It seems like years ago since the Steelers were 11-0 and on top of the NFL. Within three games, the Steelers are the number three seed in the AFC behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills.
As most other teams are trending up, the Steelers are spiraling into a deep abyss. Even the Cleveland freakin’ Browns are one game out of the division lead and have a chance to win the AFC North from the Steelers in week 17.
How the tables have turned.
Things are an absolute mess in Pittsburgh right now. I have some thoughts as we try and sort out what has transpired in recent weeks. My first thought, however, is going to address the elephant in the room.
JuJu Dancing on the Logo Needs to End
Hear me out, people. I have no problem with JuJu Smith-Schuster dancing on TikTok. He’s got a brand to hold up, and that’s his right when he’s not playing in a game. What he needs to do is stop dancing on the logo.
Listen, it’s harmless fun. He doesn’t mean any disrespect by it. But at the end of the day, the Steelers are in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Even if it isn’t really a big deal that he’s dancing at mid-field on the opponent’s logo, it’s a topic that is being discussed as much as the team’s struggles. That’s a problem.
The Bills used it as motivation last week. Josh Allen was caught on a mic telling his players to “let them do the dancing,” referring to JuJu’s pregame antics.
Smith-Schuster’s fumble on the big hit by Von Bell was immediately attributed to “revenge for dancing on the logo” by everyone on Twitter and in the media.
Even an NHL team started making jokes.
It truly is harmless fun for a large TikTok audience to enjoy. But it’s making too many headlines in the middle of a spiraling season that has the makings of a one-and-done in the playoffs. And for that reason, it’s time for JuJu to stop dancing on the logo. Let him continue to do his dances and uphold his brand. But there needs to be an inside reprimand to let him know that dancing on the opposing logo needs to stop.
What to Make of Benny Snell’s Solid Game
With James Conner out due to injury, Benny Snell Jr. got to see most of the rushing duties.
Heading into the game, Snell was averaging 3.3 yards per carry. On Monday night, Snell gained 84 yards on the ground by way of 18 carries. He scored his fourth touchdown of the season on a one-yard run late in the fourth quarter. Snell added 23 yards receiving to crest 100 all-purpose yards on the evening.
It was very refreshing to see some semblance of a run game out of the Steelers. Even though it still resulted in a loss, Snell looked capable of handling lead duties. This did come against a very depleted Cincinnati Bengals squad that already wasn’t good at full strength. That must be considered.
But just giving Snell some confidence is a big boost and should be ridden into next weekend’s game against Indianapolis regardless of Conner’s status.
If Monday is a statement game for Snell, then ride it. There seems to be virtually no chance that Conner returns to Pittsburgh next season, so if the transition needs to begin now, let it happen.
Ride Snell next week against a much better Colts defense and see if this game can make the offense more dynamic. In a game full of negatives, this is one ray of light that could come out of it.
Just to take some of the onus of the 38-year old quarterback coming off of major elbow surgery, who has been tasked to throw the ball 45-plus times a game, is very important late in the year.
Defense Showing Signs Similar to Late Last Season
It’s not their fault that they’re on the field entirely too much, just like it wasn’t last season. You could have 11 Hall of Famers on defense. If the offense goes three and out on virtually all of their possessions, the defense is going to wear down. It certainly seems that’s becoming the trend again.
Late last season, the Steelers’ unprecedented run with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges was cut short because the defense was spending 35-40 minutes a game on the field and eventually just wore down. This offense is starting to stay on the field less and less. In turn, the elite defensive group is spending entirely too much time on the field taking a beating, and it’s wearing them down.
Heading into the game, the Steelers were allowing just a hair over 100 yards per game on the ground to teams, sixth-best in the NFL. They gave up 152 yards rushing to the three-win Bengals. This isn’t the Lamar Jackson-led rushing attack of the Ravens. They weren’t trying to contain Derrick Henry. Pittsburgh simply got gashed on the ground by Giovani Bernard, Ryan Finley, and, to a lesser extent, Samaje Perine.
Let’s also not forget this team is without Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, and Tyler Boyd exited very early with an injury.
That feels largely like the product of a tired unit. Let’s not forget they’re thinner than a razor blade at linebacker right now, which certainly doesn’t help. Injuries and fatigue will eventually get to you. Teams can absorb injuries. Once you start seeing them in bunches at one positional unit, things are going to get ugly very quickly.
Good For Diontae Johnson for Stepping Up
It’s been a disastrous few weeks for Diontae Johnson. He’s been plagued by drops and even got benched for most of the first half last weekend against Buffalo. On Monday, Johnson stepped up and answered the call in a pretty big way.
While he didn’t have a ton of yards - 59 on eight receptions - he did have the lone receiving touchdown of the night on a pretty 23-yard toss from Ben Roethlisberger. Johnson was targeted 13 times showing that Roethlisberger hasn’t lost trust in him yet. That’s important. Almost as important as the run game looking half decent.
When he’s on, Johnson is the most lethal weapon on the Steelers offense. He’s quick and shifty and makes plays with the ball in his hands. He’s as dangerous as they come, and that’s something Pittsburgh desperately lacks right now.
Continuing to have Roethlisberger and the coaching staff’s trust is huge. They also don’t have much choice right now.
After three losses, it’s evident that they don’t believe enough in James Washington or Ray-Ray McCloud because they don’t see the field much. Personally, I wouldn’t mind giving them both a chance just as a spark to the offense. But that leaves fewer snaps for JuJu and Chase Claypool.
However, I digress.
Rebuild that trust with Johnson. It’s evident the Steelers aren’t gonna throw the deep ball much, or even well, for that matter. Johnson getting his confidence back and being the weapon he can be is so important if Pittsburgh is going to get back on track offensively in time for the postseason.
Taking Care of Business Must Be Top Priority Next Week
The Steelers need a win in the worst way Sunday afternoon. That or a Browns loss would clinch the AFC North ahead of week 17, assuring the Browns don’t get the opportunity to put a final dagger in the season.
Of course, regardless, the Steelers clinched a playoff spot. But losing such an emotional game and entering the playoffs on a five-game losing streak would be enough to tell the Steelers to not even show up for their wild card weekend game.
Cleveland has the New York Jets next week. While they’re high (or low?) coming off of their first win of the season against the Rams, they almost certainly are asking the Browns to stomp all over them next week. Their ‘Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes’ odds took a hit with that win, and they can’t afford anymore blows to that. The Browns will win in week 16. That makes the Steelers-Colts game one of the biggest of the season.
What seemed like a mere formality after 12 weeks is seemingly gone. Truthfully, the Browns might be the favorite to win the AFC North considering the trends of each team.
Since the Steelers mangled any shot they had at getting the bye in round one, using week 17 as a “bye” for guys like Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and others could be huge. Nothing is wrong with a mental reset heading into the playoffs on a free fall.
Of course, the Browns haven’t really had their “uh-huh, there is the Browns” moment yet this season. Losing to the Jets with a chance at the AFC North on the line, who might literally lay down on the field and let the Browns score at will, would be quite Browns.
Hopefully, next week, we can discuss a more positive outcome and take bets on the total passing yards Mason Rudolph will have in week 17.