The Pittsburgh Steelers were the talk of the NFL after a win over the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 2 improved their record to 11-0. At the time, the question surrounding them was a big one.
Could they be the first team to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ undefeated regular season and Super Bowl championship?
It didn’t take long for the Steelers to come back to Earth, and one December loss even made GMTM’s Jordan Palmer wonder if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had regressed in the middle of the season.
Pittsburgh fell to the hapless Cincinnati Bengals in a Monday Night game. The Bengals had long ago begun looking forward to next season following the season-ending injury to rookie quarterback Joe Burrow when they trounced the Steelers to give them their third consecutive loss.
After passing for 333 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a win over Cincinnati in November, Roethlisberger mustered 170 passing yards, one passing touchdown and one interception. His 14.6 QBR was well below his previous worst this season.
“He’s had a ton of drops this year. They’ve had no run game. You can disperse all the blame everywhere,” Palmer said. “I watched that game against Cincinnati and I saw him miss. I saw him throw the over route when the post was coming open early. He came off of it. That is a total momentum shifter, a 65-yarder to Chase Claypool. Boom they’re back in it.
“I can’t tell. Is he just playing poorly? Everybody plays poorly at times. Or, is this heading in this direction?”
Roethlisberger’s statistics were not drastically different between the first 11 games and the last four games he played in the regular season. Taken as a whole, his season-long stats have been comparable to the rest of his career and in some cases better.
His 33 touchdown passes are the second-most in his career and only one away from the 34 he threw in 2018 - his last fully healthy season.
Palmer discussed the Roethlisberger storyline with current Washington Football Team quarterback Kyle Allen, who offered a different opinion of what led to the Steelers’ late-season slide, which started with a loss to Washington on Dec. 7.
Allen told Palmer he believes the 1-4 finish to the regular season was simply a matter of opponents catching up to the Steelers’ altered offense.
Much has been made of Roethlisberger releasing his passes much faster this season. That’s not easy for opposing defenses to catch up to.
“I think teams are just starting to figure out that type of offense,” Allen said. “That wasn’t their offense before. It was (Antonio Brown). It was pushing the ball down the field. It was (Roethlisberger) sitting in the pocket and him running around, shedding guys in the pocket and throwing the ball deep. This is a new Steelers offense, and it caught people off guard at the beginning of the year.”
One important realization Allen said he thinks opposing defenses made while trying to adjust to the Steelers’ new offense was the effectiveness of their wide receivers burning them on deep passes. Simply put, Allen said, those defenses are not afraid of that.
And if they’re not afraid of that they can focus more on the short and medium routes that the Steelers used for much of their success during the first 11 weeks.
“I don’t think people are playing them scared anymore because they know the game plan,” Allen said. “They know it’s (about getting) the ball out quick, screens, dink and dunks, be great on third down and great in the red zone. That is a good brand of football, but that is a tough sustainable brand of football because you have to be good on third down every week, you have to be good in the red zone every single week or else you’re going to have a ton of three and outs. That’s what happened in that Monday night game.”
The only game Pittsburgh won down the stretch was against the Indianapolis Colts to clinch the AFC North Division title. They followed that with a loss to the Cleveland Browns in the regular season finale, in which Roethlisberger did not play.
Pittsburgh’s season ended with a 48-37 loss to Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs in which Roethlisberger threw three of his four interceptions in the first half as the Steelers dug a hole so big they couldn’t climb out of it.