Washington 23, Steelers 17: Steelers drop the ball on a perfect season

In some ways, the Steelers’ 23-17 loss to the Washington Football Team Monday at Heinz Field feels like a playoff loss.

It’s not playoff loss, of course. The Steelers season is far from over. They still have a chance to win the Super Bowl.

They no longer have a chance to be the first 19-0 team in NFL history, however. That’s why this loss hurts more than a typical regular-season loss.

Steelers fans are used to getting inoculated with that first loss early in the season. The Steelers hadn’t even been 4-0 since 1979. For this franchise, going 11-0 was an uncharacteristic flirtation with perfection.

It was tempting to hope that the Steelers could give Bill Belichick the finger by finishing the job that the Patriots couldn’t in 2007. Steelers fans old enough to remember the 1972 Dolphins know that they beat the Steelers at Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game on the way to going 17-0. It would have been cool to tell them to move over and take a seat next to them in NFL history.

Those Dolphins won the Super Bowl in 1972 and again the next year. But they haven’t won one since. As for the Patriots, they’ve matched the Steelers with six Super Bowl victories.

Now that perfection is off the table, the Steelers can focus solely on becoming the only team to win seven Lombardi Trophies.

Going 16-0 can actually get in the way of winning a Super Bowl. The pressure of chasing history in the regular season can drain a team. Those 2007 Patriots had a chip on their shoulder in the wake of Spygate and played their starters right through Week 17 so they could be the first team to go 16-0. It turned out they didn’t have quite enough left to close the deal on 19-0.

Even if they don’t win the Super Bowl this year, the Steelers still can silence those who say they’re the worst team in NFL history to start a season 11-0. All they have to do in that regard is reach the AFC championship game. According to Stathead.com, the 2005 Colts and the 2011 Packers have the shortest playoff runs for teams that started 11-0 since the merger. They both lost in the divisional round, with the Colts’ loss coming against the Steelers.

With the new playoff format, of course, there is the hazard of a wild-card game if the Steelers fail to earn the No. 1 seed. They’re still in control there. As long as they win the rest of their games, they’ll have a better conference record than the Chiefs and get the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.

That brings us to the matter of the four games that remain on the Steelers’ regular-season schedule. The way they’ve played over the last two games, it will be hard for them to win any of those games.

The problem that’s on everyone’s mind now is the Steelers’ inability to run the football. They ran for just 21 yards Monday, tied for their sixth-lowest rushing total since at least 1940

Maybe getting Maurkice Pouncey and James Conner back will help, and whatever happened to the Chase Claypool jet sweeps? Running that play or faking that play has been the Steelers’ most effective way to get opposing defenses to worry about the run.

But it also would help if the Steelers stop dropping passes.

The Steelers have dropped a combined 13 passes in the last two games, including seven Monday according to ESPN. If the Steelers hang on to most of those passes, their win over a Ravens team ravaged by a COVID-19 outbreak would have been more convincing and they might have beaten Washington on Monday.

With Ben Roethlisberger‘s inconsistency on deep passes, short and intermediate throws are the only way the Steelers can move the ball. The Steelers can’t afford to drop those. Catching passes also keeps the clock moving and the Steelers defense off the field. Washington (5-7) possessed the ball for 17 minutes, 37 seconds in the second half. 

Not only was the Steelers defense asked to cover for the offense’s lack of execution, but coaching decisions also added to the burden. Early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers faced third-and-10 from their own 10-yard line and handed off to Benny Snell, who lost two yards. The Steelers were leading 17-10 with 13 minutes left in the game. Instead of asking a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback to try to throw for a first down, the offense basically sent a message saying “We’re done. Defense, you take it from here.”

The defense didn’t take it from there. Washington tied the game on its next possession. The offense then could have given the defense a 3-point lead to protect, but instead of sending Matthew Wright out for a 45-yard field goal attempt the Steelers went for it on fourth-and-1.

The Steelers signed Wright to replace an injured Chris Boswell. Aren’t they paying him to kick field goals?

Unable to trust any running back to grind out a damn yard on fourth-and-1, Roethlisberger threw the ball. The angel that watched over him when he lobbed the ball to James Washington to secure last week’s win was probably retired to someone’s front-yard Christmas display. Roethlisberger’s 20-yard pass to Anthony McFarland fell incomplete.

Washington took a 20-17 lead with a field goal, and then Steelers reject Jon Bostic intercepted a tipped pass to help set up another Washington field goal that left the Steelers 17 seconds for a desperation drive that went nowhere.

Perhaps the Steelers will snap out of this funk when they get out of this schedule-induced time warp. The Week 13 schedule was originally designed to give both Washington and the Steelers a 10-day break after Thanksgiving. Well, we all know what happened, and the Steelers ended up with a five-day turnaround while Washington had 11 days to prepare.

We knew the pandemic could throw things out of whack. Heck, we looked at the Thanksgiving showdown against the Ravens and Sunday night’s game at Buffalo as potential spots for the Steelers’ first loss. It turned out that the first loss came in between.

Now, Sunday’s game against the Bills (9-3) goes from what might be the Steelers’ first loss to a strong possibility for their second loss.

But let’s see what the Steelers do with somewhat of a normal work week against a team that also played Monday night and is traveling back from Arizona. And let’s see what the Steelers can do when they start catching passes again. 

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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