Here’s an essential question that relates to Pittsburgh Steelers: How many panic buttons are too many?
One panic button would not serve them justice, considering how this season has collapsed.
The Steelers lost 27-17 at Cincinnati on Monday night, and actually caught a break with the final score. They couldn’t defeat a Bengals team (3-10-1) that is without its star rookie quarterback, its top running back and was a 14-point underdog. The offense is a mess, punctuated by the struggles of Ben Roethlisberger. The defense a shell of itself, punctuated by an assortment of injuries. And the swag is way off-key.
It wasn’t too long ago when the Steelers were 11-0, envisioning a finish in the Super Bowl LV winner’s circle that seemed so possible.
Now, with a third consecutive loss, LV is nothing more than a pipe dream.
The playoffs are still coming for Mike Tomlin’s team. That much they earned with the 11 victories, while the AFC North title remains un-clinched.
This must be the team everybody wants to play in the AFC playoffs. Of course, it seems that only one team will be so lucky in January because Pittsburgh has one-and-done written all over it while riding out with yet another late-season collapse.
Sure, we’ve seen teams that barely make the playoffs get hot in January and take the momentum to a crown. We’ve seen some legitimate contenders lay eggs with awful games in December, yet get it out of their system and wind up the biggest winners. We’ve seen teams needing to fix one problem area or another that was supposed to doom them, make the corrections that gave them a fighting chance.
The Steelers don’t look like any of those teams.
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Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward walks off the field after Monday night's loss to the Bengals. (Photo: Joseph Maiorana, USA TODAY Sports)
Not with Roethlisberger, 38, suddenly playing some of his worst football in years. Big Ben, who never loses in his home state against the Bengals and Browns, helped seal Monday night's loss with two of Pittsburgh's three turnovers in the first half that led to Cincinnati's 17-0 halftime edge.
Go straight to Las Vegas if you saw Roethlisberger losing the quarterback matchup against Ryan Lindley. No, Lindley didn’t exactly win a shootout. The fill-in quarterback threw for just 89 yards. But he didn’t throw a pick and he got the W. Roethlisberger’s night (20-for-38 for 170 yards, with a 62.4 efficiency rating) came with an interception and a botched exchange on a snap that his team couldn’t afford.
It’s like Roethlisberger, who had an ugly outing in Buffalo and a terrible second-half against Washington in the previous two losses, has slipped to match the level of the unit as a whole. He hasn’t had a consistent running game, his passing game targets lead the league in dropped passes and the blocking has been hazardous. That’s trouble in multiple layers, although for much of the season Roethlisberger — not prone to escape like Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers or Lamar Jackson — has covered for some of the woes with the NFL’s fastest average release time.
Yet still, as illustrated on Monday night, the Steelers are not built to come from behind. And right now they aren’t even built to convert third downs. They were 4-of-16 on third downs against the Bengals, which was, well, better than the 1-for-10 meter at Buffalo.
The Steelers defense leads the league in sacks, but it’s a different game when you’re trailing … and can’t stop the run in part because the linebacker group has been devastated by injuries, most notably the season-ending torn ACLs of Devin Bush and Bud Dupree.
January’s coming and in its current form Pittsburgh can’t match up against anybody, let alone the cream of the crop, Kansas City.
Yes, it’s 2020 and strange things happen. But this season is a flush for the Steelers.
Maybe something good, though, will come out of the latest debacle. Perhaps Tomlin, Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward or somebody will demand that JuJu Smith-Schuster cease and desist with his silly pregame ritual of dancing on the logo of the opposing team.
The look-at-me performance might be cute to the kids on Tik-Tok, but it’s rather embarrassing for a grown man, a supposed professional for a team that already has enough bad optics. Smith-Schuster finished on Monday night with all of three catches for 15 yards, with a turnover made for tick-tock — the clock winding down toward a curtain call for the Steelers' season.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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