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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Blame Steelers collapse on discipline, humility

| Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, 1:39 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets a pass away as Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap pressures in the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets a pass away as Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap pressures in the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2018 season was utterly unacceptable at too many levels, not least in the standings.

The Steelers plummeted from 7-2-1 to 9-6-1 and out of the playoffs. Only one word describes that: “collapse.” We had been talking about home field and a bye. Now we’re discussing what should have been and the NFL Draft.

Three of the Steelers’ defeats and their tie were intolerable: the losses at Denver and Oakland because those teams stink, losing at home vs. the Los Angeles Chargers because the Steelers blew a 16-point halftime lead, the tie at Cleveland because the Steelers blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.

The coaching was rotten. Replay challenges were stupid, made based on what Mike Tomlin saw on the scoreboard. Tomlin routinely mangled clock management. Tomlin opted to not use Ben Roethlisberger for four series in the Oakland loss despite the injured quarterback being cleared to play. The Steelers’ special teams led the NFL in penalties. The Steelers were the league’s most-penalized team in the season’s first half. As is tradition, Tomlin didn’t have his team properly prepared for inferior foes. Witness Sunday’s lackluster effort against injury-riddled Cincinnati.

It took the Steelers 16 weeks and 12 missed kicks to replace the NFL’s worst kicker. Then Matt McCrane came in and went three-for-three on field goals. That kind of accuracy would have come in handy during a few of the Steelers’ losses.

Ben Roethlisberger threw a league-high 16 interceptions. He was otherwise brilliant, but that’s inexcusable.

The Steelers had zero playmakers on defense, getting just 15 takeaways (third-worst in the NFL) and finishing minus-10 on turnovers (fifth-worst).

The Steelers made mistake after costly mistake. Their latest loss, a week ago at New Orleans, was a microcosm: critical fumbles by JuJu Smith-Schuster and Steven Ridley and a head-scratching fake punt decision by Tomlin on fourth-and-5.

The season is a blurry nightmare of forced throws, missed kicks, dropped interceptions and linebackers covering wide receivers. It’s punctuated by moments of insanity, like tight end Xavier Grimble being too dumb to settle for scoring a touchdown at Denver, instead forcing his own fumble by running over a defender at the goal line. Don’t forget Roethlisberger’s five turnovers at Cleveland.

The problems started in the offseason: After Ryan Shazier’s career tragically was cut short, the Steelers didn’t do enough to properly replace the man who was the key component in their defense. Shazier couldn’t be duplicated, but Jon Bostic clearly didn’t come remotely close.

The Steelers can’t be blamed for not agreeing to Le’Veon Bell’s unreasonable terms, but they didn’t have a proper handle on where the situation was going, and the trickledown rattled the locker room in the season’s early going. Inaccurately assessing the Bell situation also left lots of cap space on the table, money that might have been used to better remedy Shazier’s absence.

The season was a disaster given its potential. The instances of stupidity, sloppiness and selfishness are far too numerous to mention in one column.

It was a stink sandwich, and everybody should take a bite: owner Art Rooney II, Tomlin, GM Kevin Colbert, Roethlisberger, all the coaches, all the players, the equipment managers and the ball boys.

But if you’re expecting significant changes, they won’t be forthcoming. A sacrificial lamb or two might be offered, like defensive coordinator Keith Butler (at least his platoon contained Tyler Eifert on Sunday) and special teams coach Danny Smith, who can’t possibly be fired enough. Smith should be fired, rehired, then fired again. The Steelers’ special teams were slapstick.

That’s where all that stupidity, sloppiness and selfishness comes from: stubbornness and arrogance. Every decision the Steelers make is correct. Just ask them.

The Steelers would rather be right than do better.

There’s no point discussing Tomlin’s future. He stays, for sure. He had another winning season, after all. He never has had a losing year. Did you know that?

Sarcasm aside, replacing Tomlin wouldn’t guarantee better results. At any rate, Tomlin is in no danger of being fired, ever.

Job security in perpetuity does not make Tomlin a better coach. It further convinces him he’s always right. At Baltimore, John Harbaugh’s seat was extremely hot. So he benched quarterback Joe Flacco in favor of Lamar Jackson, made his defense hyper-aggressive and the Ravens won six of their last seven. But even when the Steelers floundered, they kept doing the same things.

So Tomlin will return. But he should be forced to make changes in his staff, made to cede authority in replay challenges and clock-management situations to a hired expert in those fields and surrender final say in personnel/draft decisions to Colbert. (Similar has occurred in the past, like when Tomlin was required to “retire” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. But, despite worse results since, Tomlin’s power seems to have grown.)

But little or none of that will happen.

Get ready for more of the same next year. Roethlisberger said he wants as much continuity as possible, and his reasoning is obvious: He’s only going to play maybe two more years, so why start over, especially with a new coach?

But Tomlin just doesn’t demand enough of his players when it comes to professionalism and focus. He never has.

Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown are more concerned with their brands than they are about the Steelers and winning.

Does that negatively affect the Steelers’ results? Who knows?

But consider New England. To the naked eye, the Patriots seem a shell of their usual selves. They rarely sparkle, or even pass the eye test, and that includes when they win. The Patriots (and Tom Brady) looked decidedly ordinary when the Steelers beat them a couple weeks back.

Yet New England went 11-5 and got a first-round playoff bye.

That’s discipline, structure and accountability. Qualities the Steelers could use more of, along with humility.

Perhaps that’s just nit-picking. Hey, I heard Dytto is going to choreograph the next Pizza Hut commercial.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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