Steelers’ ugly showing raises more concerns

Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily as the Steelers fell to the Jets.

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If I could have told you a few days ago how this weekend’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets would play out, you would have never Beliebed it in a million years.

But sure enough, the Steelers — perhaps still star-struck after a Saturday night bible study with Justin Bieber — only showed up to MetLife Stadium in the physical sense Sunday afternoon, and put forth a comical, almost Jets-like effort in a 20-13 loss to one of the NFL’s worst teams.

After two weeks of razor-sharp play and complete domination against legitimate contenders in the Colts and Ravens, Pittsburgh’s offense was nowhere to be found against New York. And after throwing for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last two games, Ben Roethlisberger played most of Sunday’s loss in a fog, his lone touchdown coming on an 80-yard strike to Martavis Bryant on Pittsburgh’s final offensive play.

The same offense that rang up 639 yards against Indianapolis and 376 against Baltimore had just 77 yards in the first half Sunday, with the Steelers’ only first-half points coming on a 53-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham that cut the deficit to 17-3 as time expired in the second quarter.

Antonio Brown, the Steelers’ other offensive star of late, lost a fumble on the Jets’ second possession, then muffed a punt in the second quarter — not exactly the way he envisioned his encore after racking up 277 yards and three touchdowns in the last two weeks. And even when Pittsburgh did threaten, it couldn’t capitalize, with Roethlisberger spoiling the Steelers’ only first-half trip to the red zone with an interception inside the New York 10-yard line.

The second half didn’t offer much relief for Pittsburgh, either, with Roethlisberger throwing another pick on the first drive of the third quarter, and even when things did start going right, they still found a way to turn out so, so wrong.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Suisham yanked a 23-yard chip shot wide left to keep the score at 20-3. Pittsburgh threatened again later in the fourth and found itself in a first-and-goal situation from the 1-yard line, but Legarrette Blount got stuffed at the line on first down and then ran ran backward for eight yards on second down, and the Steelers could only settle for a field goal to cut the lead to 14.

The Steelers then tried to surprise the Jets with an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, and Darrius Heyward-Bey came up with the ball, but the celebration was short-lived, as Pittsburgh was ultimately called for an offside penalty that negated the recovery. The late touchdown bomb to Bryant made the score look respectable in the end — at least as losses to 1-8 teams go — but that won’t do the Steelers any good in the tight AFC North.

And so now we’re left to figure out exactly what this garbage fire of a game says about a Pittsburgh team that had finally played itself into the national consciousness over the last couple weeks — only to regress to its early-season form against a Jets team and a lame duck coach that had begun to see the few supporters they had abandon ship during this latest fruitless campaign.

Before Sunday, the Steelers’ saving grace was an occasionally potent offense that was able to distract people from a glitchy defense that’s had to bring guys out of retirement just to fill holes. And one would like to think that Pittsburgh could continue to count on the offense going forward, especially with next week’s matchup against a 2-7 Tennessee Titans unit that let Arian Foster run roughshod and even made Ryan Fitzpatrick look capable a couple weeks ago.

But history has not always been so kind to Pittsburgh in situations like this.

Back in 2007, the Steelers brought a 7-2 record into a road matchup against the 1-8 Jets, only to lose in overtime, as Roethlisberger led his team to the end zone just once (sound familiar?). The following Monday, Pittsburgh paid a visit to the then-0-10 Miami Dolphins looking to right the ship but only eked out a 3-0 win that still represents the fewest combined points in an NFL game since 1993 (and one of just three 3-0 games in Roethlisberger’s lifetime).

Pittsburgh would go on to end that 2007 regular season like a faulty firework, dropping three of its final four games before losing to Jacksonville in the final moments of a wild card game after overcoming an 18-point Jaguars lead in the fourth quarter. And though there’s certainly no way a meltdown seven years ago could possibly apply to Pittsburgh’s current situation, it still stands as a reminder of just how quickly things can go south.

With two meetings still to go against division rival Cincinnati and home games against dangerous teams in the Saints and Chiefs, the Steelers simply can’t afford to implode against speed bumps like the Jets and Titans.

It would not be at all surprising to see the AFC North produce just one playoff team, and if Pittsburgh doesn’t end up being that team, it’ll be easy to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong. But as we’ve seen time and time again, the only thing that matters in the NFL is getting into the playoffs, and once there, anything can happen.

The Steelers proved against Indianapolis and Baltimore that they can play with anybody, and that’s all they need to know to keep the faith this season. Worse teams have overcome worse losses to win Super Bowls, and though Pittsburgh isn’t anyone’s favorite to enter that discussion now — and though a loss in Nashville next week would be the equivalent of a death sentence — the Steelers are more than capable of giving themselves a chance.

Or, like the Biebs, himself, has been known to say: Never say never.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.