The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers seemed like one of, if not the best, teams in the NFL heading into late November. They were the only undefeated team still left in the NFL. Most experts had them in the top two, if not one, on their power rankings. Now, most experts don’t even have the Steelers ranked inside the top ten of NFL teams. So whats happened? Why have the Steelers suddenly taken a nosedive and seem unable to fix it?
Even with the comeback win in Week 16, there are serious concerns moving forward for the 2020 AFC North champions.
What’s Gone Wrong With the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers?
The Steelers were undefeated and seemed like a juggernaut before losing three straight. The first two losses could be explained away, they were short weeks against good teams. The last one, not so much. A loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and their third-string quarterback is not something anyone saw coming. All of the sudden, the Steelers have a problem. Is Mike Tomlin the source of the Steelers’ recent failures? Is it Randy Fichtner, the offensive coordinator? Is it something else, like the injuries on defense? Or is it Ben Roethlisberger?
Is Tomlin being outcoached?
Has Tomlin let his team down? You could certainly say that the Steelers seemed to be poorly-coached over the last three games, and really that could extend to the last four games. So does the blame lie on Tomlin? I don’t think so.
He hasn’t been challenging things he shouldn’t, he has said all the right things, and we know his track record. There hasn’t been a single time over the last few games where I’ve noticed the Steelers getting outcoached. Yes, maybe a play or two here or there, but not for an entire quarter, much less a game.
Is Randy Fichtner calling bad plays?
Any observant Steeler fan can certainly pull up tweets upon tweets regarding the play calls from offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. And, in many ways, they are right to blame Fichtner. He has not drawn up plays that adapt to the defensive schemes of the opponents. The play calls tend to be a combination of a couple of things. Usually, a mix of short passes, along with runs on second or third and long. Or screens, which the Steelers are among the worst in the league at executing.
Fichtner deserves much of the criticism that he receives. However, he has shown that he is willing to try and mix things up. Against the Bengals, the first play of the game was a play-action pass, and Fichtner called that play multiple times during the game. While Fichtner has shown that he can change it up, he isn’t calling plays that attack and confuse the defense often enough, and this has helped lead to the Steeler’s recent demise.
Is it Injuries?
The Steelers have lost three players to season-ending injury this year: Bud Dupree, Devin Bush, and Zach Banner. All three were starters, but Banner was the only player of the three on offense. Bush and Dupree were integral parts of the Steelers defense.
Bush was the inside linebacker and he had the green dot, so communication also took a hit. Dupree was the crushing force opposite T.J. Watt and before Dupree was lost for the season with a torn ACL he was on pace to set a new career-high in sacks. All this being said, the players who replaced the three who went down have played well. Robert Spillane filled in nicely and was making plays, before suffering a knee injury himself that most likely sidelines him for the remaining regular season.
Alex Highsmith has shown promise as a rookie, and while being an obvious downgrade from Dupree, has still made splash plays. The biggest problem that has arisen recently in the Steelers defense is a weakness at inside linebacker. I expect this to change with Vince Williams set to come back to the team this week. Overall, the defense has shown some warts, but they are still the best defense in the NFL.
The defense has also shown a tendency to weaken as the game goes on, but the blame for this doesn’t lie at the feet of the defense. They are typically on the field so much due to an inept offense that by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, they are gassed. No matter how good a defense is, it needs an offense that can stay on the field so the defense can rest.
Is it Big Ben?
The later the season has gone on, the worse Roethlisberger has looked. Monday night was no exception and is almost certainly the worst game he has ever had in his career. His play over the previous four weeks has not been as atrocious, but by no means has he looked like the Hall of Fame player of old. He seems unable, or unwilling, to step into his throws, resulting in fluttering and inaccurate deep balls. He also has missed players who were open in key moments, like Chase Claypool on Monday night, who was wide open for a probable touchdown. Instead, Roethlisberger threw into triple coverage to Eric Ebron.
It is quite possible that he did not think he could make the throw to Claypool and that’s why he chose to throw it to Ebron instead. If that’s the case, then Roethlisberger should not keep playing because a quarterback who cannot throw deep is not an NFL-caliber quarterback. He has blamed himself over the recent weeks, and rightly so. If he continues to play at this level, he should retire at the end of the season.
So, whose fault is it?
I don’t put any blame on the defense or Mike Tomlin. I also don’t blame the recent and overblown antics of JuJu Smith-Schuster and his Tik-Tok dancing. Pre-game dancing doesn’t affect how players perform on the field. The blame lies on Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger. However, as of today, it all lies on Roethlisberger for their most recent loss. Fichtner called a good game Monday night. Fichtner will never be hired for his offensive genius, but he is at least competent. Ben Roethlisberger, however, was the reason the offense went nowhere. He missed obvious reads and threw some horrible passes.
He also fumbled the snap. Ben has played well for the season but as the sun started setting earlier into the day, it also seems like the sun might be setting on Ben’s career. The blame lies on the shoulders of Ben and Fichtner. The only question that remains is this: Can Ben and Randy Fichtner figure out their problems in time for the playoffs? I don’t have an answer to that question. Can they? Yes, it is certainly possible that they can and will. But I have not seen anything to give me confidence in that answer.