The Steelers’ stunning loss to the Bengals Monday night can be symbolized in two late Ben Roethlisberger passes that ultimately cost Pittsburgh a chance to come back. Down 24-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had the ball on their own 24-yard line with just over two minutes left. On third-and-10, Roethlisberger escaped pressure and chucked the ball downfield:
Though Bengals corner Darius Phillips appeared to get away with an uncalled pass interference, this ball—underthrown to a receiver who was covered by four orange jerseys—had little chance of being completed. This wasn’t the play the Steelers needed on third-and-long. Then, on a do-or-die fourth down, Roethlisberger airmailed a throw intended for James Washington:
This is the kind of night it was for Pittsburgh: poor decisions, questionable execution, and performance so erratic from Roethlisberger that it makes you question whether this will be his last year in the league. It resulted in an atrociously ugly 27-17 loss, the Steelers’ third in a row. A team that once was in contention for the AFC’s no. 1 seed is now not even a lock to win the AFC North … and the team that could steal the crown is the Browns.
The last time I checked in with the Steelers was two weeks ago, when Pittsburgh lost its first game of the season. Despite a lackluster performance against Washington—and a loss that had been a long time coming—I wanted to be clear: The Steelers were not a bad football team. I wrote that the Steelers were “a good football team” and “Super Bowl contenders” and that “no team wants to travel to Pittsburgh this winter.” I can admit that I was hedging my bets a bit—I didn’t want to discount a squad that ripped off 11 straight wins, no matter how underwhelming they’d looked in some of them.
Now though, the Steelers look like anything but Super Bowl contenders. And should they lose the division to the Browns (which are just one game back with two weeks to go), no team will have to travel to Pittsburgh this winter. The Steelers haven’t scored 20 points since November, and as the Monday Night Football broadcast noted, this was the first time a Roethlisberger-led team failed to score 20 points four times in a row since his rookie season. The Pittsburgh offense is so bleak that I haven’t even mentioned that the Bengals were starting former fourth-round pick Ryan Finley at quarterback. An elite (if banged up) Steelers defense should have feasted—instead, a lackluster night from that group and an abysmal showing from the offense resulted in a loss to one of the worst teams in football.
The Steelers could not have started the game on a worse foot. They went three-and-out on three of their first five drives—the two drives that weren’t three-and-outs were fumbles. Their sixth drive gained just 17 yards on 10 plays before Roethlisberger threw an awful interception:
After that, the Steelers went three-and-out twice more to end the half, and the Bengals walked into the locker room with a 17-point lead. Cincinnati came into the game with the 29th-ranked defense by DVOA. This was supposed to be a perfect matchup for the Steelers to right their offensive woes and gain some much-needed confidence. For them to struggle this badly against the Bengals means something is really wrong. Roethlisberger had 170 passing yards on a whopping 38 pass attempts—an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. He was only sacked once, but pressure from the Bengals’ defensive front threw him out of rhythm for much of the night.
As my colleague Danny Heifetz noted last week, the book is out on this Steelers offense. They have struggled to run the football over the past month (though 84 yards on 18 carries from Benny Snell was a notable improvement tonight), and Roethlisberger does not look comfortable on deep throws. As a result, they have relied heavily on short, quick passes. Linebackers are happy dropping into coverage against this offense, and safeties rarely need to respect a potential deep pass. Drops plagued the Steelers in their previous two losses, but that wasn’t a problem tonight—this Pittsburgh offense is just straight-up bad.
The road will only get harder for the Steelers. Next week they play the 10-4 Colts, who are a sort of mirror image of the Steelers in that they thrive thanks to an elite defense and a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers. But whereas Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense have faded as the season has gone on, Indianapolis is playing its best ball right now, having won five of their past six. After that, the Steelers get a Week 17 date with the Browns that could determine the AFC North champion. This team was once a Super Bowl contender. Now they may not even win their own division.