PITTSBURGH — Don’t blame the national anthem dust up. Or Antonio Brown’s latest tantrum. Or Le’Veon Bell’s non-holdout holdout. Or Martavis Bryant’s re-immersion into the offense after a year away.
The man designed with making the Pittsburgh Steelers go doesn’t want to hear any of it. Ben Roethlisberger placed the blame for arguably the worst performance of his 14-year career on his shoulders.
Four quarters. A career-high five interceptions . Two of which Jacksonville returned for touchdowns. A 30-9 loss to the Jaguars that left the Steelers frustrated and the most prolific passer in franchise history struggling to put a finger on how things went so wrong, so quickly for a group that was expected to be among the league’s best.
Five weeks in, Pittsburgh (3-2) is decidedly average.
“Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” Roethlisberger said.
The 35-year-old was kidding. Mostly. While he tried to chalk it up as simply a bad day at the office, in reality this one was different than most. No Steelers quarterback had thrown it to the other team five times in a game since Mark Malone did it against Cleveland 30 years ago.
While there were protection breakdowns and both of the Pick 6s the Jaguars used to turn a two-point deficit into an 11-point lead were tipped, Pittsburgh again failed to get anything going in the passing game outside of Brown. The All-Pro finished with 10 receptions for 157 yards a week after Roethlisberger called Brown out for his brief sideline meltdown in Baltimore. He caught a 49-yard strike on the Steelers’ first offensive snap that seemed to be a public acknowledgement any lingering issues between the two had been put to rest.
Yet that possession ended with a field goal instead of a touchdown. So did another at the end of the first half. And another early in the second. Touchdowns at any point change the complexion of things dramatically. Field goals allowed Jacksonville to stay it in, and when Roethlisberger tried to find Brown in traffic on consecutive drives in the third quarter, the Jaguars ended up celebrating in the end zone.
Telvin Smith took one interception 28 yards for a score. Barry Church then raced 51 yards for a touchdown that put Jacksonville in front 20-9. Two more Jacksonville picks followed in the fourth quarter as the Jaguars easily turned away any shot at a comeback.
“Give them credit, their defense lined up and did some things,” Roethlisberger said.
Bryant struggling: The Steelers, meanwhile, could do little when Brown wasn’t involved. Bell finished with 47 yards rushing against the NFL’s worst run defense. Wide receivers Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for nine receptions for 79 yards.
“They wasn’t taking away everything,” Bryant said. “I did beat’em sometimes. Sometimes (Roethlisberger) just didn’t throw the ball my way. We didn’t take advantage of it. We didn’t play the best game. Like I said, got a long way to go.”
Maybe longer than most anticipated. Bryant’s return from the drug suspension that forced him to sit out the 2016 season was supposed to be the final piece. Yet he has just one touchdown through five weeks, symptomatic of an offense that isn’t lighting up scoreboards. Pittsburgh is averaging just 19.8 points. The Steelers averaged 25 last season while winning the AFC North for the second time in three years.
Roethlisberger hinted at retirement following a loss to New England in the AFC title game, but stressed he was “all in” when he ultimately decided to come back for a 14th season.
Yet Bell sat out training camp after being slapped with the franchise tag. Bryant has spent a large portion of the last two months trying to find the rhythm that made him one of the best downfield threats in the league in 2014 and 2015. And Brown has been his usually productive — if occasionally polarizing — self.
Numbers are down: Roethlisberger preached patience early on, saying his team just needed time to settle in. Basically a third of the way through the season, he has more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) and his completion percentage (61.5) is at its lowest point since 2010.
Brown vowed to be part of the group that will help pick up his team’s “general,” one who typically tries to form a protective shield when things don’t go well. Roethlisberger traditionally tries to steer the brunt of the criticism him way following a loss regardless of how well he may have played. This time, however, felt different. This time, it was the rest of the Steelers trying to protect him.
“He didn’t go out there by himself,” Brown said. “We went out there collectively. … I take responsibility as do the other guys in the locker room.”