Steelers left with little margin for error after loss to Chargers
The unseasonably warm temperatures that passed through the region Sunday are gone and with it went the Pittsburgh Steelers margin for error.
Once firmly in control of the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye, the Steelers are reeling from back-to-back losses that has put a fifth consecutive postseason trip and third straight division championship in jeopardy.
When their winning streak reached six games after that fourth-quarter comeback two weeks ago in Jacksonville, the Steelers had a two-and-a-half game edge on Baltimore for the division lead and the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff race.
But after blowing second-half leads against Denver and the Los Angeles Chargers in a span of eight days, the Steelers (7-4-1) are just a half-game ahead of the Ravens (7-5), winners of three in a row. With four games to play, the Steelers also have two fewer wins that division leaders New England and Houston and three fewer than Kansas City, meaning they are ticketed to play on wild-card weekend — if they get into the playoffs at all.
“We’re not panicking,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We’re not worried. We still have got four games left. We still can control our destiny.”
Trouble is, games against New England (9-3) at home and New Orleans (10-2) on the road remain on the schedule. Another 2-2 stretch like the one the Steelers just completed is a distinct possibility. That would leave the Steelers at 9-6-1, which could be enough to get into the postseason as a wild-card provided one of the four 6-6 teams — Miami, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Denver — doesn’t run the table.
A 9-6-1 record also might be enough to secure the AFC North title provided the Ravens don’t go 3-1 or better the rest of the way. Baltimore has Kansas City (10-2) and the Chargers (9-3) left on its schedule, and both games are on the road for the Ravens.
“It’s a quarter left of football,” wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “We’ve got to continue to figure out a way to win and get ourselves a chance to get to the dance.”
The Steelers won’t dance unless they end their losing streak Sunday at Oakland. The Raiders have a 2-10 record but are a historically bothersome opponent at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Steelers have lost their past three trips to Oakland, falling to teams that finished 2-14 in 2006, 4-12 in ‘12 and 4-12 in ‘13.
To compound matters, the Steelers head into the stretch run with some glaring weaknesses and at least one potentially significant injury.
• The defense can’t figure out how to shut down the run for a full game. It started with Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette getting 74 yards in the first half, continued when Denver’s Phillip Lindsay became the first runner to surpass 100 yards against the Steelers and surfaced again Sunday when the Chargers rushed for 83 yards in the second half after getting two in the first 30 minutes.
• A defense that is so efficient at pressuring the quarterback can’t create turnovers. The Steelers have forced one in three games, and that was on the final play at Jacksonville. Only five teams have forced fewer this season. None are division leaders.
• The need for a dependable No. 3 option as a receiver never was more evident than against the Chargers. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster accounted for a combined 16 catches and 203 yards. The other seven players targeted for passes combined for 13 receptions for 78 yards. It didn’t help that slot receiver Ryan Switzer and wideout Justin Hunter, who was active in place of rookie James Washington, left the game with injuries. Tight end Vance McDonald, so dependable in the first half of the season, dropped some significant passes in recent weeks.
• James Conner’s availability remains in doubt after he was helped off the field in the fourth quarter with a lower leg contusion. Conner had a slightly heavier workload against the Chargers than the two previous weeks. His absence, if significant, could leave the running game in the hands of rookie fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels, a converted tight end/fullback, or veteran Stevan Ridley, who has not played in the past three weeks.
The last time the Steelers lost back-to-back games was more than two years ago, when November 2016 losses to Baltimore and Dallas completed a four-game skid that dropped their record to 4-5. Of course, the Steelers regrouped and won seven in a row to win the AFC North, and their run wasn’t interrupted until the AFC championship game.
“We’ve been in this position many times,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “The last four games of the season, we need veteran guys to show and lead and bring the guys through to finish what we need to do.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.