Steelers stink, but they just might maintain charade, sneak into AFC playoffs

JOE STARKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers team suffered a 36-10 loss at Kansas City on Sunday.

You watch.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will beat the pathetic Cleveland Browns and the pathetic-er Baltimore Ravens — teams with a combined 1-7 record over the past four weeks — and sneak into the playoffs at 9-7-1. They'll snatch the final wild card spot.

And then we can hear all about how Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin have never had a losing season and about how these never-say-die Steelers shocked the world and proved their doubters wrong.

We'll know better, of course, because we've been watching this travesty unfold by the week. We'll know it's an illusion, just like all these junk yards the Steelers pile up late in games. The illusion will be born of the fact that Baltimore has no players left, the Browns still have one (Baker Mayfield) who kills them every week and the rest of the AFC bubble crowd is bad beyond words.

Did you see the Los Angeles Chargers lay down in Houston?

Shoot, we couldn't even escape the 36-10 shellacking in Kansas City without Tony Romo praising Tomlin for never having a losing season. It happened shortly after the Steelers were deemed so pathetically unwatchable that CBS switched most of the country to the Las Vegas-Denver game, whereby Raiders quarterback Derek Carr knelt on the ball three times.

CBS then switched back, in plenty of time for Romo to say, "Let's give Mike Tomlin credit. ... Has he ever had a losing season?"

No, Tony, he hasn't. Who cares? Is there really that big of a difference between 7-9 and 8-8, or in this case, 7-9-1 and 8-8-1?

The Steelers are in the midst of collapsing down the stretch (2-4-1 in the past seven games) for the fourth consecutive season. This might be Tomlin's worst team, no matter what happens.

Where shall we begin with Sunday's debacle?

How about here ...

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) fumbles while being hit by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Tershawn Wharton (98). Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed, far right, recovered the fumble for the Chiefs during the second half during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

Roethlisberger was awful: It used to be the Steelers went into nearly every game with an advantage at the most important position on the field — quarterback.

Now it's often not the case.

Sunday, it was decidedly not the case. Patrick Mahomes was brilliant, never more so than when he straddled the line of scrimmage and uncorked a 50-yard completion to Derrick Gore late in the first half.

Roethlisberger was awful, both in decision-making and execution. It's getting a bit tired to blame everything on the line and the coordinator. Roethlisberger is responsible for at least part of the play-calling, via run-pass options. He also gets to choose where to go with the ball — and with about six minutes left in the half, he made two ruinous decisions deep in Chiefs territory.

On the first, he attempted a miniature pass to Ray-Ray McCloud, ignoring much better options outside. Two plays later, he chose a quick screen to the right to Najee Harris on 3rd-and-10 (literally six players surrounded Harris) when a screen to the left, to Diontae Johnson, would have hit big (assuming Johnson held onto the ball, of course).

"He can go right or left there," Romo said. "[If he goes left], that's a touchdown."

Now throw in two turnovers in his own territory — the first a brutal throw on an early flea flicker, the second a fumble-sack on a ridiculous fake reverse when trailing 33-3 — and Roethlisberger's day looks even worse.

He can't move anymore, which means he can't turn a bad play into a good one, and he almost never uses the middle of the field. His 23 completions netted just 159 yards.

Canada deserves blame: Not that you should let coordinator Matt Canada off the hook.

I have never seen so many third- and fourth-down passes seemingly designed for short of the sticks.

I'll let a Charlie Batch tweet suffice for the flea-flicker call: "Run a flea flicker without establishing the run. SMH."

The McCloud obsession: What is the obsession with McCloud?

He was targeted more than Johnson and Chase Claypool combined in the first half. Meanwhile, as Romo clearly spelled out, the Chiefs were going to play press coverage and challenge the Steelers to toss up a bunch of 50/50 passes. That should be an ideal situation for Claypool, who made spectacular catches on consecutive plays in the first half and later drew an interference call.

But yes, by all means, keep going to Ray-Ray like he's Antonio Brown.

Tomlin was asked why McCloud's role in the offense has expanded. His rationale — "The attention that 18 (Johnson) and 11 (Claypool) get" — was patently ridiculous. A jump ball for either of those two, as we saw Sunday, is better than almost any pass to McCloud.

Taunting call: How about the taunting call on McCloud with his team down 30 points — and how about Tomlin not doing anything about it?

I hate most of the taunting calls I've seen, including this one, but Tomlin has been a taunting-crackdown zealot all season.

McCloud signaled first down, a tiny little hand signal with the cornerback standing next to him, and was flagged. Given how Tomlin (a member of the NFL's competition committee) has backed the crackdown, you figured he would have no patience for it.

Instead, McCloud stayed in, and Tomlin later defended him, saying, "I categorically disagreed with [the call]. ... [The cornerback] just happened to be there. I think we have to exercise some common sense."

Here's hoping somebody loves you the way Tomlin loves McCloud.

Poor preparation: I'm not a big stats guy, but, man, this one stands out: The Steelers have now gone five straight games without a first-half touchdown for the first time since 1940.

That speaks to abominable preparation.

Point differential: In any sport, if a team is any good it will post the occasional lopsided victory and mostly avoid blowout losses.

That is why run differential is such a telling stat in baseball and point differential is the same in football. Well, the Steelers have only been in the minus category once since 2003. That was the Duck Hodges year of 2019 when they were minus-17. Back in '03, when they went 6-10 and put themselves in position to draft Roethlisberger, they were minus-27. They are minus-70 this season.

And get this: If the Steelers do not beat Cleveland or Baltimore by more than eight points, it will mark the first time since 1969 that they will have failed to win even once by more than one score.

"Catastophic" season: Anyway, Tomlin used the word "catastrophic" afterward, and I didn't catch what he was referencing. It could have been anything. It could have been this rotten Steelers season.

Or Baltimore's.

Or Cleveland's.