Kevin Gorman: Steelers slip sends season into a slide
That the Pittsburgh Steelers stared into the Black Hole and slipped served as an ending that was perhaps the perfect metaphor for their season, one that is showing to be a sleight-of-hand.
After an unimaginable 24-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders, whose only previous victories came in overtime against the Cleveland Browns and on a last-second field goal at the Arizona Cardinals, it’s time for the Steelers to start living in their fears.
The season is sliding out from under them, just as Chris Boswell’s plant leg did on his 40-yard field-goal attempt with 5 seconds remaining that could have tied the score and forced overtime.
Not that it ever should have come to needing a fourth-quarter comeback, let alone a last-second field goal to beat the Raiders on Sunday at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
“Tough outcome, but it’s nothing mystical,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s not something that happened to us. It’s something we created, and we take responsibility for that.”
That responsibility starts with team president Art Rooney II playing hardball by forcing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell and not signing him to a long-term contract. It extends to general manager Kevin Colbert failing to address the loss of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker and to Tomlin for relying too much upon players who aren’t getting the job done.
The Steelers need to take responsibility for this loss from top to bottom, especially after they took a 14-10 lead into halftime and deep into the fourth quarter only to allow touchdown drives of 73 and 75 yards in the final 5:20. But it wasn’t just the Steelers defense that disappointed.
Tomlin’s admission that Ben Roethlisberger “probably could have come in a series or so sooner, but we were in the rhythm and flow of the game” after returning from a rib injury was nothing short of negligent.
Josh Dobbs started in the second half, and the Steelers sandwiched a pair of punts around a turnover on downs and an interception. The Steelers showed about as much rhythm as someone doing the robot dance.
The Steelers continue to rely on Roethlisberger to rescue them, believing that they can win with offense even when the defense doesn’t deliver. Big Ben led another storybook comeback, returning to complete 6 of 6 passes for 70 yards and throw the go-ahead touchdown for a 21-17 lead.
But the Raiders responded with a 75-yard scoring drive of their own, punctuated by a fourth-and-goal play at the 6 with 25 seconds remaining. Derek Carr threw a touchdown pass to tight end Derek Carrier for a three-point lead with 21 seconds left.
“As a defense, those are the moments you live for, when it’s all on your shoulders and you want to get the stop,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “We’re just not getting it. This has happened multiple times, and we’re not coming up in clutch moments.
“Man, we’ve got to get a stop. You have to collect that as a defense. You’ve got to think, ‘If we get a stop, we end the game.’ Our quarterback just gave us the lead, and we’re not getting it. Simple as that. We’re not holding up our end of the deal.”
The Steelers continue to rely on the chance of comebacks, after 10 single-digit outcomes last season saw them win four by field goal. They have had eight single-digit outcomes this season and continue to count on Boswell even though he has missed six field goals and five extra-point kicks this season.
Somehow, the Steelers gave him another opportunity after a perfectly executed hook-and-ladder pass play that saw Roethlisberger throw it to James Washington, whose lateral to JuJu Smith-Schuster put Boswell in position to kick the tying field goal.
But Boswell slipped, and the Steelers lost their third consecutive game and an opportunity to position themselves for the AFC playoffs on a day when the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens all lost. It was more than a missed opportunity. It was a majestic meltdown by a team that believes the playoffs are preordained.
“We’ve got to make plays, not only at the end of the game but just throughout the game,” Tomlin said. “Not making enough significant plays, not taking advantage of opportunities.”
The Steelers stared into the Black Hole and slipped. Now, with the Patriots and New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals to play, they only can hope that their season doesn’t slide into the abyss.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.