Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, right, is tackled by Baltimore Ravens defenders as he rushes the ball in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
It wasn't that long ago the Steelerscould make the case for being one of the NFL's top teams.
You could mention them in the same breath with the Patriots and not risk getting a bizarre, sideways look. Somebody like my buddy Pete Prisco -- one of those poor souls charged with doing weekly Power Rankings (God, how I hate Power Rankings) -- could list them as the top team in the league and not engender more scorn, hate and ridicule on Twitter than he might normally encounter.
Go back merely a month, and the Steelers were 4-1 and coming off successive thrashings of the Chiefs and Jets by a combined score of 74-27. It looked as if they would run away with the AFC North by Thanksgiving in a year in which the division is decidedly pedestrian.
So what happened?
A few shorts weeks later, and the Steelers are now somehow looking up at theRavens. Baltimore finally snapped its four-game losing streak by suffocating Pittsburgh on Sunday. All of a sudden the Steelers have lost three in a row (all to AFC teams) while failing to score even 17 points in any of those games despite possessing what many (including me) believed was the best offense in football.
The Steelers have amassed just 45 points over their past three games while displaying a tendency to play down to the level of opponents. On Sunday they were putrid in what should have been a great spot for them -- coming off the bye, getting the latest heroic return from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and getting a shot at their wounded rivals with a chance to send the Ravens' season into a potential death spiral.
Instead, all three units of the Steelers basically failed to show up. They let Mike Wallacetake a slant for 95 yards early in the game. They allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown. They had their kicker try the most ridiculous epic fail onside kick attempt in NFL history. They failed to score a single point themselves until what amounted to garbage time, after the Ravens had stretched their lead to 21-0 late in the game and they could sit back and merely try to prevent the big play.
Make no mistake, this was a cumulative no-show, punctuated by a mind-numbing 10 penalties for 84 yards in the first half alone. Roethlisberger was not in sync with any of his weapons, he had like 50 yards passing at the half, and Antonio Brown barely seemed like he was on the field. Le'Veon Bell had nowhere to go, no matter how patient he remained. The frustration was obvious at times between him and coordinator Todd Haley, with the unit looking tentative and disjointed and lethargic all game.
All of the lofty things quasi-pundits like me said about the Steelers before the season -- potentially historic offense with a 5,000-yard passer and a 1,500-yard rusher and 1,800-yard receiver -- well, yeah, that ain't happening. At this point the Steelers would settle for getting at least one element of their offense on track. And fast. The Ravens get the lowly Browns on Thursday, the Bengals get into the underbelly of their schedule following their return from the bye and the Steelers face the soaring Cowboys next week.
It's not crazy to think they might be looking up at two division foes in the standings come a week from now, and that's a sentence I never could have imagined writing last month. Bell has yet to score a touchdown this season and has just 113 yards on 35 carries (3.23 yards per rush) the last two games. Brown is somehow averaging just 12.3 yards per catch.
And we really don't need to belabor the point about the defense. That was never going to be the strength of this team, it was just a matter of how big of a liability it would be. With the question becoming, not whether or not the Steelers will score into the 40s every week, but whether they can crack 20, that's not a winning equation for this outfit. They have no pass rush. They remain prone to coverage breakdowns. There has been mounting tension about the lack of aggression in the scheme and not blitzing as much as some veterans would like.
Problem is, the Steelers just don't have playmakers on defense who show up with much regularity and that only gets exposed the more they are on the field. And the offense isn't doing a good enough job of holding on to the ball and keeping their defense off the field. If this team was going to be Super Bowl-caliber -- and I thought it very well might and it perhaps still could be -- then the offense has to be transcendent and the defense has to be, at best, middle of the pack.
Fact is, neither side of the ball has lived up to that standard, and as a result the Steelers look like they'll be in another multiteam dogfight in the AFC North rather than dabbling with a potential top seed in the conference.