COLLIER: Suddenly struggling Steelers piling up 'troublesome' numbers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) fumbles the ball as he is sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) and Vernon Butler (94) during the second half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. The Bills recovered the ball. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes )

Absent in back-to-back Januaries, the Pittsburgh Steelers are going back to the playoffs.

On a stretcher.

They'll be the team that can't run, can't throw a football farther than you can flip a roll of paper towels, and can't give their decimated-yet-defiant defense anything that might be mistaken for a fighting chance.

So don't blink come playoff time, or you may miss the Steelers' appearance.

Mike Tomlin's team headed to Buffalo on Sunday with some points to prove, and they did. They have the worst ground game in the NFL, and they showed it, even though that flaccid 2.8 yards per carry was nearly twice what they'd managed the previous week.

They have a short passing game that gets the drop only on itself. Three more dropped passes pumped their total to 16 in the past three games, but worse, the longest completion of Ben Roethlisberger's no good, very bad, terrible night gained 20 yards, the shortest longest pass of the season, if you will. Most conspicuously, the whole operation is throwing off parts like the first vehicle eliminated from a demolition derby.

On a night when a defense running on about half power due to injuries was joined by an offensive line held together with packing tape, chewing gum and whispered prayers, the Steelers crumpled under the weight of an accomplished Bills team that will reach the same playoff field with the look of an actual playoff team.

"I'm not playing good enough football for us to win," Roethlisberger said, without naming the few dozen teammates who could swear to the same statement. "If I don't play good enough football, I need to hang it up. I'm going to do everything I can to get back on track."

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stands on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Dink-and-dunk offense: That's not his first on-the-record observation that his career is no longer on the upswing, but the offense itself will have to bear the full weight of expanded scrutiny before we get anywhere near the is-Ben-done question.

Not terribly long ago, Pittsburghers delighted in their mockery of so-called dink-and-dunk offenses. Now it's watching one of the league's top go-ball artists thoroughly reduced to "getting the ball out quickly." Maybe that's why they went 275 pass attempts without allowing a sack. No defender can hope to reach him when all Ben does is turn and dink it left to Diontae Johnson (who drops it).

I'm no offensive coordinator — although I play one online and in the newspaper — but I'm starting to think that this unrelenting dink-and-dunk, stink-and-stunk, sink-and-sunk aerial show is saying something about Ben that is less than promising.

Tomlin knows where all this is going, and that's why he took a short portion of his short post-game Zoom call to divert attention from his short passing game.

"We've got to win more possession downs, and thus possess the ball more and give us more opportunities," Tomlin said about Randy Fichtner's baby steps offense. "The more snaps you get, the more opportunities you get to make some of those dynamic plays. It starts first with staying on schedule and possessing the ball, and we're not doing enough of that right now, so that makes some of the other discussions more troublesome."

Empirical evidence: There is, as always, empirical evidence to Tomlin's point. The Steelers went 1 for 10 on third down, meaning they're 13 for the last 39, and haven't hit 50 percent on that metric since Oct. 25 at Tennessee. Thus, as he would say, they possessed the thing for only 24:45 of the 60:00, their second consecutive performance in which they failed to enjoy half the possession time.

"We didn't possess the ball enough, and so there was a scarcity of snaps," Tomlin said. "And when you have that, you're going to have questions about distribution of the ball, and who gets it, and establishing the run and all of those things."

As it happens, for most of Sunday's first half, there was no reason to expect that either team would manage any semblance of competence offensively. Across the game's first nine possessions, there were eight punts and an interception, that one thrown by the man Tomlin would describe three hours later as an MVP candidate — Buffalo's Josh Allen.

But Allen would recover with the help of splendid wideout Stefon Diggs, whose 10 catches went for 130 yards, more than twice that of any Pittsburgh receiver.

Toxic picks: Roethlisberger's picks were far more toxic, the first being returned for a touchdown by Bills' corner Taron Johnson, the second a highly-suggestive fourth-quarter underthrow toward James Washington that fell instead to Buffalo's Levi Wallace.

So I'll leave you with four little bursts of dink-and-dunk numerology, each in the spirit of what Tomlin might call "troublesome."

The Bills had been allowing an average of 410 yards over the past two games. The Steelers got 224.

From the moment the Steelers held a two-touchdown lead last week against Washington at home until the Bills scored on the first two possessions of Sunday's second half, Pittsburgh had been outscored 46-10.

After scoring at least 26 points in a franchise record 10 consecutive games, the Steelers have failed to score 20 for the third time in a row.

Roethlisberger's passer rating Sunday night was 65.9, his worst of the season. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that when your passer rating isn't at least twice your age, that can be really troublesome.