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The Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL’s only undefeated team until Monday night, but even before the shocker against the Washington Football Team, there were ample warnings to suggest that the perfect record was too shaky for comfort.
Shoot, if you caught Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s vibe after his squad squeaked by the severely depleted Baltimore Ravens last week, it amplified the reality that they were hardly as dominant as the record might have indicated.
But losing to Washington? A team from the division that has been mockingly called the “NFC Least”?
Well, now the record is 11-1, with Pittsburgh’s 23-17 setback allowing legendary fullback Larry Csonka and his teammates from the 1972 Miami Dolphins to pop a few corks as they remain the only team in NFL history to complete a perfect season.
No, there will be no 19-0 distinction for the Black and Gold.
“We live one week at a time,” Tomlin said when asked about the prospects of a perfect season taken off the table. “It’s not collective for us.”
Maybe the Steelers will still emerge as Super Bowl LV champs. Yet that won’t happen if they don’t shore up a few nagging issues.
In rallying from a 14-0 deficit, Washington (5-7) not only was on the other side of the second-worst blown lead by a Steelers team at Heinz Field, but it exposed some distinct, “collective” Steelers flaws.
It may have been one loss, but it was also a reminder of reasons that the Steelers were such a less-than-dominant 11-0 team.
Where’s the running game? Pittsburgh mustered all of 21 rushing yards (1.5 per carry) on Monday night, which pretty much eliminated the idea of building a lead (done) and then salting away the clock (not done) in bagging a W. James Conner missed a second consecutive game while on the COVID-19 reserve list, but this is deeper than the absence of the starting running back, as the rushing attack has lacked consistency all season.
Ben Roethlisberger, who threw 53 times against Washington — including a nail-in-the-coffin pass near the end that was deflected at the line of scrimmage by Montez Sweat and intercepted by Jon Bostic — has covered up many of the running game’s woes this season. But after missing two practices within the past week while nursing a knee injury, he didn’t bring his A-game on Monday night. And once again, he was challenged to connect with his array of talented receivers on the deep throws.
“It starts with me,” Roethlisberger said. “I need to be better.”
That’s noble. And there’s some truth in it. Usually, as Roethlisberger goes, so go the Steelers. Yet the burden isn’t just on No. 7.
Like last week, the Steelers had troubles in the red zone. Troubles converting on fourth down. And like last week, they had trouble hanging onto the football, with seven dropped passes.
As Tomlin put it, “We just have to make routine plays routinely.”
The defensive lapses were as glaring as you’d expect them to be in an outcome that dropped Pittsburgh’s record to 78-1-1 in games where it held a halftime lead of at least 14 points. Washington’s rally probably caught fire on the first drive after halftime, when Alex Smith flipped a screen pass to Cam Sims on the perimeter on third-and-14. The thing went for 31 yards. Then Smith completed a 30-yard pass to Logan Thomas. Then Peyton Barber punched it in to cap an 82-yard drive.
Seems like the a defense that drew Tomlin’s ire last week hasn’t had a quick fix in yielding big plays. Sure, the unit is down another impact linebacker as standout pass rusher Bud Dupree joined Devin Bush on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Yet the type of breakdowns the Steelers have had lately surely won’t cut it against, say, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tomlin doesn’t escape second-guessing, either. With just under five minutes on the clock in a tie game, he bypassed the option of attempting what would have been about a 45-yard field goal and went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Washington 28.
Uh-oh. Without a reliable running back, the Steelers hardly lined up to ram the ball in a cloud of dust to move the chains. Instead, Roethlisberger took a shotgun snap and tried to hit Anthony McFarland coming out of the backfield on a wheel route. The pass was broken up. Tomlin maintained that he didn’t want to put rookie kicker Matthew Wright (in his NFL debut, subbing for an injured Chris Boswell) in the position of needing to make a pressure kick.
“I didn’t feel good about putting that on him,” Tomlin said.
His defense surely wasn’t ready for the crunch-time pressure. Smith’s first third-down pass on the ensuing drive resulted in a 29-yard completion to Sims that set up a 45-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins to give Washington its first lead of the game with 2:04 left. Roethlisberger’s lone pick quickly set up another Hopkins field goal. And after clinging to that perfect mark, the Steelers are about to find out whether they are equipped to plow through this December adversity.
The Steelers have escaped multiple close calls this season, which says much about the resilience and veteran savvy flowing through the DNA of the team. They avoided a near-disastrous loss at Dallas. They nearly blew a big lead at Tennessee. They were essentially outplayed at Baltimore yet were aided by the Ravens’ self-inflicted blunders. The perfect record could have been history weeks ago, which hardly makes Monday’s setback — a day after the New York Giants pulled off a stunner at Seattle — easier to swallow.
“It stinks,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s been a while since we’ve lost a game.”
The good news is that nothing has changed about the ultimate goal for Pittsburgh.
The latest reality check, though, may have revealed how difficult it will be for the Steelers to achieve that ultimate goal.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.