Mark Madden: It takes a cockeyed optimist to like Steelers’ chances
If you’re thinking rationally, you know the Steelers’ chances of significant accomplishment this season lie in a bloody heap.
Being 0-3 is the head of the spear. Ben Roethlisberger being out for the year twists the knife.
Either of those facts bodes poorly. Combine them, and it’s time to get an Uber to Palookaville. No return trip.
But what fun is thinking rationally?
Optimism springs eternal, or at least until about 11:30 p.m. Monday.
After all, the Steelers acquired Ronnie Lott Jr. (Minkah Fitzpatrick) to play free safety.
Quarterback Mason Rudolph stunk in his first NFL start. But you’re pretending he didn’t, and instead gave cause for optimism despite completing only two passes beyond the line of scrimmage. (I know, I know … both were touchdowns. Huzzah.)
There’s not much wrong with the Steelers except the offensive line, running back, tight end, wide receiver, the QB situation, being 0-3, and terrible coaching that, for example, can’t construct a passable defense out of 10 first-round draft picks.
Oh, and the defense itself. Almost forgot.
One thing works in the Steelers’ favor: The AFC North is excrement. It’s what about-ism at its best: “We stink, but they stink worse.”
If you’d like to believe the season isn’t dead, go ahead. The voices of reason and reality get kicked in the crotch every day, and not just with sports.
But even the window of false optimism is rapidly closing. The only way to legitimize positive expectations is to win the next two games: Cincinnati this coming Monday at Heinz Field, then Baltimore the following Sunday, also at home.
If the Steelers win those two games, they will be 2-3. The best any other AFC North team could be is 3-2. Pittsburgh would be on flame with rock and roll.
Cincinnati (0-3) seems the easy part.
The Steelers are favored by four. I bet the Bengals feel real good about that.
Cincinnati has the NFL’s worst offensive line. Star receiver A.J. Green is hurt. Joe Mixon led the AFC in rushing in 2018, but has just 32 carries this season as new head coach Zac Taylor tries to institute the West Coast offense he helped guide last season as the quarterbacks coach of the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.
Taylor apparently hasn’t noticed these Bengals have different and worse talent than those Rams. One size isn’t fitting all.
When the Bengals finally fired Marvin Lewis after 16 seasons without a playoff win, it seemed unthinkable his successor might be worse. But Taylor’s sideline demeanor suggests an 8-year-old lost at a shopping mall.
But Andy Dalton (who mostly stinks) gives Cincinnati a big edge at QB. That would still go if Dalton were hindered by, say, a walking boot or a hook for a hand.
What about-ism cuts both ways.
The assumption is Rudolph will get better, and he should. But how much better? When? What if he doesn’t?
Assumptions also were made about rookie linebacker Devin Bush being able to contribute at the NFL level immediately, but so far Bush looks like he shops at the same places as Taylor. Bush’s head is spinning around like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist.” Ronnie Lott Jr. can only do so much to fix that defense.
If the Steelers get a win over Cincinnati, perhaps they make another trade. They still have a few draft picks left for 2020. (As of this writing.)
Here’s more good news: The Steelers are 14-2 under coach Mike Tomlin on Monday nights, including 5-0 at Heinz Field. The Steelers have won their last 16 Monday night home games, a streak that dates back to 1992.
Bet over your head, not with it.