Unless myriad improbable events occur, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons. If this were any other franchise, head coach Mike Tomlin’s job might be in jeopardy. But because Pittsburgh does value stability, he probably can do this for at least another 10 seasons. Even if he loses to the Browns, Tomlin will still be 28-20 over the last three years. Bill Cowher went 22-26 from 1998-2000, and they didn’t even bat an eye.
If you are so inclined, you can point to injuries:
- Four-time Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey has missed the entire season with a fractured ankle.
- LT Kelvin Beachum (who joined the team midway through 2012 and has started 39 of the 44 games since then) went down for the year in game 6.
- Troubled RT Mike Adams (20 starts in 41 games since they took him with the #2 pick in 2012) has missed the entire season with a back injury.
- Pro Bowl RB LeVeon Bell went on injured reserve after playing only six games.
- K Shawn Suisham has missed the year.
- CB Cortez Allen (56 games, 18 starts in four seasons) went down for the year after one game.
If you lose your #1 back, and 40-60% of your line (depending on what you think of Adams), it’s a tough job to make the playoffs.
But you can argue it another way. Adams and Allen haven’t played all that much; competent kickers aren’t hard to find. (Unless you are Chris Tabor of the Browns.)
The misadventure at kicker is the most obvious reason the Steelers are likely to miss the playoffs. When Suisham went down, the Steelers decided to use 33-year-old Josh Scobee to replace him. Which, frankly, was a mistake.
Kicking in Jacksonville is a pretty easy job– you have eight home games in Florida, plus road games in two domes (Houston, Indianapolis) and Nashville. But Scobee had an 80.8% career field goal percentage with the Jaguars– 71.6% from 40-49 yards and 61.9% from 50+.
He’s coasted along because (a) Jacksonville hadn’t had a really detail-oriented coach since Tom Coughlin left after 2002 and (b) the team hasn’t been good enough for the kicker to matter.
From 2011-13, Scobee boosted his percentage around 90%, but last season it fell to 76.9%. Gus Bradley cut him loose at the end of the year.
If you insert a player with declining skills– who struggles in good kicking conditions– into a difficult situation, you should expect bad things to happen. They did. In week 1, Scobee missed 44 and 46-yard kicks in a 28-21 loss to New England. He didn’t decide the game, but the missed affected the decision-making.
In week 4, against Baltimore, he almost certainly cost them the game. Scobee missed two field goals in the fourth quarter, both with the Steelers leading 20-17:
- A 49-yard kick with 2:29 left.
- A 41-kick with 1:06 remaining.
Maybe, if the score have been 23-17, Baltimore would have gotten a touchdown and won. But when you only need a field goal, it’s a much simpler task. The Ravens tied the game with 7 seconds left and won in overtime.
After the game, the Steelers did what they should have done the minute they lost Suisham– get a competent young player. Chris Boswell has gone 27-29 (2-2 from 50+). Had he been there all season long, the Steelers would have at least one more win– maybe two– and they would be (at the very least) tied for the wild card with Kansas City and New York.
But there is another explanation for the Steelers looking in. Until last week, none of the Pittsburgh losses had been embarrassing:
- Losses to the Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks all came on the road
- Cincinnati was playing well until they lost Andy Dalton.
- In the game Scobee tanked, they certainly could have won.
The last three wins weren’t things of beauty– they each came against quarterbacks with funny names (Indianapolis with Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst, the Bengals with A.J. McCarron, Denver with Brock Osweiler).
But last week’s loss was a WTF?!?!? special. For one thing, the Ravens ()who were 4-10) beat then. For another, Ryan Mallett– who’d been signed 12 days earlier– was the quarterback. He threw for 274 yards and a TD; the Steelers let Javorius Allen and Terrance West get 121 yards on 31 carries (just shy of a 4.0 average).
And QB Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and fumbled once. The fumble wasn’t costly (RB DeAngelo Williams, who gained 100 yards on 17 carries and scored twice, fell on it). But both interceptions gave the Ravens the ball past their own 40; they scored 10 of their 20 points on the ensuing drives.
As I say almost every week, a good quarterback makes twice as many good plays (TD passes) as mistakes (interceptions). The game against Baltimore was the fourth game Roethlisberger had thrown multiple interceptions– and the third time he’d done it in a loss:
- He threw 1 TD and 3 INTs in their 16-10 loss to Cincinnati
- He threw 1 TD and 2 picks in the 39-30 loss to Seattle
- He threw 3 TDs but 2 picks in the 34-27 win over Denver
Roethlisberger also had a negative day (no TDs and an interception) in both Pittsburgh’s 12-6 win over the Rams and their 33-20 win against the McCarron-led Bengals.
That’s six games with bad interception numbers– way too many. Roethlisberger’s rating is good (93.7) and the 8.3 yards per attempt is very impressive. But the TD-INT ratio is 18-14. To make that ratio look worse, 7 of his 18 TD passes came in routs of weak clubs:
- 3 in a 43-18 win over San Francisco.
- 4 in a 45-10 beating of Indianapolis.
Roethlisberger’s 14 picks (and the 4 by Landry Jones and 1 by Mike Vick) are the reason the Steelers are only +2 in takeaway-giveaway ratio. The defense has produced 15 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles (only two less than Kansas City). But the Steelers have given the ball up nearly as often as they take it.
The injury to Bell disrupted the plans to run the ball more… but Williams has 899 yards on 195 carries. A backup who averages 4.6 a carry shouldn’t force you to shift the load much. In the 9 games Bell hasn’t started, Williams has had less than 20 carries four times; Pittsburgh is 2-2 in those games.
Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley treated Bell’s absence more as an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway– throw.
