The Pittsburgh Steelers say they are in the business of winning football games, even if their record through the first four games shows otherwise while producing a troubling template.
Mike Tomlin isn’t interested looking for patterns, let alone talking about them. But if you’re wondering how the Super Bowl-or-bust Steelers are 1-2-1, it’s because they continue to start slow, splurge in the second quarter and get outscored in the second half.
There’s a puzzling pattern developing there, one the Steelers either are refusing to recognize or failing to fix. If they didn’t see it before they played the Baltimore Ravens, a 26-14 loss Sunday night at Heinz Field showed that the Steelers continue to follow a flawed script.
Through a quarter of the season, the Steelers are 1-2-1 and winless at home and in the AFC North. Their path to the playoffs could depend on winning the division, and that’s saying something after they just lost a division game at home to their arch-rival.
“We’ve got to own that,” Tomlin said. “We don’t like where we are but we’ve got to accept it, we understand it. It’s our doing.”
This is who the Steelers are and what they have to own: They are a team that has been outscored, 42-6, in the first quarter, a team that has outscored opponents, 66-3, in the second quarter and a team that hasn’t put a point on the scoreboard in the second half of the past two games.
That’s not acceptable.
“I don’t think it’s a pattern,” Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams said. “We’ve just got to play better.”
That’s an understatement. The Ravens led, 14-0, before the Steelers got a first down. Baltimore had two third-down conversions on its opening drive, which covered 75 yards in eight plays and ended with Joe Flacco’s 33-yard touchdown pass to John Brown. The Steelers had two third-down conversions the entire game, going 2 of 12.
Somehow, the Steelers rallied again in the second quarter. Maybe that’s because they finally got Antonio Brown involved. He didn’t have a catch until a third-and-4 at the Baltimore 36 – 23 minutes, 24 seconds into the game. The Ravens’ John Brown had more receiving yards (116) on three catches than Antonio Brown (62 yards) had on five catches is a telling statistic of how ineffective the Steelers were on offense.
Roethlisberger takes blame: Ben Roethlisberger took full blame, of course. The Steelers quarterback was 27 of 47 for 274 yards, with a touchdown to Brown offset by a late fourth-quarter interception that killed any chances of a comeback.
“I just didn’t make enough plays, point blank,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ll take ownership of that game, squarely on me. I apologize to the fans, to my teammates. I just wasn’t good enough.”
The Steelers aren’t good enough to go scoreless in the second half for the second consecutive week. They used a 20-point halftime cushion to hang on to beat Tampa Bay, but even holding the Ravens to four Justin Tucker field goals in the second half proved ineffective.
Not enough playmakers: Baltimore dominated the time of possession by 13 minutes in the second half, as the Steelers managed only 23 plays in six possessions and none of their drives lasted longer than 2:42. The Ravens had four consecutive drives end with field goals, including one that started at their own 8-yard line with 10:17 remaining and went 87 yards on 14 plays.
“Not enough playmaking in the second half of the football game for us to secure victory and it really is as simple as that,” Tomlin said. “They made the plays when they had the ball to maintain possession of it and move. We didn’t make enough plays quickly enough to get off the field and on offense we didn’t make enough plays to possess the ball.”
That’s the hard truth about these Steelers. For all of their talent, there aren’t enough playmakers. They just aren’t the same team without Le’Veon Bell at running back and Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker. Expecting a repeat of their double-digit win totals of the previous four seasons is starting to appear unrealistic.
Long way to go: The Steelers have endured slow starts before. They have made second-quarter comebacks. What they can’t afford is to do those first two things and get outplayed in the second half, whether we’re talking one game or the entire season.
How troubling is that through a quarter of the season the Steelers are 1-2-1 and winless in the AFC North and on their home turf, even they know that winning the division is their best and perhaps only chance of clinching a place in the playoffs?
“You started that thing out the best: We’re only a quarter of the way through the season,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
He’s right about that. The Steelers have a long way to go, but only a short time to correct a pattern that has become a problem. But the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one.