Mehno: There’s now cause for concern for Steelers
PITTSBURGH — How did it all go so bad so fast?
How did the Steelers turn a 23-7 lead into a last-second 33-30 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday night?
How did they manage to play an exceptional first half, then do almost nothing right in the second half?
All valid questions, and there isn’t a lot of time to figure out the answers.
The bottom line isn’t very good, because there are ramifications beyond Sunday’s outcome.
The Steelers no longer are in sole control of their postseason fate. The Baltimore Ravens won their third consecutive game earlier on Sunday, so they’re just a half game behind the Steelers in the AFC North. That season-opening tie in Cleveland could be a factor as the numbers sort themselves out over this final month.
This week they make a long trip to Oakland to play a Raiders team that is one of the NFL’s worst. But after that, it’s a home date with New England and a trip to New Orleans.
Suddenly, the playoffs are not a matter of where the Steelers might play but rather “if” they’ll be in the postseason.
On top of all that, the injury report was discouraging as well. James Conner, the team’s only valid running back, limped off the field with an injury to his right leg.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Conner had a contusion. It’s too early to offer any kind of prognosis.
Receiver and return specialist Ryan Switzer was blasted in a penalized helmet-to-helmet hit and was placed in concussion protocol.
Receiver Justin Hunter was also knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury sustained when a possible touchdown pass sailed inches beyond his hands.
“Disappointing game in a lot of ways,” Tomlin said. “First and foremost is the result.”
Complaining about officials’ calls is almost always loser talk, but the Steelers were robbed on two calls.
Chargers right tackle Sam Teve jumped the snap on a play, but nobody threw a flag. The play became a 46-yard touchdown pass that stood despite the blatant offsides violation that went unpenalized.
That sort of issue is not subject to a replay review, so Tomlin’s protests didn’t go any further than his sideline conversations with the officials.
“No explanation other than they missed it,” Tomlin said. “It’s unfortunate.”
The Chargers’ Justin Jackson returned a punt for a 72-yard touchdown. It should have been negated by a penalty for an illegal block, but that foul was also unnoticed.
Those calls alone didn’t decide the game. The Steelers fell apart in the second half after playing well in the first 30 minutes. Not much worked on offense, and the defense was giving up chunks of yardage.
“We didn’t get the job done today,” Antonio Brown said. “It was lack of execution.”
The game ended in a fitting manner. Rookie Mike Badgley kicked a game-winning 29-yard field goal on his third attempt. Not his third attempt of the game, but rather his third in one sequence.
The Steelers jumped offside on three straight snaps, the last two by Artie Burns. The first offense was by Joe Haden.
“Bad loss,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “You can’t play bad football against a good football team.”
Roethlisberger said there’s no reason for panic. Maybe he’s right.
But concern? It would be foolish not to feel that after what happened on Sunday night.
John Mehno can be reached at email@example.com.