NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is horribly ‘un-Steelerlike’

Mike Tomlin says they ‘won’t accept’ play this poor on defense. But can he fix it?

Dick LeBeau isn’t walking back into the Steelers’ locker room.

The Steelers defense is terrible, and it may not be defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s fault, but in the two years since he took over for LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s defense has gone from bad to worse … to nearly the worst, in terms of NFL rankings.

Through nine games, the Steelers defense ranks 14th in the NFL in points allowed, surrendering 206 so far this season, while allowing 380.8 yards per game, ranked 25th out of 32 teams in the league.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s loss to Dallas was an absolute debacle on defense. Pittsburgh allowed 442 yards on just 59 plays, good for 7.2 yards per play. If not for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense putting up 448 yards, including 408 in the air, the last-minute loss would have been a total blowout.

“For us, just not enough discipline and detail in our play to be victorious,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. “It’s not mystical. It ain’t okay. We won’t accept it; can’t accept it. That was the case tonight. Not enough critical playmaking at those critical moments.”

“Splash,” Tomlin followed. “They made the splash plays. We didn’t make enough of them.”

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Roethlisberger and the offense did everything they could to keep the Steelers in the game, and still — even after a trick play, fake-spike, touchdown throw to Antonio Brown with less than a minute to go — Dallas managed to march down the field and win the game with relative ease, and time to spare.

Before that, Dallas took the lead with just under two minutes to play in the fourth quarter on a run by Ezekiel Elliott that was so poorly defended, most pundits online suggested the Steelers were letting the Cowboys score. Only, Dallas was a the 14 yard line, not the goal line, when Elliott scampered into the end zone. First down or not, allowing a team to run 14 yards on you just so your offense can get the ball back to try to ‘re-win’ the game says more about this defense than Pittsburgh should ever have to say.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m devastated,” a devastated Mike Mitchell said after the game, via Steelers.com. “That was a tough contest for us. We shouldn’t have lost that game. We made the plays to lose that game not to win that game. That’s very un-Steelerlike, so I’m disappointed for that. We didn’t make enough plays to win the game at the end.”

The game ended in a whirlwind final three minutes.

Dallas went 75 yards on 10 plays in just under 6 minutes, helped by a 15 yard penalty on Pittsburgh defensive back Ross Cockrell, before Ben and the Steelers answered with a 75-play drive of their own, in just 1:13 off the clock. That left a mere 42 seconds in the game, with Pittsburgh up by a point after a failed two-point try. But Dallas only needed 33 seconds to go 75 yards, again, helped by another personal foul penalty, scoring on a 32-yard burst by Elliott that sealed the game, and may have sealed Pittsburgh’s fate this season.

“If we as a defense are giving up explosive plays,” Cockrell said after the game, “it’s going to be very hard to win, no matter how good our offense is.”

Safety Ryan Shazier echoed his teammate, saying, “we definitely have the guys in this locker room who can definitely turn this around, we just have to find how to do it. If we’ve got to practice harder or do whatever we’ve got to do, we’ve got to find a way to win and find a way to get into the playoffs.

“We’re a good enough team to win the Super Bowl,” he added, “but lately we haven’t been playing like it, and we just got to find a way to do it.”

The words ‘Super Bowl’ shouldn’t even be in the conversation at this point, but the Steelers can still make the playoffs, because the AFC North is wide open and they are just one game behind the division-leading Ravens. Still, a team with Super Bowl aspirations when the season began has to look at itself as half a team right now. The defense is an absolute liability, so bad that even when the offense bails them out with a go-ahead score in the last two minutes, the lead isn’t safe.

Elliott, the sure-fire Rookie of the Year and a bona fide MVP candidate after his performance at Heinz field on Sunday, was relatively held in check in the run game until the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 21 carries  for 114 yards and two scores, but those two touchdown runs accounted for 46 of his yards on the day. And yet, those numbers fail to take into account his two receptions for a combined 95 yards, including an 83 yard touchdown reception from fellow rookie Dak Prescott.

It was big plays that did in Pittsburgh all day, allowing touchdown plays of 83, 50, 14 and 32 yards.

“We can sit up here and preach it, but we’ve got to do it,” defensive end Cam Hayward said after the game. “Forty-two seconds is not enough — shouldn’t be enough time for them to go down the field…It was just unacceptable by the defense.”

Steelers Results Under Mike Tomlin

YearWLDiv. FinishPlayoffsPFPAPt DiffOff Pts RkOff Yds RkDef Pts RkDef Yds Rk
2016452nd of 4214206815111425
20151062nd of 4Lost Div423319104431121
20141151st of 4Lost WC43636868721818
2013882nd of 4379370916201413
2012883rd of 433631422222161
20111242nd of 4Lost WC32522798211211
20101241st of 4Lost SB375232143121412
2009973rd of 436832444127125
20081241st of 4Won SB347223124202211
20071061st of 4Lost WC39326912491721
Steelers results under Mike Tomlin, as of Nov. 14, 2016. Via Pro-football-reference.com

It would be one thing if the loss to Dallas was an anomaly; a statistical outlier that threw off their numbers and skewed how the defense has been playing this season. But it’s not: This has become the norm. In their nine games this season, Pittsburgh has allowed 30 or more points three times, with two additional games in which the team allowed three touchdowns or more.

The Steelers have one game this season in which they’ve allowed fewer than 300 yards of offense, and that came last week, in a loss to Baltimore. Through nine games, Pittsburgh has given up 400 or more yards four times and 350-plus yards seven times.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The run defense has held their opponents to less than 90 yards five times, but in the other four games, they’ve allowed 125, 140, 127 and a ridiculous 222 to the Miami Dolphins. The passing yards allowed per game is 278.1, ranked 28th in the NFL. It’s bad everywhere.

Prescott finished Sunday’s game 22-for-32 for 319 yards and two scores, similar numbers that fellow rookie Carson Wentz had — 23-for-31 for 301 yards and two scores — when the Eagles blitzed the Steelers earlier in the year. It’s one thing to let Tom Brady torch you, but rookies? Everyone?

The Steelers should be able to right this ship next week against Cleveland. Probably. But at some point the Browns are going to win a game this year, and the way the Steelers are playing on defense, nothing — not even a game against the Browns — is guaranteed.

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