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More than bad JuJu to blame

PITTSBURGH–JuJu Smith-Schuster said he was the reason the Steelers lost last Sunday’s game in New Orleans.

His sentiments were noble, but incorrect.

Make no mistake, Smith-Schuster’s late-game fumble played a key role. But it wasn’t the only reason the Steelers are in a scramble to win the AFC North and need help to achieve that goal.

For example:

n Stevan Ridley also fumbled at a key juncture. The Saints are very good at jarring the ball loose, and the Steelers should have been aware and extra cautious about protecting the ball. L.J. Fort blocked the Saints’ subsequent field goal attempt, but the loss of possession cost the Steelers a chance to put more points on the board.

n The defense allowed the Saints to convert a third-and-20 and keep a possession going. They made it with an extra five yards to spare, and that gain contributed to the winning touchdown. Third-and-20 should require something short of a miracle to convert. The Steelers defense just isn’t good enough, and that’s an area that has to be addressed in the off-season.

n Mike Tomlin misread the risk/reward ratio and called for a fake punt that gave the Saints the ball at the Steelers’ 46. The Steelers led by four points at the time. Yes, an 11-point gap with about four minutes to go would have likely put the Saints away.

But failing there gave Drew Brees the ball on a short field. He led the Saints on what proved to be the winning touchdown drive and took nearly three minutes off the clock while forcing the Steelers to spend their last time outs. Tomlin said he was being aggressive, but it wasn’t worth the gamble. Not then, not there.

Smith-Schuster’s fumble came after all those things happened, so it may have been the mistake most fresh in everyone’s mind.

But losing that game was a team effort, as it usually is.

And now instead of finishing the season in cruise control, the Steelers are not only in a fight to make the playoffs. They’re also rooting for the Cleveland Browns to help them.

Change of fortune

You don’t always think of the NFL season as being excessively long.

It certainly isn’t lengthy in the sense that baseball season is, starting in the last week of March with the possibility of extending into the first week of November.

But the course of 16 games in 17 weeks can take some varied paths. Look no further than Baltimore, where coach John Harbaugh was just told he will return next season.

It wasn’t that long ago when Harbaugh was on everyone’s list to get fired the day after the season ended.

Then the Ravens started winning, and now they’re in position to overtake the Steelers for the division title. If the Ravens beat Cleveland on Sunday, they’re in. Doesn’t matter what the Steelers do if the Ravens take care of their own business.

So Harbaugh, thought to be hanging by a thread, is now in solid. It’s an impatient world, but sometimes it’s better to wait.

One way or another

Mark Kaboly, who covers the Steelers for The Athletic, reviewed all the games this season and came to an interesting conclusion about how things can unfold in the NFL.

By his count, the Steelers are four plays away from having a 6-9 record at this point. They’re also five plays away from being 13-2, according to Kaboly’s calculations.

New generation

Those of us in the bifocals set don’t need another reason to feel old, but consider this:

The latest edition of the annual Pirates’ alumni newsletter reports that both Jay Bell and Orlando Merced are grandfathers.

John Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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