Mark Madden: Steelers have wasted golden opportunity in AFC North | TribLIVE.com
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Steelers have wasted golden opportunity in AFC North

Mark Madden
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Ravens quarterback lamar Jackson gets away from the Steelers T.J. Watt in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 at Heinz Field.

It took a little over 24 hours to truly sink in.

But once Johnny Manziel Jr. stunk out the joint in Cleveland’s 31-3 loss at San Francisco Monday night, the Steelers found themselves staring straight down the barrel of wasted opportunity.

The AFC North really does reek. The Steelers could be leading it (with a bevy of rotten foes in their future) if JuJu Smith-Schuster hadn’t fumbled, or if offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner hadn’t outsmarted himself by using the wildcat at his own 12-yard-line, or if the Steelers hadn’t converted three takeaways into just 13 points.

Or if Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t hurt. Third-stringer Devlin Hodges vs. future Hall-of-Famer Philip Rivers at Los Angeles Sunday isn’t the kind of quarterback matchup that has gamblers rushing to the betting window to wager on that “Duck” guy.

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What’s done is done. Which is to say, the Steelers are, barring some fantastic series of events that includes the Steelers actually winning some games.

Those bad teams the Steelers can’t wait to play? They can’t wait to play the Steelers. Miami is afraid the Steelers will disrupt their tanking process. Good thing they own the Steelers’ first-round pick next year. Minkah Fitzpatrick finagled his way to exactly one more win.

Miami, Cincinnati, Arizona and the New York Jets are future Steelers opponents. They have one victory between them. If you expect the Steelers to sweep those games, consider: Toss the Steelers into that group, and the teams have two victories between then.

The uphill climb isn’t getting any easier.

Quarterback Mason Rudolph remains in concussion protocol. Doesn’t inexplicably and insanely walking off the field after being beheaded count for anything?

Running back Jaylen Samuels is out for a month after arthroscopic knee surgery. Who’s going to screw up the wildcat now?

Coach Mike Tomlin said he’s not concerned about rumors of him going to Washington. Nor did he squash them. He also talked about painting the barn yellow instead of red. Those (coincidentally, I’m sure) are Washington’s colors.

They will still be partying at the IUP frat houses. So at least Smith-Schuster’s routine won’t change. It’s not Pittsburgh. It’s Littsburgh.

Smith-Schuster (twice) and James Conner (thrice) have fumbled away five victories since the beginning of last season. That’s five times in 21 games. But that’s OK, because they’re nice kids (as far as you know).

As we get deeper into the new millennium here in Littsburgh, it’s not about wins. It’s about living your best life. Hey, I think you dropped something…

So, to continue being positive, let’s recognize those Steelers who have got the job done (kind of, and to no significant end):

*Kicker Chris Boswell is 10 for 10 on field goals, 9 for 9 on extra points. He hasn’t made any game-winning kicks, though. That requires winning.

*Steven Nelson is the Steelers’ No. 1 cornerback, outplaying Joe Haden. (That last sentence sends a mixed message.)

*Outside ‘backer T.J. Watt is the Steelers’ best player, period.

After that it gets sketchy. That’s how you get to 1-4.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt started great, but has cooled. It’s the opposite for Tuitt’s bookend, Cam Heyward. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave is doing OK. Mike Hilton does well in a very specialized role, which is “nickel back who hits as hard and as often as possible.”

Anyway, 1-4.

It’s a shame. If the Steelers were even a bit better, Littsburgh could be wallowing in schadenfreude right now.

Antonio Brown is out of football. The Jets are 0-4 and Le’Veon Bell is averaging 51.5 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry. The Browns are 2-3 after an incredible amount of preseason hype.

But 1-4 is 1-4.

Evgeni Malkin will be out at least a month.

Pitt football often overachieves and underachieves in the same game.

Buctober was once again the shortest month.

It’s tough for a sports fan to get lit around here.

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