Steelers’ uneasy fate:
Fumbling another game away causes Pittsburgh to soul search as it tries to stay in contention.
NEW ORLEANS – JuJu Smith-Schuster sat at his locker, unable to move, some 15 to 20 minutes after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ gut-wrenching 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Dazed, devastated, disheveled, the second-year wide receiver remained in full uniform. His eyes, red and puffy from the tears shed after his fumble killed a potential game-winning drive in Saints’ territory with 32 seconds left, stared at the floor in front of him. But his mind kept replaying the fateful turnover. It came at the tail end of an 8-yard catch that had moved the ball to the 35-yard line, at the very least, potentially in range for at least a tying field goal attempt.
For the fourth time in five games, the Steelers experienced yet another unlucky bounce.
A month ago, an interception in the end zone sealed a 24-17 loss to Denver. The week after that, back-to-back penalties negated missed field goals and finally positioned the Chargers for a winning kick, 33-30. The week after that, the Steelers missed a potential tying field goal when kicker Chris Boswell slipped on a sloppy field in a 2421 loss at Oakland. Now, it had been Smith-Schuster’s turn for bad luck. He saw himself as a potential hero, gutting it through a groin injury, he recorded 11 catches for 115 yards and then on the final reception got hit by Sheldon Rankins, then Saints cornerback Eli Apple jarred the ball free, and Demario Davis recovered.
“For it to come down like this every week, it sucks,” he softly said after finally managing to collect himself, shower and dress. “This feeling sucks.”
Smith-Schuster’s teammates wouldn’t let him shoulder the blame for the loss.
“There were so many bad plays by each and every guy,” guard Ramon Foster said. And he was right. Two fourth-quarter fumbles (Smith-Schuster’s and one by running back Stevan Ridley), a failed fake punt (stopped a yard short), six penalties (some questionable, some blatant) for 79 yards … and those were the obvious plays.
And what made the Week 16 defeat most excruciating was the fact that because of those three other losses, they had no margin for error. They simply had to beat the Saints because with AFC North rival Baltimore having defeated the Chargers the day before, a Pittsburgh loss meant falling out of first place and out of the playoff picture.
So everything that couldn’t happen did happen. And now, at 8-6-1, Pittsburgh (which in midNovember boasted a 7-2-1 record) finds itself on the outside looking in and in need of a victory against Cincinnati in Week 17, plus help from Cleveland against Baltimore.
“This is the NFL. There are so many ups and downs in it,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “I wish the path was always easy, man. But we’ve got to finish it the right way. We had too many turnovers. It just sucks overall, I mean. This team works really hard, but we keep coming up a little bit short. Guys better come in on Wednesday ready to (expletive) work because we’ve got to play a good football game on Sunday.”
The Steelers really are at a loss for their struggles.
“You guys see us. We’re a pretty good team,” Foster said. “We’ve got a lot of offensive tools; we’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback that’s pretty good also.”
They all refuse to quit. The third quarter against the Saints reflected that. The offense kicked into high gear and Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for two touchdowns after the Saints took a 24-14 lead, thanks also to a defense that briefly derailed Drew Brees and the Saints with relentless pressure.
But they can’t figure out why the crippling errors and lastsecond collapses keep occurring.
Roethlisberger said, “You can be as skillful as you want ... but there is still an element of luck to winning football. A guy on the line, not on the line. There is still a small element of luck involved. It’s just football.”
Maybe he’s right to a degree. Last year, five of the Steelers’ victories were determined by one possession. Now, this team has found itself on the wrong end of those kinds of contests. But the great teams find a way. The Steelers remain well-rounded and talented, but they can’t figure out how to get the job done. As a result, they could miss the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Coach Mike Tomlin, who has job security questions and rumors swirling about him despite having never had a losing record in 12 seasons, took the blame for the failed fake punt. It gave the Saints the ball at the Pittsburgh 46 with 4:11 left, setting up New Orleans for the touchdown that resulted in the determining score of 31-28. He wanted to remain aggressive, he said, and maintain possession.
“We made the bed and we’ll lay in it and I expect us to lay in it very well and perform,” Tomlin said. “We’ll control everything that we can control, and that’s our preparation and play next week. All other things out of our control, we won’t worry much about. Like everyone else, we’ve had 15 opportunities to this point. We won’t lament about our position. We’ll simply control the things that are in front of us, and that’s next week’s preparation.”
The problem is, that still might not be enough. Incoming Cincinnati also is reeling, having lost six of its last seven. But even if the Steelers win, a sickening end could still await them.
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbles during the Steelers’ final drive.