It’s not just that the team has a losing record, either. It’s that they blew a winnable game in their opener against the Cleveland Browns by turning the ball over six times, followed that by getting stunted on by Patrick Mahomes, and were outclassed in all phases by the Ravens in Week 3.
In the Ravens’ 26-14 win on Sunday Night Football in Week 4, Baltimore out-gained Pittsburgh 451 to 284 in total yardage and shutout the Steelers offense in the second half.
The Steelers haven’t had a single losing season since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft, and got two Super Bowl rings along the way. But now the quarterback is 36 and showing signs of age.
He’s still racking up yardage, but the Steelers offense isn’t finding explosive plays like it used to, and it’s one of the worst teams in the NFL at converting on third down.
Roethlisberger is under contract through the 2019 season and has teased retirement the last few years. He’s dealt with an elbow injury that kept him on the injury report early in the season, and even though he managed to throw for 452 yards and three touchdowns in Week 2, it still wasn’t enough to beat the Chiefs.
Frustrations are boiling over and things don’t look good in Pittsburgh. Is this the end of an era for the Steelers?
Pittsburgh isn’t hitting the big play and Antonio Brown’s annoyed
Explosive plays have been a staple for the Steelers for much of the Roethlisberger era. No team had more pass plays of 40 or more yards in 2017.
Leading the way for years has been Antonio Brown. The six-time Pro Bowler has averaged more than 100 receiving yards per game in three different seasons, and has a career average of 13.4 yards per reception.
Four games into the 2018 season, Brown hasn’t topped 100 yards in a game and is averaging 9.4 yards per reception. His longest play of September was for 27 yards.
A nagging calf injury has likely contributed to the slow start, but Roethlisberger’s inaccuracy downfield has been a problem.
Ben Roethlisberger has struggled to connect on passes of 20+ yards so far this year. He’s hit his target on just two of 13 attempts. That’s 15%. In comparison: in 2016, he connected on 37% of such passes (32-86), and 13 went for TDs. Sunday, when I asked abt it, he said this: pic.twitter.com/ZkAeVOmVbH— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 17, 2018
It hasn’t been for a lack of effort. Brown has already been targeted 53 times through four games — second only to the Vikings’ Adam Thielen. But the struggles are clearly causing some frustration to bubble to the surface.
When a former Steelers public relations rep tweeted after Week 2 that Roethlisberger is the reason Brown has found so much NFL success, Brown tweeted and later deleted “Trade me let’s find out.”
No, Brown isn’t going to be traded, nor is he actually asking to be. But the tweet definitely reflected his discontent with the start to the season.
Nobody said AB’s tweet was directed at the #Steelers. But the guy Brown is engaging on Twitter worked for the Steelers PR department for eight freaking years. He and AB shared a damn locker room for a long time. If you think this is all a nothingburger, you’re out of your mind. https://t.co/TNPERj75iy— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) September 17, 2018
It was also evident in Week 2 when Brown could be seen arguing with Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner on the sideline.
And if his sideline demeanor and tweets didn’t raise alarm, Brown missing team meetings Monday should. There was no practice a day after a game, but players were at the facility and didn’t know why Brown wasn’t there, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
It is not clear if Brown’s absence was excused by coach Mike Tomlin, but several sources indicated they did not know why Brown didn’t show up with the rest of his teammates for meetings and film review.
Tomlin chose not to elaborate much on Brown’s absence or tweet during a presser Tuesday:
Mike Tomlin confirms Antonio Brown was not at HQ Monday. Says “I’m looking forward to visiting w/ him today.” Says, “We’ll address it and move on from it.”— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 18, 2018
On Tuesday, Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus issued a statement that said the receiver “just wants to win” and the drama regarding his tweet and Monday absence is a “non-story that has been blown out of proportion.”
