pittsburgh doesn’t look like a Super Bowl–caliber team. Its quarterback can’t throw deep, its receivers can’t catch passes, and its running game can’t do much of anything. Even its elite defense can’t stay healthy. “We played like crap today,” Steelers defensive end and team captain Cam Heyward told reporters after a 26-15 loss to the Bills on Sunday Night Football. “After [the first quarter], it all went to hell.”
When a team starts out strong and endures a late losing streak, we usually assess what has changed. But what’s most concerning for the Steelers is that many of their problems aren’t new. Several preexisting issues have simply gotten worse. “Our mistakes are catching up to us,” Heyward said. Hey, at least they are catching something.
The issues start on offense. This unit hasn’t looked right for weeks, dating back to an ugly 19-14 win over the Robert Griffin III–led Ravens on December 2. It was easy to attribute that performance to the game’s postponement from Thanksgiving to the subsequent Wednesday, but Pittsburgh followed that up with an even sloppier outing in a 23-17 loss to Washington in Week 13. Pittsburgh’s players dropped eight passes in that game, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the most a team has dropped for a quarterback in a game all season. Prior to the last few weeks, the Steelers had dropped five passes in a game just twice in the previous 15 years. Then they did it twice in a row. Head coach Mike Tomlin attributed Pittsburgh’s mistakes in the Washington loss to “us sucking.” He also said his receivers “can catch the ball or they can get replaced by those who will catch it.”
This was the backdrop entering the Steelers’ game in Buffalo. And on the team’s first play from scrimmage, this happened.
Wide receiver Diontae Johnson dropped a screen pass that hit him directly in the hands. Pittsburgh went three-and-out. On the very next offensive series, the Steelers faced a third-and-7. Ben Roethlisberger went back to Johnson, and well …
Two drives, two Johnson targets, two Pop Warner–level drops. Johnson is one of the NFL’s most elusive receivers, but that doesn’t matter if he can’t complete a basic catch. Tomlin benched Johnson for the rest of the half after the second drop. Things didn’t get better for the Steelers.
Tight end Eric Ebron also continued to struggle with drops. Rookie Chase Claypool recorded just three catches for 15 yards. Pittsburgh’s leading receiver on Sunday was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had just 55 yards. The drops and the lack of production are emblematic of Pittsburgh’s woes. What was once this offense’s biggest source of pride—its young receiving corps—is now one of its biggest concerns.
While the receivers are mostly to blame for these drops, however, Pittsburgh’s quick-passing game is also partly at fault. Roethlisberger routinely targets his wideouts over the middle, in the area of the field where players are most likely to drop passes. The primary question for Pittsburgh’s offense is not the drops. It’s why this group is suddenly so reliant on quick passing.
The short answer is because it can’t do anything else. The Steelers certainly can’t run the ball effectively. Pittsburgh averages 3.7 yards per rush attempt, tied for second to last in the NFL, ahead of only the Dolphins. This offensive line wasn’t great when it was healthy, and now it isn’t healthy. The Steelers had zero healthy backup linemen at one point on Sunday night. Unsurprisingly, they rushed 17 times for 47 yards against Buffalo, an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Their longest run went for 7 yards.
Pittsburgh’s run game is so bad that the offense won’t even pretend to run the ball. Early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had first-and-goal at the Bills’ 3-yard line; they went with an empty formation.
On the one hand, it’s hard to blame Tomlin for abandoning the run after last week’s showing against Washington. Pittsburgh was stuffed three times in four plays from the 1-yard line to force a turnover on downs. On the other hand, this offense started abandoning the run (and run fakes) well before that. The Steelers use play-action fakes less than any other team. Pittsburgh’s is not a physical offense, and it’s not a deceptive one either. That’s a bad combination. Here’s Pittsburgh’s rushing yardage totals over their last seven games.
