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DULAC: Pittsburgh Steelers suddenly find themselves staring at grim history

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) runs off the field after an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)

The unbeaten record was the first to fall. Then the No. 1 seed in the AFC. What’s next, the division title?

What seemed like a foregone conclusion when the Steelers started 11-0 is now looking as uncertain as a winter storm forecast after three consecutive losses have allowed the Cleveland Browns to sneak within a game of first place in the AFC North.

With two games remaining against playoff-minded teams who are 10-4, including the season finale in Cleveland, the possibility of the Steelers ending as a wild-card team is not out of the question.

Who would’ve thought that at the beginning of December?

“What’s gone from bad has actually gotten worse,” coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday, approximately 12 hours after the Steelers lost to Cincinnati Bengals, 27-17.

The Steelers can save themselves – and their followers – the embarrassment and heartache of being the first team in the Super Bowl era to start 11-0 and not win their division by beating the Indianapolis Colts (10-4) on Sunday at Heinz Field. That would clinch the division title and basically render meaningless (for them) their season finale against the Browns, even if the No. 2 seed were still at stake.

Even if the Steelers do clinch the division, their performances in their past four outings would suggest their postseason stay will be shorter than a soup bone in a roomful of Dobermans. That’s not something that happens very often, not to a team that started 11-0 and was the last in the league to lose a game.

The previous team to start 11-0 and be eliminated in their first playoff game was the 2011 Green Bay Packers, who finished 15-1 and lost in the NFC divisional round.

Before that, it was the 2005 Indianapolis Colts, who were 14-2 and ousted in the AFC divisional round by the Steelers.

But there have been other teams who staggered late in the season and still went on to win the Super Bowl.

The New Orleans Saints did it in 2009 when they started 13-0 and lost their last three games, though they rested many of their starters in Week 17.

In 2011, the New York Giants lost five of their final eight games, but still won the NFC East and went on to beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Giants did much the same thing in 2007, when they lost two of their final three games to finish 10-6 but still went on to win the Super Bowl as a wild-card team.

Can the Steelers turn it around in time to recapture what they once had?

“I’m a firm believer things don’t change just by believing they will,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Our work has to reflect that. We got to get to work and solve this and understand where we’re falling short. I understand we have some guys injured, but that’s not an excuse.”

Broken Ben: Safe to say Ben Roethlisberger’s first-quarter showing against the Bengals, in which he was 2 of 8 for minus-2 yards, was easily the worst opening quarter of his 17-year career – maybe of any quarter.

And you might have to go back a long way to find a worse three-game stretch for Roethlisberger, who has completed 74 of his past 128 attempts for 662 yards with five touchdowns, four interceptions and a 71.81 passer rating in the past three losses.

Roethlisberger has lost three consecutive starts five other times in his career. He hasn’t lost four in a row since the Steelers started 0-4 in the 2013 season. He also did it in 2009.

In 2006, a year after winning the Super Bowl, the Steelers started 0-3 and Roethlisberger had his worst three-game stretch. He completed 55 of 102 attempts for 569 yards with seven interceptions and no touchdowns, a passer rating of 41.67.

In 2007, he went six games with a sub-100 passer rating and five games without throwing for more than 200 yards during a 2-3 stretch.

Curiously, the longest stretch he has gone with a sub-100 rating was the final 10 games of the 2008 season, the year the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger threw eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions in those 10 games to close the season, but recovered in time to lead the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl victory.

Some other observations:

►Benny Snell has shown the ability to rise to the occasion when asked to be a starter. He filled in for an injured James Conner (quad) against the Bengals and finished with 84 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. Not surprising. In three other starts, he has rushed for 98, 91 and 60 yards. In four games as a starter, he has gained 333 yards on 73 carries, an average of 4.56 yards per rush, and two touchdowns. Tomlin said that could earn Snell “more opportunities,” even if Conner returns Sunday against the Colts, as expected.

►The Bengals rushed for 152 yards against a Steelers defense that no longer has the cache it had earlier this season. The biggest chunk of that yardage came at the most critical time – shortly after the Steelers rallied to make it 17-10. The Bengals ran eight times for 65 yards on a nine-play, 80-yard drive with the Steelers getting snookered on a 23-yard touchdown run by quarterback Ryan Finley in which no defender even touched him.

►If you’re looking for bright spots, the offense managed 204 yards and 10 first downs in the second half after spotting the Bengals a 17-0 lead. Roethlisberger had 151 of his 170 yards passing after halftime.

►There’s a reason Diontae Johnson leads the team in targets (126, eighth in the NFL) after being targeted 13 times with eight catches against the Bengals: He gets open. Johnson comes off the line of scrimmage and out of his breaks better than any receiver since Antonio Brown.

Remember me? With the season-ending injury to Matt Feiler and the shoulder injury to rookie Kevin Dotson, the Steelers were forced to rotate backup center J.C. Hassenauer and Derwin Gray at left guard.

Too bad they didn’t have a veteran guard who started on two Super Bowl teams as a replacement.

So what happened to Stefan Wisniewski?

Well, he started at right guard Sunday for his old team, the Kansas City Chiefs, who signed him to their practice squad after the Steelers released him on Nov. 7 in a surprise move.

The Steelers signed Wisniewski to a two-year, $1.3 million contract in free agency, wanting to provide depth on the offensive line and possibly even have him battle for a starting spot at left guard. After all, he started at guard when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl last season and when the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017.

But Wisniewski injured his pectoral muscle in the season opener against the New York Giants when he started for an injured David DeCastro. The injury was not serious enough to end his season, but the Steelers placed him on injured reserve.

When he came off the injured reserve list three weeks later, Wisniewski aggravated the injury in practice, causing the muscle to bleed into his arm.

The Steelers had 21 days from the time Wisniewski came off injured reserve to either return him to the 53-man roster or place him back on IR for the remainder of the season. Apparently, they decided not to carry him on the roster and wait for him to get healthy and released him on Nov. 7, even though they were still responsible for his full contract as a vested veteran.

In hindsight, the Steelers probably wish they weren’t so impatient. Hassenauer started and played 49 snaps against the Bengals. Gray, a seventh-round draft choice in 2019, played 16 snaps, his most in two seasons. But the Steelers expect to have Dotson back for Sunday’s game against the Colts.

Meantime, Wisniewski could be in line for a third Super Bowl ring.