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Contenders or Pretenders? Steelers Look Like the Latter in Loss to Saints

After establishing themselves as an AFC favorite, Pittsburgh now needs a win and some help to make it into the postseason after losing to New Orleans. Where did it go wrong?

Roosevelt Nix was a full yard short of converting the fourth down on a fake punt Sunday night in the Superdome, but he and his teammates didn’t bother to confirm the final spot. He broke into a celebration, high-stepping for 10 yards, going down to one knee and pointing the ball to signal first down along with teammates Cameron Sutton and Jordan Dangerfield. They continued to celebrate the non-conversion as the Saints special-teamers jogged off the field knowing they had gotten the stop.

It perfectly encapsulated the Steelers’ 2018 season. An average team posing as a good one, coming up just short.

Following the 31–28 loss to New Orleans, the Steelers now have to play their way into the postseason and get some help from the Cleveland Browns (oh, the drama if Todd Haley were still in Cleveland!). In an NFL where the league’s longest winning streak is four, belonging to the Tennessee Titans, the Saints probably are the favorites to win the Super Bowl, especially given they’ll be playing in the Superdome through the NFC slate. But how did the Steelers muck this up so tremendously?

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Let’s get this out of the way first: the failed fake punt probably didn’t lose the Steelers the game. Mike Tomlin, who’s dealt with his share of criticism and then some this season, coached a pretty good game. He opted against losing his 11th consecutive challenge on a first-half hit on Michael Thomas that could have been ruled a catch and fumble rather than the called incompletion. Together with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, he saw the Saints were vulnerable in the air coming out of halftime and didn’t call a run the entire third quarter while getting the lead. And he smartly—and quickly—deployed his final two timeouts when the Saints got inside the five-yard line with less than two minutes left in the game.

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As for the fake punt, here’s where you have to be honest with yourself. Just like Tomlin was honest in understanding his defense may not stop Brees at the goal line late, he was also aware that he’d rather not give the ball back to Brees at all. Of the Saints’ nine previous possessions, they had advanced into Steelers’ territory six times. It’s reasonable to assume that New Orleans, with four minutes left in the game and three timeouts plus the two-minute warning, would have made it to the Pittsburgh 46-yard line with a decent amount of time left on the clock even if the Steelers had punted.

No, what lost them the game was much more than a reasonable Tomlin gamble. It was a fourth-quarter Stevan Ridley fumble on third-and-two in field goal range that hurt the Steelers. It was a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble in field-goal range—with a chance to tie the game—in the closing seconds that dealt the fatal blow on Sunday. But even those mistakes didn’t lose the Steelers their season, as may very well be the case if the Browns can’t beat the Ravens next week.

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Remember the six turnovers in the tie to the Browns? What about getting into a 21-0 hole to Kansas City in Week 2? Going scoreless in the second half against the Ravens in Week 4? How about blowing halftime leads to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders in back-to-back-to-back weeks after going into that miserable stretch at 7-2-1?

The season has been marred by special teams errors, inopportune turnovers and, yes, some head-scratching mistakes by Tomlin. The drama around this team never seemed to stop all year, from Le’Veon Bell on a jetski to Ben Roethlisberger throwing his teammates under the bus… again. Until last week’s win against the Patriots, it seemed these Steelers were certainly posers. That, of course, was a trick. The Patriots have secured a first-round bye for a ninth-straight year and the Steelers now sit behind the Colts and Titans in the AFC wild-card standings.

So now the Steelers need to win next week and have Cleveland win to extend their season and prove they’re not pretenders. But that’s what they are—pretenders.