It was a play that took the air out of a fan base and a team. As he was being twisted down to the ground, JuJu Smith-Schuster lost control of the football. It popped into the air and was quickly recovered by the New Orleans Saints, effectively ending the game. The comeback by the Pittsburgh Steelers was ended there, and left hanging in the balance were their playoff hopes. What seemed like a sure thing after 10 games has devolved into a sliver of hope to limp into the playoffs. How did this happen? How did this Pittsburgh Steelers season spiral out of control? Out of a variety of reasons it comes down to three major things: untimely turnovers, too many penalties, and the inability to close out games.
Pittsburgh Steelers Season, and Playoff Hopes, On the Line Next Week
Turnovers Hindering the Offense
One common theme throughout the season has been turnovers by the Steelers offense. These turnovers always seem to occur at the most inopportune times. Aside from Smith-Schuter’s fumble on Sunday, there have been a few other games to be impacted by untimely turnovers. In Week Four, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception as the Steelers were trying to come back against the Baltimore Ravens. In Week 12 against the Denver Broncos, three different turnovers sank the Steelers that day. Xavier Grimble fumbled out of the endzone in the second quarter that prevented a Steelers touchdown. At the end of the third quarter, a fumble by James Conner took away a scoring opportunity in Denver territory. Finally, a botched play on Denver’s own 2-yard line turned into an interception by Roethlisberger ending that comeback.
All told, the Steelers have the fifth worst turnover margin in the league. Every team that has a worse turnover margin than the Steelers have double-digit losses. Pittsburgh’s high powered offense has helped overcome that awful statistic, but it has cost them in at least four games. Along with the games mentioned above, there were multiple turnovers that cost the Steelers in their tie with the Cleveland Browns in Week One. The turnovers not only hurt the offense’s rhythm, but it puts the defense in vulnerable situations. That is not a recipe that wins many games.
Penalties Hurting Both Sides of the Ball
If the turnovers have been hard to stomach, the penalties have been downright hard to watch. This Pittsburgh Steelers season has seen as many yellow flags on the field as Terrible Towels in the stands. Affecting both sides of the ball, the penalties have killed momentum on offense and gifted opposing offenses when the Steelers are on defense. Pittsburgh’s defense is the most penalized unit in the league, in both number of calls and yards. The offense isn’t much better. The offense is fifth in the league in penalty yards, but 19th in calls.
A couple of examples of just how damaging the penalties can be can be found in Sunday’s game against the Saints. Two different calls against Joe Haden put the Saints into scoring position and doomed the Steelers in New Orleans. The first (arguably controversial) defensive pass interference occurred in the endzone, giving the Saints the ball with a yard to go. They would score a touchdown the very next play. The second, also on Haden, was also defensive pass interference. This time it gave the Saints a new set of downs inside of two minutes left in the game. New Orleans would score a touchdown to take the lead, and eventually win the game. The defense could have forced a field goal or an attempt on fourth down.
Failures in the Fourth Quarter Cost Too Many Games
Another common theme in this Pittsburgh Steelers season has been the inability to close out games. Mismanagement and under-performance in the final quarter of games has cost the team in their tie with the Browns and each of their losses down the stretch. Against Denver, the Steelers failed to score in the fourth quarter and turned the ball over in a loss. The defense yielded 18 points to the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth quarter, including three consecutive offsides calls on the Chargers game-winning field goal. The following week poor performances and a missed kick cost an overtime chance to the Oakland Raiders. And last week, penalties and turnovers gave the Saints life and a victory that the Steelers needed.
The failure to close out games has led to increased scrutiny on the head coach Mike Tomlin. It is fair to criticize the head coach when the team under-performs as bad as they have this year in the second half, and especially in the fourth quarter. Championship teams have the ability to impose their will on their opponent as the game wears on. The Steelers have proven that they struggle in this area. That’s not to say they can’t do it. They did win five in a row, but it wasn’t easy in all of those wins. Many times Pittsburgh was simply hanging on. Tomlin should be held accountable for why the team struggles so badly in the most critical time of the game.
This Pittsburgh Steelers season is teetering on the brink of collapse. Through 10 games it looked almost certain the Steelers would win the AFC North and might even have a bye in the opening playoff round. Following four losses in their last five games, the Steelers are on the outside looking in. Pittsburgh needs the Browns to upset the Ravens, who are rolling behind rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Steelers also need to beat the Cincinnati Bengals and they will sneak into the playoffs. But it shouldn’t have come down to this. Pittsburgh shouldn’t find themselves in a position where they need help to make the playoffs. Their season shouldn’t be on the line. If the Steelers don’t put a complete game together on Sunday and hope the Browns can lend them a helping hand, it’s bound to be a long offseason.
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