Steelers Rushing Yards, Last Seven Games
The Steelers have replaced running the ball with quick passing. Roethlisberger (who is coming off an elbow injury with little precedent for a quarterback of his age) has 141 pass attempts over his last three games. He averaged 33 pass attempts per game over Pittsburgh’s 5-0 start. And Roethlisberger’s recent attempts are quick passes. He is getting rid of the football in less than 2.2 seconds after the snap, faster than any other quarterback since PFF began tracking the metric in 2011. NBC’s broadcast made a big deal out of Roethlisberger’s streak of plays without taking a sack (which ended Sunday), but that did not signal that Roethlisberger is unsackable. It signaled that he is getting rid of the ball fast enough to ensure he does not take a hit.
Short passing is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a concern when it’s the only reliable part of an offense. Pittsburgh’s vertical production is all but gone. While Roethlisberger has attempted the second-most go routes, the Steelers don’t try other forms of deep shots, according to PFF data. Entering last week, Roethlisberger targeted receivers between 10 and 19 yards downfield on just one of every six throws, third lowest among qualifying quarterbacks. Perhaps more damning: He ranks 31st in the league in yards per attempt (6.3), sandwiched on the leaderboard between Daniel Jones and Andy Dalton.
The abandonment of deep passing is likely a combination of three factors. First, Roethlisberger is 38 and coming off elbow surgery in his throwing arm. He can’t consistently chuck it deep anymore. Second, Pittsburgh’s offensive line isn’t good enough to protect him and allow deep receiver routes to develop. And third, Roethlisberger is no longer mobile enough to extend plays or escape pressure when the blocking breaks down. It doesn’t help that he’s dealing with two knee injuries that compound the problem.“I’m not playing good enough football for us to win,” Roethlisberger said after the Buffalo game. “If I don’t play good enough football, I need to hang it up.”
That may sound dramatic, but Roethlisberger can get existential after losses. He’s still good enough to play, but not on a team that lacks a reliable running game and a deep passing element. The Steelers could win with the blueprint they used when Roethlisberger was a rookie in the Cretaceous Period, when he was a game manager for an elite defense. But now even the Steelers’ defense no longer looks elite.
On that side of the ball, the issues can be explained by injuries. Nowhere is that more evident than linebacker. The inside linebacker position is the fulcrum of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme. When the Steelers have good (and fast) linebackers, this defense is dominant. When it doesn’t, it’s merely average. Devin Bush, a 2019 first-round pick and Pittsburgh’s defensive play-caller, tore his ACL in October. Bush’s backup, Robert Spillane, was placed on injured reserve this weekend. The team’s other backup inside linebacker, Ulysees Gilbert, just came off the IR, but he was somewhat ineffective when he was healthy. His ineffectiveness led the Steelers to trade the Jets for linebacker Avery Williamson; when the Steelers are turning to the Jets for answers, you know that they’re in trouble. Now Pittsburgh’s other starting inside linebacker, Vince Williams, is on the COVID-19 list. That forced Marcus Allen to play alongside Williamson on Sunday night.
And the injury woes don’t end there. Standout defensive end Bud Dupree, who’s amassed 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons, tore his ACL earlier this month. His backup, rookie Alex Highsmith, was shaken up on a crucial run-stuff late in Sunday’s loss. Veteran cornerback Joe Haden missed the Buffalo game with a concussion. When the center of the defense is a revolving door and the edges start losing top performers, cracks will show. The Bills came out after halftime and targeted Stefon Diggs over and over, scoring 14 points in the third quarter alone.
Pittsburgh couldn’t lose for three months and suddenly it can’t win. The book is out on this team. Offenses have found a weak spot in the middle of a once impenetrable defense. Opposing defensive linemen who know they can’t sack Roethlisberger now jump up to bat down his quick passes. Cornerbacks jump his short throws, unafraid of getting beat deep. Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes said after Sunday’s game that Buffalo defenders were asking each other, “Who’s going to be the first person to get a turnover?” It should be no surprise that this game flipped on a pick-six.
The Steelers went from averaging almost 30 points in their first 10 games to 17 in their last three. Their defense is getting worse with these injuries, so the offense has to step up. Pittsburgh has lost its identity, and unless Kansas City stumbles, it will need to win three straight playoff games to make the Super Bowl. That is not a good formula for a team having trouble threading three catches without a drop. The Steelers started 11-0, but now they’re left searching for answers as the season nears its 11th hour.