Steel­ers’ un­easy fate:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mike Jones Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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 puffy from the tears shed af­ter his fum­ble killed a po­ten­tial game-win­ning drive in Saints’ ter­ri­tory with 32 sec­onds left, stared at the floor 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 field goal at­tempt.

For the fourth time in five 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 field goals and finally po­si­tioned the Charg­ers for a win­ning kick, 33-30. The week af­ter that, the Steel­ers missed a po­ten­tial ty­ing field goal when kicker Chris Boswell slipped on a sloppy field 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 final 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 finally 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 first 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) finds 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 finish 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 offen­sive 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 reflected that. The offense 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 briefly de­railed Drew Brees and the Saints with re­lent­less pres­sure.

But they can’t figure 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, five 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 find a way. The Steel­ers re­main well-rounded and tal­ented, but they can’t figure out how to get the job done. As a re­sult, they could miss the post­sea­son for the first 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.

DER­ICK E. HINGLE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Wide re­ceiver JuJu Smith-Schus­ter fum­bles dur­ing the Steel­ers’ final drive.

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