It’s a dangerous approach to take. The nice thing about running is that you ought to be able to do it regardless of who is under center. You might not be as successful without the threat of a Pro Bowl quarterback passing. But if you can block, you will gain yards.
Roethlisberger is 33– and he’s played hurt so often that he’s an old 33. He missed five starts this year; Pittsburgh went 3-2 in those games. And one of those wins when someone else started came in the game against Cleveland. Roethlisberger was supposed to sit out, but he came in when Landry Jones got hurt.and threw 33 tiems for 379 yards.
Part of the reason the Steelers missed the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 was the defense slipping. Pittsburgh had usually allowed less than 300 points in a season. In the last three seasons, they’ve allowed 314, 370 and 368 (they’re at 307 now).
But part of the reason is that Roethlisberger has 4-6 games where he is either missing or playing way below par– and the Steelers aren’t set up to win those games. Pittsburgh needs to get themselves a quarterback-in-training– someone like McCarron or Austin Davis– and work at diversifying the offense.
The more a team relies on one great player, the greater the risk of it all blowing up with one bad break. Baltimore is 5-10, and drafting third this year– but they also have 18 players on injured reserve this year.
If Pittsburgh lost Roethlisberger– and nobody else– they’d be drafting first.
Another week, more stories. The good news, I suppose, is that the Browns cut CB De’Ante Saunders on Monday. The bad news is that it took Future Former GM “Snapchat” Farmer three full days to pull the trigger.
That should have been an easy decision. Saunders is on the practice squad– meaning he contributes nothing to your team. He gets pulled over for speeding, refuses to take a breathalyzer (an automatic DUI) and has a gun in the car.
And because he got pulled over, LB Armonty Bryant also gets scooped up. He has Adderall in his possession, which violates the NFL drug policy. That drug got Joe Haden four games off a few years ago– and Bryant already had drug and drinking infractions.
The NFL doesn’t release data on how many strikes a player already has, so I don’t know what tier Bryant is in. But it is possible that this event could trip the NFL’s “Do not pass GO, do not collect $200– or any 2016 game checks” policy.
Bryant hadn’t done anything since his violations in 2013, because the Browns had been careful to surround him with good citizens, The predicament he’s in is a direct result of having Saunders (who went undrafted because he had all sorts of character flags) on the team.
Snapchat and Pettine signed him– and he blows up a recovering addict. And it took them three business days to dump him.
Then there’s Johnny Relapse. Let me say this for the record:
I do not believe that
Johnny Relapse has a concussion
Not unless he suffered it when he passed out at his Christmas party and hit his head.
Mike Pettine can order Mary Kay Greenhouse to write a piece saying Johnny Relapse is missing the game for health-related reasons. (When she writes these stories, she never quotes the Browns official. This way he can deny he made the statements if they blow up.)
But I don’t believe her story. Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk doesn’t believe it (and I second everything what he said). Nobody around the league will… except, hopefully, Jerry Jones.
If I were Jimmy Haslam, this would be the last straw. Like his mentor Rex Ryan, Pettine has the bad habit of lying to the media when something makes him look bad. Often it blows up, because he isn’t any good at it.
The prime example was when people were writing that Cam Erving was busting out. Pettine defended him, saying he was doing great. Then Erving has to start– and he plays so badly that Pettine gets frustrated and pulls Erving in mid-drive. After the game, Pettine tells the media he just had a sudden urge to try out Austin Pasztor. A few days later, he decided that Erving won’t start.
This has happened before. Writers ask the coach about a guy who hasn’t played, he swears the guy is on the verge of playing at a Pro Bowl level… then you never see him again. Rather than facing the music, he says whatever he needs to say to pour oil on the waters– but the actions always undercut the statements.
Remember, this isn’t the first time an injury has looked suspicious. It’s not even the first time a struggling #1 pick from 2014 has had a conveniently-timed injury. When Justin Gilbert got pantsed in the pre-season Buffalo scrimmage, he was pulled out with what was labeled a hip pointer injury. Nobody watching the scrimmage saw Gilbert pull up or show pain, so there were scads of rumors saying that Gilbert wasn’t injured– the coaches simply didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t play.
If a coach lies to the media– when everything is recorded; when it can be checked and verified– you know he has to be doing it a lot more in private. If workers feel they can’t trust what the boss says, the boss’s ability to lead vanishes.
Of course the problem is that Jimmy Haslam has a track record of lying to people– he defrauded his business customers (the fuel overcharges that sent the FBI after him), his consumer customers (overcharging for fuel after hurricanes) and his employees (by illegally classifying them as managers). For all we know, he might admire Pettine’s dishonesty.
Well, we’ll see in a week.
I could comb the data for a few hours trying to hone a predictions based on the trends. But:
- It’s the sixth “Final Game Of The Year Against Pittsburgh” game since 1999, and they’re 0-6 in these things (losing by a combined 157-42).
- The Steelers need to win.
- They should be in a foul mood, given that they lost twice to Baltimore.
- Austin Davis is playing, so the last interesting factor is gone.
- We don’t know how many players will check out. Travis Benjamin is listed as questionable… but it’s his last game under his rookie contract. A sane person will say he can’t play– why risk the injury? Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz ought to beg off fast, too.
- All Roethlisberger wants to do against Cleveland is drop the bomb.
- B Tramon Williams– who isn’t any good, but is the best veteran they have– says he has a concussion.
- It’s the holidays, and I have family stuff to go to
I’ll just pick the average of the six games. This Steeler team isn’t nearly as good as some of the others, but the chances of being significantly wrong are about the same as Snapchat and Pettine getting extended.
Game Outcome: Pittsburgh 26, Cleveland 7