The Pittsburgh Steelers had their most embarrassing loss of the season yesterday, getting absolutely obliterated by the Cincinnati Bengals in a crucial AFC North tilt. Whether it's the worst game of Pittsburgh's season depends on your view of their 16-16 tie with the Detroit Lions, but it was without a doubt the worst defeat of the year. The game was over by halftime. The Steelers looked entirely uninterested in stopping Joe Burrow or Joe Mixon. Ben Roethlisberger looked awful yet again.
This is not the same Steelers team as last season. That team battled to the playoffs on the strength of a suffocating defense and gritty play. The pieces are all the same this season, yet Pittsburgh is notably worse. It's not just the decline of Big Ben. They just aren't playing winning football-- a very bizarre sight from a Mike Tomlin-led team.
All of this disgusts Ryan Clark, ESPN's premier Steelers supporter. The former Pittsburgh defensive back has not been shy in dissecting his old employer's issues and hammered the organization for their failure to find a successor to Roethlisberger earlier this year. Today, he ranted about how Pittsburgh plays soft and appear more interested in riding off the reputation of Steelers football than actually playing Steelers football. It was good, passionate content.
The criticisms Clark puts forth here are somewhat ambigious concepts but he describes them well. The Steelers shouldn't be this bad-- yet they are. The offensive woes are no surprise, but giving up 24 points in the first half to the Bengals is an offense to Steelers football. Cincy is a good team with some great players offensively, no doubt about that, but it was a divisional matchup. Pittsburgh has spent decades destroying Cincinnati in games like these. Given the talent they have defensively, the only answer is that they've lost their edge, as Clark describes above.
But considering it all, the Roethilsberger problem may be the root of all these issues. It must be difficult for the defense to get fired up every possession when they know it'll take a borderline miracle for the offense to score because Roethlisberger is throwing wobblers at risk of getting picked off all day. And if Pittsburgh falls behind by more than one score, forget it. The game is basically over. The Steelers' defense is populated by professionals who will do their job every snap regardless of who is under center, but the battle of the mind comes before the battle on the field, and having such a lame duck at quarterback is a big hindrance in the mental department.
Or maybe Clark is dead-on and they're just soft and care more about being liked than winning. No matter what, the Steelers have some self-reckoning to do before the Ravens come to town next week. If they lose that game, the sky will be falling.