I had a fleeting thought following the highway robbery that was a Steelers loss to the LA Chargers on Sunday Night Football last weekend: Pittsburgh's defense actually wasn't half bad.
A unit that was once dominant beyond realistic expectations with All-Pros and Pro Bowl caliber players saw Father Time catch up to their greatness. Retirement and other circumstances would force the hand of an ever-evolving team to fill spots cast with the long shadows of legends such as Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, James Harrison, Casey Hampton and many more, but also how to approach pressuring opposing offenses in a league that heavily favors offensive firepower.
However, it's that lack of offensive firepower from the Steelers own offense which has made standing in the shadow of those previous great defenders a cold and callous proposition. Many will quickly dismiss the Steelers defense as not being good. I believe that's a copout statement, as any professional player has to be good to sniff a roster spot at this level.
Maybe the proper term is that the Steelers defense isn't great, or at least they haven't found that greatness yet among a group of younger players still finding their way. That's why the offense, led by QB Ben Roethlisberger, is pivotal in providing the form of help that the defense needs most: and that's staying off of the field.
A common theme in four losses and a tie this season with the Steelers offense is that they're turning the ball over at an alarming rate and/or failing to put together meaningful drives which keeps the opponent's offense from re-entering the field. The lack of offense at times has put a spotlight on the Steelers defense, a unit which may get a breather for a few moments before being rushed back onto the field.
That kind of back-and-forth may have even tested a team with a game-changing safety named Troy Polamalu roaming the secondary. But without hardly any splash plays to show for in 2018, we are seeing this iteration of the Steelers defense struggle at times because they're not given a fighting chance by their teammates on the other side of the football.
Take for example the Week 1 tie at Cleveland. The Steelers offense turned the ball over six times in that game, including two fumbles in the fourth quarter which gave the Browns the ball at Pittsburgh's 37 and also the 1-yard line.
Kind of difficult to stop any NFL offense when they have the ball with four tries right on your doorstep, isn't it?
Or take the Week 2's onslaught by the Kansas City Chiefs, which made the Steelers defense look downright silly at times. The Chiefs first possession began on the Pittsburgh's 10-yard line following a 3-and-out by the Steelers offense. Two plays later and it was already 7-0.
Another 3-and-out led to more points by the Chiefs, as the Steelers offense ran a total of six plays for minus five yards and a total of about two-and-a-half minutes of possession combined off of the game clock. They would follow that up with six more plays and a miss field goal before tying the game before halftime, but would again be plagued with short drives of three and four plays in the second half.
Baltimore was definitely a beneficiary of a bad offensive showing by the Steelers as well. Pittsburgh had three three-and-out possessions, two more where they ran four plays each, and a sixth series with six total plays. The last four times the offense had the ball their time of possession is as follows: 1:01, 1:25, 0:22, and 0:53.
It's nearly impossible to have a winning effort if the offense isn't holding up its end of the bargain, yet the Steelers defense contained the Ravens four second-half field goals in a 26-14 loss. However, those four scoring drives were the nail in the coffin as the offense struggled to get anything going.
Then there's the last two games against Denver and Los Angeles. The Steelers missed a field goal to start against the Broncos and finished the game turning the ball over four times (two interceptions, two fumbles). The third quarter offense had drives of 4, 1, 6, 4 and 5 total plays. (Granted, the one-play drive was a quick 97-yard strike for a JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.) Denver scored 17 points off of those miscues (with three coming after the missed field goal, in which they started on their own 38).
Finally, in one of the most critical moments of last Sunday's game, the Steelers offense went three-and-out right after the Chargers tied the game. 52 seconds of game time was all that separated Chargers scoring drives of 8:07 and 3:51. LA chewed the final 4:10 of the game to kick the winning field goal during an untimed down with zero time left on the clock.
That has to be better, and it's the Steelers offense which has to be held as being accountable for putting their own defense in precarious positions. I don't expect it to be perfect: that would be unrealistic. But as illustrated above, long lapses by the offense has led to the defense giving up more points and further led to checkmarks in the losing column.
Back in the day, we were accustomed to seeing the Steelers defense prop up the offense and hold games to low-scoring affairs where field goals and special teams or defensive splash plays would save the day. However, in today's NFL stifling defense is no longer the norm and can't be expected to close out games. Defenders are flagged, fined, and sometimes even suspended under present-day rules. As such, it's up to those athletes on the other side of the football, the Steelers offense, to assume the role the defense was once famous for and swoop instead to save the day.