For the first time in 24 months, the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to spend training camp scoring touchdowns, speaking positivity and doing everything short of singing “Kumbaya.” After Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown held the team hostage with their drama a year ago, it’s easy to understand why.
Brown and Bell, both of whom left this offseason, attracted lots of attention and criticism from defenses and media alike. For a Pittsburgh team that finished outside the playoffs at 9-6-1 last season, the two made for convenient scapegoats.
But moving on from two All-Pro talents in the prime of their careers — all in the name of improving team chemistry and the locker room — was going to fly with fans in the long haul only if the Steelers, you know, actually got back to winning big in 2019.
And while it’s too early to count Pittsburgh out after two weeks, the fact the Steelers sit at a surprising 0-2 following a 28-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday means there are already fewer places for the key figures who remain — namely general manager Kevin Colbert, coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — to hide.
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One person who seems to understand this is Tomlin, who refused to use the spate of injuries the Steelers suffered Sunday — including one that sidelined Roethlisberger at halftime — as an excuse for the loss.
“We lost a number of guys in this game, but that wasn’t the reason why we didn’t win this game — we were fully capable with the guys that were on the field,” Tomlin explained afterward. “We didn’t make enough plays, to be quite honest with you. We didn’t play clean enough, particularly in some moments. We’ve got to get better. We accept responsibility for it, we’re not looking to make excuses. There’s certain things that we did in that game you cannot do.”
Like look disjointed and start slow offensively just one week after the New England Patriots throttled them, 33-3, in front of a national television audience. It’s disturbing how much Pittsburgh has struggled to weaponize its passing game without the prolific Brown, who scored a touchdown for New England on Sunday.
Yes, the Steelers led the Seahawks 10-7 at the break, but their one touchdown was set up by a fumble return — they had to drive only 22 yards — and they totaled only 103 yards and went 1-for-6 on third downs in the half.
Things didn’t improve by leaps and bounds in the second half for Pittsburgh, which was forced to finish without star running back James Conner — who suffered a knee injury — and Roethlisberger, who was knocked out of the game after injuring his right elbow on the final possession of the second quarter.
Interestingly enough, Roethlisberger’s replacement — Mason Rudolph, a 2018 third-rounder — dealt with some of the same issues as Roethlisberger, as he threw his first career interception because it caromed off receiver Donte Moncrief’s hands (his fifth drop in two games, which led to his subsequent benching).
While the Steelers finished with only 261 yards — compared to 425 for Seattle, who iced the game by converting third down after third down — it says plenty about the Steelers’ current state that Rudolph’s play was actually a reason for optimism going forward, even if Roethlisberger has to miss significant time.
Rudolph, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder, looked functional in his first regular-season NFL game, completing 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards, two touchdowns and the aforementioned interception that wasn’t his fault.
He had one truly ugly play — a pick thrown right to a defender over the middle on a two-point conversion — but he still had fewer than some veterans who played Sunday and should have known better (cough, cough, Ryan Fitzpatrick).
“Mason’s capable, man, he’s been a part of this thing,” Tomlin said. “We’re capable of functioning in a very normal manner when he’s in there, and we did.”
Still, the Steelers must improve fast — both offensively and defensively — if they want to make the playoffs, since the odds are against them statistically. Since 1990, only 12 percent of teams that started 0-2 reached the playoffs.
What’s more, the last time the Steelers started 0-2 — 2013 — they finished 8-8, the worst record of Tomlin’s 13-year tenure and one they might be staring at again in four months if they don’t:
a.) heal up quickly
b.) start catching the ball with regularity
c.) shore up the defense
Otherwise, the next major narrative awaiting the Steelers will be scapegoats for yet another disappointing season in Pittsburgh, only this time, the names Bell and Brown will no longer apply.
“We understand the position we’re in, we understand the negativity that comes with it,” Tomlin said. “We better absorb it, we better get singularly focused and get better for our next opportunity. Control the things that we can control, that’s what we intend to do.
“But today it’s painful, as it should be.”
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