1/2 Steelers' WR Antonio Brown's agent, Drew Rosenhaus: "The tweet yesterday was not in reference to anything other than Antonio responding to a person he knows. It was not directed towards a trade, or wanting to be trading. Any idea he was asking for a trade is not accurate.”— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 18, 2018
2/3 Rosenhaus: “Antonio had a personal matter. I talked to the team about it. His issue was unrelated to the tweet or his relationship with the team. Third, AB has an incredible drive to win. He just wants to win. That's all that that is.”— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 18, 2018
3/3 “That's not anything more than him encouraging his coaches and teammates to win. And that's what his entire focus is on. Any notion, any speculation otherwise, can be put to bed. This is a non-story that has been blown out of proportion. We can end this right here and now."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 18, 2018
Brown returned to practice on Wednesday, and Roethlisberger admitted they were all feeling the disappointment of their winless start to the season:
Ben Roethlisberger talked with Antonio Brown this morning. “I think that he’s the best in the world. When you’re the best in the world, you want to help participate, you want to win football games. We’re all a little frustrated that we’re not winning right now.”— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 19, 2018
Tomlin said Brown was disciplined, but wasn’t pulled from the lineup:
Mike Tomlin said he had disciplined Antonio Brown, who will address media Thursday. Jesse James said Brown ran a full practice and is in the game plan for Tampa Bay.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 19, 2018
Brown didn’t protest the discipline, though he said he had made Tomlin aware of his absence:
Antonio Brown says No, he doesn't want to be traded; Yes, he made "a stupid remark" on Twitter; No, he can't respond to people on-line; Yes, he accepts Mike Tomlin disciplining him even tho he says he missed Monday for personal reasons - and did tell Tomlin he'd be absent.— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 20, 2018
He also admitted to be angry that the team was losing and apologized to his teammates:
Steelers Antonio Brown: "I'm committed to this program, this organization, I'm fully here. I go to work every day, about my business and I don't take it for granted. My business is winning here, I come here to win. When we ain't winning, you're damn right I'm pissed off"— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) September 20, 2018
Antonio Brown expressed regret for any teammate stress he created this week, saying, "Obviously it's a distraction when you're writing guys on Twitter and your teammates have to answer for it."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 20, 2018
But really, he's been a good teammate. No one's had to answer Le'Veon questions!
It hasn’t helped that one of the team’s best offensive weapons is voluntarily watching the team from home.
The Steelers miss Le’Veon Bell
James Conner was good in Week 1, but it’s becoming increasingly clear he’s not Bell.
Through four games, Conner’s averaging 3.7 yards per carry and has three rushing touchdowns. Most of that came when he bruised out 135 yards and two touchdowns against the Browns to open the year, but he was completely bottled up for 17 yards and 19 yards against the Chiefs and Ravens, respectively.
Conner is certainly the more cost-effective back on his four-year, $3.16 million contract. Bell is holding out to set himself up for a big pay day in the spring, and voiding chunks of his one-year, $14.544 deal under the franchise tag in the process.
But Bell’s absence has taken its toll.
Bell has averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in each of the last four seasons and is as polished a route runner as any running back in the league. It’s only logical that the Steelers offense would improve with the return of one of the most dangerous all-purpose weapons in the game.
The holdout has affected the Steelers off the field too.
It created drama in the Steelers locker room earlier in September when a few players ripped into the running back for being selfish. Bell’s pursuit of a premium contract has cast a shadow on Conner, who is perpetually compared to the player whose shoes he’s attempting to fill.
It’s possible Bell never wears a Steelers jersey again, with the team now shopping the running back.
When Bell returns is still an unknown, but he’ll have to end his holdout in November, at the latest. If no trade happens and he’s back with the Steelers, it’ll add another delicate situation for a team that is already dealing with a lot.
Oh yeah, the defense is a problem too
The Browns looked helpless for most of their matchup with the Steelers, but Mahomes sure didn’t.
The Chiefs’ second-year quarterback sliced and diced the Pittsburgh secondary to the tune of 326 passing yards and six touchdowns. It’s possible it was just a bad day against a young passer who played surprisingly well.
Steelers thought they were ready for Pat Mahomes, but he was better at the line of scrimmage than most young quarterbacks, according to Bud Dupree: pic.twitter.com/BqnOL1ELs4— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 17, 2018
But then the Buccaneers passed for 455 yards and the Ravens for 451. Only Tampa Bay has given up more total yards — which is why the Steelers were able to get a win in September — but it’s clear Pittsburgh is struggling to keep offenses in check.
The Steelers are a perennial powerhouse, but if Pittsburgh can’t suddenly reverse its defensive issues and it continues to have difficulty finding big plays on offense, it could mean the Roethlisberger era ends with a fizzle.