Is Pittsburgh’s Fairy-Tale Run Over?
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Pittsburgh Steelers got a lot done on Sunday. They locked in a playoff spot for the first time since 2017, claimed a National Football League record by recording a sack in their 70th consecutive game, and remained in the top spot in the AFC North.
And, while they were at it, lost everyone’s faith.
Has the longest-standing contender for a perfect season ever been greeted with such scorn and doubt? For that’s what the Steelers were just seven days ago, riding high at 11-0 and without a care in the world, except for, you know, all the cares in the world that everyone is currently dealing with.
In truth, they were greeted with skepticism even then - and now, after back-to-back defeats following a 26-15 loss to the Buffalo Bills, they have been thoroughly tossed aside, no longer regarded as a serious postseason contender and with a mounting list of ails and troubles.
There is a reason for all this, many reasons actually, all worthy of analysis and scrutiny but which could be neatly boiled down into a few words from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“We’re not playing good football,” Roethlisberger said.
When it comes to statistical importance, the headlining numbers right now are a fallacy. They will tell you Pittsburgh is just a game outside of the top seed held by the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC, hurtling towards the end of a year where that No. 1 status takes on more importance than ever.
What they really are is a team with mounting injuries, looking over its shoulder and suffering from a crisis of confidence. Roethlisberger is right about the quality of play and it feels like the Steelers are cast in the role of a wounded, falling, early-season pretender – and therefore a target for ambitious teams with the right kind of momentum behind them.
“Pittsburgh’s a good team, but their time has come, and gone,” FOX Sports’ Colin Cowherd said. “The Steelers are a big brand and they are no longer elite and you know if it you are in Pittsburgh.”
According to FOX Bet, Roethlisberger and company now have the seventh best odds to win the Super Bowl at +1600. Five Thirty Eight rates them a 90 percent chance to hold off the surging Cleveland Browns and finish top of the AFC North.
However, even in the Pittsburgh area, where Steelers sentiment runs blood deep, there is precious little optimism. The team was picked apart by the Bills, made to look disjointed and weary, exposing how the offense has not been dynamic all year long.
According to USA TODAY’s Lorenzo Reyes, the rushing offense is “officially broken,” a premise impossible to dispute after seeing James Conner stuffed time and again on his way to 18 yards on 10 carries. Roethlisberger has plenty of autonomy to amend plays at the line of scrimmage, which has partly resulted in him being the only QB in the league to attempt more than 500 passes (521) while his rushers have had their influence and opportunities curtailed.
The pass approach hasn’t brought any greater fortune, leading to what was described by Yahoo Sports’ Frank Schwab as “a dink and dunk offense that isn’t scaring anyone.”
Roethlisberger knows it, but the puzzling shift to have him release the ball as early as humanly possible even while apparently struggling with the aftereffects of a knee flareup, has done nothing to improve the output and made the group easy to prepare for and comfortable to handle.
“They are in real trouble,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First. “I don’t think that’s deniable. If I am describing a team that is the last remaining undefeated team and probably not quite as good as their record suggests, relying heavily on an outstanding defense with major question marks surrounding an aging QB, am I talking about the 2020 Steelers or last year’s (New England) Patriots?
“The Steelers are in big, big trouble. Whether they finish 12-4 or 13-3 at this point doesn’t really matter. I don’t see what their path is to win multiple playoff games.”
It feels counterintuitive to be talking about a team that could still go 14-2 in such gloomy terms. Indeed, Pittsburgh has the flailing Cincinnati Bengals this weekend and – if the Chiefs keep winning – might become the first 14-win team since 2004 to miss the top seed.
But if you’ve watched even a decent snapshot of Pittsburgh’s performances this season, it is essentially impossible to envisage a rosy conclusion. They have problems mounting, deficiencies that can’t be masked any longer and the feel of a boxer whose record got padded by an easy schedule and fortuitous circumstance.
From the prospect of a perfect season … to looking perfectly beatable … the Steelers fairy tale has quickly disintegrated.