Mark Madden: It’s still hard to get too optimistic about Steelers
The Steelers are 4-4, have won three straight and are in the playoff hunt because the standings say so.
But I can’t take them seriously.
Their first three wins came against teams with a combined record of 5-20. Sunday’s victory came against a third-string quarterback. The Steelers kept trying to hand that game to Indianapolis. But the Colts kept refusing delivery.
The Steelers’ sloppiness was epidemic, as it has been most games.
JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass that resulted in an interception. The absence of Ben Roethlisberger is a primary reason, but Smith-Schuster is nothing resembling a No. 1 receiver. That gifted Indianapolis a field goal.
Jaylen Samuels’ fumble cost the Steelers a touchdown.
Mason Rudolph conceded a safety that could easily have been a touchdown. Get rid of the ball! Rudolph might be a first-year starter, but don’t flunk quarterback 101.
Mike Tomlin stupidly wasted two replay challenges on fourth-quarter plays separated by a snap. The NFL has turned over only 11% of pass interference reviews, so don’t bother. Tomlin’s second challenge was made out of petulance after losing the first.
Andrew Luck retired. Jacoby Brissett got hurt. So Brian Hoyer came in and tossed three touchdown passes for the Colts. Indianapolis is Hoyer’s seventh team. Sunday was his first game action this season. His QB rating was 105.9.
It’s tough to pop out of all that muck with a win. But the Steelers did, and that’s to their credit.
But the Steelers aren’t often buttoned-up, and that’s why I can’t take them seriously. Tomlin talked about changing the culture this past offseason. There are less raving lunatics on hand, but mistakes still are plentiful and accountability debatable.
But it’s not all bad.
The defense is a splash-play machine: three takeaways and five sacks Sunday. The takeaways led to 17 points, with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick taking the direct route via his 96-yard interception return. Fitzpatrick and rookie linebacker Devin Bush have proven to be the ballhawks required for that defense to take the next step.
Samuels had 13 catches, albeit for just 73 yards. I bet Rudolph nursed until he was 11 years old. Samuels had more catches than the entire wide receiving corps had targets. The receivers disappear for series, quarters and games at a time.
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals. More important, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri chose to be washed-up (instead of an all-time great) at the moment of truth.
The Steelers and Colts both have big-time talent on each side of the line. The Steelers didn’t dominate that battle but more than held their own. That helped.
Rudolph’s “progress” is tough to gauge.
Rudolph didn’t lose the game. But his style and numbers invoke a hallucinogenic fog: 26 for 35 for 191 yards, an average of 7.3 yards per completion. We don’t know if Rudolph is constantly checking down, or if the play calls keep most throws painfully short. But we do know that somebody’s afraid.
Rudolph and James Washington hooked up for a 40-yard pass Sunday. When that happens with Rudolph at QB, you can’t believe your eyes. It’s like seeing a UFO.
But Rudolph won. He is deserving of the job, if only because he’s better than Devlin Hodges. He deserves your patience, if only because there’s no other choice.
Winning three straight doesn’t make me tons more optimistic about the Steelers moving forward. A win over the visiting Los Angeles Rams on Sunday might.
But at least we remain invested in the Steelers at the season’s halfway point. When Roethlisberger got hurt, even that seemed highly unlikely.