Just minutes after yet another of their signature playoff exits — quick and wretched — the Steelers presented a grim tangle of conflicting emotions with no evident handle on a solution for why they haven’t won a postseason game in five years.
TJ Watt, their best player and probably the best defensive player in the league, did his practiced matter-of-fact description of a frustration that was still fresh despite a perfectly predictable smack down by the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d arranged a similar scalding only three weeks earlier.
“Happy with the way that we started,” Watt said. “Just wish we would have continued to get off the field on the third downs and help give the ball to the offense.”
Yes, but why?
Why repeatedly hand the ball to an offense that was on its way to seven first-half punts while Watt himself was scoring the only Pittsburgh touchdown, the one that briefly erected a 7-0 lead? Watt’s scoop-and-score of a Darrel Williams double-dribble in the Chiefs’ backfield was the first defensive touchdown of the season around here. No wonder it conjured the rarest of local animals, an actual first-half lead.
For the seventh time in their last eight games, offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s operatives generated zero touchdowns before intermission, establishing the familiar narrative in which Ben Roethlisberger tires of beating his head against the wall and just starts flinging it wherever he feels like. Such belated gunslinging becomes more effective when the opponent has lost interest, as the Chiefs surely had once they got ahead 35-7.
But while everyone was still serious, the Steelers managed exactly 44 yards in the first half to Kansas City’s 300 and did not run a play in Kansas City territory until the third quarter was nearly half extinct.
Time for Canada to go: Sunday night’s dreadful performance with the football is just part of why, regardless of what personnel changes the franchise decides are appropriate AB (After Ben), no one will take this club’s intentions seriously in 2022 if it again allows the show to be choreographed by Canada , who’ll be lucky to add a ninth college gig to his suspect resume next fall.
You’ll be quick to tell me the same fate should await defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who with head coach Mike Tomlin has been making the defensive calls while the club’s last three playoff opponents generated 135 points, but Butler’s at least had some demonstrable success in this league, particularly in generating an enviable pass rush.
Tomlin fairly bristled Sunday night at the notion that his offense’s failures are a matter of scheme or game plan, and his suggestion that the players have to execute better is obvious but nonetheless valid. I don’t know if Tomlin is looking to absolve Canada, but he could build the case.
Unimaginative offense: This team’s receivers are so bad that its emblematic play is the zero-yard flat pass to Ray-Ray McCloud. Its offensive line is 80 percent chicken wire and 20 percent duct tape, a unit so depleted by evacuations — Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Matt Feiler — that at one point I’m pretty sure Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey took some snaps at left guard. It has a potential super star at running back in rookie Najee Harris, but mostly there’s nowhere to run out there, and its quarterback, as exhaustively noted, was 86 years old.
But none of that gets Canada off the hook for the most timid and unimaginative offense I’ve seen in black and gold in 40 years.
The average Roethlisberger pass this season traveled less than seven yards, raising all the alarm and potential menace of a throw pillow tossed the length of your family room. With Sunday’s result, the Steelers finished a sixth consecutive game without a completion of more than 25 yards. Pittsburgh’s average time of possession ranked 26th in the league, meaning that it had essentially no chance of keeping Chiefs virtuoso Pat Mahomes off the field for any meaningful length of time. Despite an announced recommitment to the ground game for 2021, the Steelers did not have two rushing touchdowns in any game. In eight of the 18, they had no rushing touchdowns.
Offense roundly mocked: I’ve never put a lot of stock in criticizing the play-calling; It’s essentially a stupid columnist’s trick. Generally, plays that work are “great” calls and plays that don’t are “stupid bleeping” calls. Too easy.
But Pittsburgh’s offense was roundly mocked Sunday night by Kansas City’s, in which we found Mahomes flipping a touchdown pass underhanded to a running back, zipping another to a guard lined up at the end of the formation, and don’t forget the touchdown pass thrown by, not to, the tight end.
I’m not saying the game plan has to be approved by Cirque du Soleil; but I’m convinced that, especially with Ben gone, no viable format can be all throw pillows all the time.