Is it Panic Time in Pittsburgh for the 1-2 Steelers?

                                                           (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


The Pittsburgh Steelers got drubbed by the Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 yesterday.  Plain and simple, it was an ugly game all-around from the Black and Gold.  I don't want to sit here and sugarcoat it for you because frankly, there were few, if any, positives to take away from the game.  Mondays can be a day for overreactions in the NFL so I wanted to fully process what I saw during yesterday's game and try to appropriately react to it and this team's direction going forward.

Old Ben, Young O-Line

Let's start with the offense.  Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, at 39 years old is in his 18th NFL season.  That was pretty evident on the field Sunday.  He looked slow in many facets of the game, most notably with his inability to move around the pocket.  Deep down, we all knew that this was right around the corner for Ben at his age.  Tom Brady playing as well as he is at 44 years old is much more the outlier than the norm.  

When looking at Ben in his current form, the biggest issue is the offensive line protecting him.  For guys playing his position at that age, you can sometimes hide their weaknesses through offensive scheme and management of the offense.  That is tough to do when you are playing behind a young, raw offensive line.  The Steelers are starting two rookies on the line and it certainly shows.  Ben has little to no time to throw and at the rate he is getting hit each week, he'll be lucky to make it through the season without any type of serious injury.  

Running back Najee Harris finished Sunday's game with 19 targets and 14 catches, the team leader in both categories.  Those numbers are a testament to how little time Ben has in the pocket, as dump offs to Najee have become his only option.  The coaches are going to have to figure out a way to give Ben more time in the pocket to make the receivers the featured pass catchers, not the running back, or it will be a long season for this offense.  

I don't want to make it seem like I'm letting Ben off the hook, however.  He clearly felt he was capable of leading this offense again when he agreed to come back for what felt like his final season.  And while the offensive line might not be giving him the protection he needs, his decision-making has been equally as poor.  Ben's interception at the beginning of the second half was one of the worst I've seen.  I have no idea what he saw or what he thought was going to happen when he threw that ball. 

Another puzzling decision came towards the end of the game when the Steelers had 4th and 10 on the Cincinnati 11-yard line.  Down 24-10 and coming out of a timeout, Roethlisberger inexplicably dumped the ball down to Harris for a loss on a play that had no chance of ever getting the first down.  It can be easy to blame the offensive line but Ben's play has to step up or this offense that has struggled out of the gate will have a lot of difficulty turning things around.

Defense Streak Snapped

As for the defense, things did not go much better for them on Sunday.  After the offense tied the game 7-7 with 1:04 left before halftime, they were in a prime spot to keep the team in the game like they did time after time against Buffalo in Week 1.  However, they allowed Joe Burrow and this young Bengals offense to go the length of the field in only 37 seconds, scoring on a 34 yard touchdown pass.  

You could feel the momentum swing on that play and after that, the Bengals never looked back.  To make matters worse, the Steelers defense was held without a sack against one of the league's worst offensive lines, snapping an NFL-record 75 game streak of recording at least one sack. 

One thing to be said for the defense is they have been plagued with injuries.  Last week against the Las Vegas Raiders, linebacker Devin Bush and cornerback Joe Haden did not play.  This week against the Bengals, they were without linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.  

This is not an excuse for their recent play.  Injuries are a part of the game and all teams deal with them over the course of a season.  However, this highlights the possibility that the defense could return to the dominant force we saw from them last year when everyone is healthy.  Or even how they looked in the opener against Buffalo.  I'll take any glimmer of hope I can get for a team that hasn't provided much hope thus far.

Conclusion

All in all, I'm not ready to panic after just three weeks of football.  It is too early in the season and so many things can happen over the course of it.  That's not to say that my finger isn't hovering over the panic button though.  This team, especially the offense, is trending in the wrong direction.  

The Steelers go to Lambeau Field this week to face the Green Bay Packers before returning to Heinz Field to face the undefeated Denver Broncos the following week.  The schedule isn't getting any easier and the injuries are piling up.  It's going to take an all-around team effort to get back on course.  Maybe I have too much faith in coach Mike Tomlin, who has yet to have a losing season in his 14 seasons at the helm, or maybe I'm just being na├»ve, but I'm not ready to count this team out just yet.

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