Pittsburgh Steelers: The Day the Whole Offense Went Away

The date was December 2, 2020. It was a Wednesday afternoon. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 10-0 and while it was rarely pretty, they led the NFL in scoring differential (+124). They were the 10th team in NFL history to score at least 24 points in each of their first 10 games, and while they stick out like a sore thumb on such a list, they were still there. Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength was limited post elbow surgery, but his anticipation was better than ever, and he was delivering good touchdown throws and performing on third down and in the red zone.

Things were working out for the team.

In a game that was rescheduled multiple times for COVID-19 reasons, the Steelers were finally hosting a reduced roster from Baltimore. Whether it was restlessness from the delays or rust or division familiarity or the weirdness of playing on Wednesday afternoon in an empty stadium, the Steelers struggled to score in a way they hadn’t all season. They got a pick-six to start the game, but the offense only contributed 13 points in the 19-14 win. Roethlisberger completed 36-of-51 passes, but for only 266 yards as the Steelers dropped way too many passes. But he delivered a great pass late to James Washington to put the game away and move the Steelers to 11-0.

Little did we know that this hiccup would become a chronic cough that has choked the life out of the offense and the team to this day.

The Steelers had a very similar performance the following Monday against Washington, but this time they did not find a way to close the game and suffered their first loss of the season. Things got even worse in Buffalo with Roethlisberger throwing a 51-yard pick-six before halftime that led to a 26-15 loss. In Week 15 in Cincinnati on a Monday night, the Steelers turned in maybe their worst offensive half of football in the Roethlisberger era. No play summarized the struggle better than Roethlisberger throwing a drag route to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a third-and-7 where he was blown up and fumbled. The Steelers were about to lose their fourth game in a row to the Colts before a vintage Roethlisberger rally from down 17 points in the second half at home. But then the starters rested against Cleveland, lost 24-22 to let the Browns make the playoffs, and then were blown away 28-0 in the first quarter in the wild card game after center Maurkice Pouncey blew the opening snap for a touchdown. The Steelers tried to make a brilliant comeback but fell well short in a 48-37 loss.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner fell on the sword and lost his job, one that he was never cut out for. However, the Steelers made the same mistake by promoting from within to give Matt Canada the job for 2021. The offensive line was completely replaced by players of little caliber or value. Alabama running back Najee Harris was drafted in the first round despite a lack of blocking in place for him after the Steelers finished dead last in rushing in 2020. Roethlisberger decided to give it one more go and return for his 18th season.

And yet September 2021 looked like much of December 2020 and January 2021. The new offensive line is worse and Roethlisberger is taking more hits and sacks now despite getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback. The Steelers remain last in rushing, not even cracking 50 yards in either of the last two losses. The receivers just dropped eight passes on Sunday, though most of the short variety again as the air yards remain limited in Pittsburgh. The defense has not been able to play well the last two weeks due to mounting injuries, most notably with T.J. Watt’s groin.

Nothing is working out now, and with four tough opponents coming up, it is hard to see how the Steelers stay relevant into December this year.

I’m not interested in rehashing everything that has gone wrong for the Steelers in the last year. I mean, I will share this JuJu route chart again just because it’s hilarious and sad and sums up things well for this inept offense:

But with such a noticeable decline starting in that Wednesday game against Baltimore, I wanted to do a comparison of the 10-0 start to the now 10-game sample since that has seen the Steelers go 3-7 with a win over the COVID Ravens, a huge comeback against the Colts, and a surprise comeback in Buffalo in Week 1 that looks like a mirage now.

Yeah, that’s a pretty big decline in everything but sack rate, but Roethlisberger not wanting to hold the ball long anymore has not really been a bonus for this offense. This year he is just running out of time sooner.

But if anything, I would hope this comparison shows that it is flat out wrong to say the Steelers were playing this bad when they were 10-0 last year. The offense clearly had limitations and the running game decay was settling in by Week 8 when the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards. But this offense still produced and found ways to put up points every week for 10 games.

Then December came and all hell broke loose. Scoring has gone down 9.3 points per game. They are throwing the ball more but throwing it worse with more interceptions and dropping more balls. The offense has not scored a single point in the first quarter since Week 10 against the Bengals last year. They are worse in the red zone and on third and fourth down.

But the running game has particularly been a historic embarrassment with 54.0 yards per game and 3.1 YPC in the last 10 games. This is not an indictment on Harris as it starts up front and this goes back long before he was drafted. It was never a smart draft pick.

If it wasn’t for James Conner popping a 25-yard run in Jacksonville last year, the Steelers would be on a 14-game streak of not rushing for more than 86 yards. They can soon tie and break the post-WWII record for games without rushing for 90 yards, having not done so in 10 games going into Green Bay on Sunday.

The Steelers have failed to rush for 50 yards in eight of their last 14 games. In Bill Cowher’s 261 games as coach of the Steelers (1992-2006), they had nine games where they didn’t crack 50 rushing yards. My how times have changed. The post-merger record for most games in a two-year span with under 50 rushing yards is 11 by the 2006-07 Lions. The Steelers have a decent shot at breaking that one with 14 games to go this year.

When you can’t run the ball for simple 3 or 4-yard gains…

When you waste the first quarter every week…

When you don’t throw to the middle of the field anymore…

When you don’t throw deep except for go routes down the left sideline and DPI is your best hope of advancement…

When you don’t bother to use play-action passing…

When you drop easy passes…

When you can’t block for more than 2.3 seconds…

You don’t have an NFL offense anymore. You are more akin to putting 11 crash-test dummies through the motions for three hours a week.

As much as the 10-0 start had me feeling awkward, I didn’t know how bad things would get. When Roethlisberger retires after this season and the Steelers are back in the hunt for a franchise quarterback — the last search took two decades — I have a feeling we’ll be looking back at December 2, 2020 as a date that will live in infamy.

It was the day the whole offense went away in Pittsburgh.

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