The Pittsburgh Steelers have been winless through two weeks before.
They lost their first four games in 2013 and then finished the season 8-8. Last year, the Steelers started 0-1-1 before winning six of their next seven. Neither of those seasons ended with a trip to the playoffs, but they at least showed that Pittsburgh is capable of bouncing back.
This particular 0-2 start is much worse, though.
First, the Steelers were destroyed by the Patriots on national television with a 33-3 loss in their season opener. A 28-26 loss to the Seahawks in Week 2 was much more competitive, but an injury suffered by Ben Roethlisberger sank the season even further.
There are a lot of fires in Pittsburgh and it’s hard to envision the team putting them all out. Here are the Steelers’ five biggest problems, ranked from least to most concerning:
5. JuJu Smith-Schuster isn’t thriving as a No. 1 receiver
A byproduct of the Steelers’ messy divorce with Antonio Brown was the ascension of Smith-Schuster to the top spot on the depth chart. The third-year receiver is still just 22 and made the Pro Bowl last year after finishing with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns.
Two games into the 2019 season, he hasn’t been able to provide the Steelers with the same type of production now that he’s the go-to receiver.
Smith-Schuster caught six passes for 78 yards in the opener and five passes for 84 yards in Week 2. He still hasn’t recorded a touchdown and the Pittsburgh pass offense has struggled to get going.
It’s too early to panic about his lackluster start — especially when 81 yards per game isn’t that far behind the 89.1 yards he averaged last season. He also dealt with a quarterback switch Sunday, although he and Rudolph didn’t take long to connect in a big way.
More concerning is Smith-Schuster has just 11 receptions through two games. That’s not enough plays made by a player who now needs to shoulder a bigger portion of the offensive load.
Still, the bigger problem for the pass offense, and for Smith-Schuster, is that other receivers haven’t helped.
4. Donte Moncrief is dragging down the offense
Moncrief has been targeted 11 times through two games and has just three receptions for 7 yards. One of those failed targets bounced right off his face and into the arms of a Seahawks defender.
The last target of Donte Moncrief's Pittsburgh career? I'm not one for hyperbolics, but I can't see giving the guy a helmet again, much less a call out of the huddle. pic.twitter.com/lqXEsXjqKI— Dejan Kovacevic (@Dejan_Kovacevic) September 15, 2019
He also cost the Steelers in Week 1 when a fourth down pass bounced off his chest.
Steelers go for it on 4th down... and Chung knocks it away from Moncrief!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/FUvKXJGM53— #BOOMIN (@ftbeard_17) September 9, 2019
Moncrief’s disastrous two games in Pittsburgh has made life more difficult for Smith-Schuster. It’s probably time to see if 2018 second-round pick James Washington can produce as a starter, especially now that he’s reunited with his college quarterback, Rudolph. It may also be in the Steelers’ best interest to hunt for a veteran free agent who can fill Moncrief’s spot on the roster.
3. James Conner hasn’t done a thing
Just like Smith-Schuster stepping into Brown’s shoes, Conner was expected to take over for Le’Veon Bell. His 12-touchdown, Pro Bowl season in 2018 suggested he was up for the task. However, he hasn’t been able to replicate those numbers so far in 2019.
Conner has just 54 rushing yards in two games and has averaged 2.6 yards per carry.
He scored a touchdown Sunday against the Seahawks, but also suffered a knee injury late that kept him out for the final minutes of the game. While it isn’t expected to be a serious problem, the last thing a struggling back needs is to be less than 100 percent as he tries to get back on track.
2. Ben Roethlisberger is done for the year
In Roethlisberger’s 16 seasons as the quarterback of the Steelers, he’s racked up plenty of bumps and bruises. He misses a little time almost every year, but never in his career has he missed more than four games in a season.
This time is different. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin announced Roethlisberger will undergo season-ending elbow surgery. Considering he’s 37 and has made several comments about mulling retirement, it’s possible the surgery could end Roethlisberger’s career too.
For now, he insists that he’ll be back next season:
Either way, the Steelers are without their captain and six-time Pro Bowl quarterback this year. That’s a disaster and will likely erase any hope of Pittsburgh turning the season around. The only reason it’s not the No. 1 problem for the Steelers is because Mason Rudolph looked pretty damn good against the Seahawks.
The 2018 third-round pick saw his first regular season action when he took over for Roethlisberger in the middle of Week 2. He finished with 12 completions on 19 attempts for 112 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. The moment never looked too big for him and his interception was the aforementioned pass off Moncrief’s face.
The silver lining is that they now have the opportunity to evaluate their new young quarterback.
1. The Steelers can’t stop the pass
Even worse than the loss of Roethlisberger is the way the Steelers secondary was carved up in the first two weeks. It’s especially disheartening for Pittsburgh when the team has addressed the defensive side of the ball in the first round of seven consecutive drafts.
The front seven has done a decent job creating pressure on quarterbacks, but the secondary hasn’t held up its end of the bargain.
Artie Burns, who was a first-round pick in 2016, has seen the field for just one snap through two games. The cornerback trio of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton haven’t been able to slow opposing offenses, nor have safeties Terrell Edmunds, Kameron Kelly, and Sean Davis.
Granted, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are tough assignments. Still, the pair had a collective 131.3 passer rating against the Steelers. It’s not going to get much easier with two matchups each against Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson left on the schedule, as well as games against Philip Rivers and Jared Goff.
It’s why the Steelers sent a first-round pick to the Dolphins to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh better hope that fixes things, because it doesn’t matter how well Rudolph does on offense if the Steelers can’t get its opponents off the field.