Steelers forced to re-evaluate after crushing loss
Two weeks of momentum vanished in 19 seconds. More than three hours later, the competitive portion of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season likely followed suit.
Stung on the first play from scrimmage and stumbling on the last, Pittsburgh's 21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders thwarted any progress the Steelers (2-5) made during a brief two-game winning streak that suggested perhaps there was a chance they could somehow dig out of an 0-4 start.
Turns out, probably not. The same mistakes that dogged Pittsburgh during a winless September re-emerged in the Black Hole.
The defense surrendered a record-setting run by Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The offense limped to a miserable start, only reviving itself when things nearly got out of hand. The running game was abysmal and the special teams even worse.
Bad clock management. Questionable decision making. A game plan that dared not stretch the field. Even if the Steelers had somehow found a way to escape with a win, coach Mike Tomlin isn't sure he would evaluate things any differently.
''Had we pulled the game out, I still would have been disappointed in the quality of play in the first half,'' he said.
Because the Steelers lost, now Tomlin can feel free to lump in the second half too.
''I liked the effort, but it's not effort oriented,'' Tomlin said. ''It's result-oriented.''
And the results are repeating a well-established pattern, one Pittsburgh has been unable to shake for nearly a year.
The Steelers are 4-10 since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left a 16-13 win over the Kansas City Chiefs with a dislocated rib last November. Nearing the season's midway point, the only team Pittsburgh is ahead of in the AFC standings are the winless and apparently hopeless Jacksonville Jaguars.
''We felt like we were doing some good things, and that we were getting better,'' Roethlisberger said. ''(Sunday) we just weren't there in all phases. We didn't block well enough, we didn't pass well enough, we didn't catch well enough, we just weren't good enough.''
Something that's happening with regularity when forced to change their routine. Pittsburgh has lost eight straight games when playing outside the Eastern Time Zone. Nearly every loss has looked like Sunday's debacle in Oakland. The Steelers have a tendency to fall behind early, which leads to them abandoning the running game and forces Roethlisberger to try and go it alone behind an offensive line that can't stay healthy or effective.
Pittsburgh dressed eight linemen against the Raiders and needed every one of them. Guards Ramon Foster (concussion) and David DeCastro (right ankle) left early. So did backup Guy Whimper (knee). The injuries pushed struggling Mike Adams and little used Cody Wallace onto the field, further complicating a comeback attempt.
Roethlisberger absorbed five sacks in all and is on pace to be dropped more than 60 times, if he lasts that long.
The line, however, is only a portion of the problem. The defense spent the days leading up to the game praising Pryor and insisting they would be wary of the quarterback's blazing speed. Then on the game's opening snap, Pryor faked a handoff to Darren McFadden, tucked the ball under his arm and headed right. One block from wide receiver Rod Streater is all Pryor needed to race 93 yards to the end zone, the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history.
Pryor's fake was so convincing free safety Ryan Clark didn't even realize Pryor had the ball until Clark was getting ready to jump on a pile he believed included McFadden. Instead, Clark ended up looking to his left just before assisting on what he thought would be a tackle. By then Pryor was already in the clear and the Steelers were already in serious trouble.
''Obviously we were fooled on the first play,'' Clark said. ''Everybody floats to McFadden, Terrelle pulls the ball. After that I felt like we settled down.''
By then, however, it was too late.
A botched punt by struggling Zoltan Mesko, two missed chip-shot field goals by normally reliable Shaun Suisham and a pair of costly drops on what would have been difficult catches by Antonio Brown didn't help.
It led to a long plane ride and the prospect of having to do it again this weekend when the Steelers play at New England (6-2), a place where Pittsburgh has yet to beat Tom Brady.
Brady might be the last of the Steelers' problems. At the moment, they can't seem to stop beating themselves.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org