Becker: Steelers needs to sort out off-the-field drama for on-the-field success
Courtney Becker | Monday, September 24, 2018
Have you been watching this season’s hottest new drama?
It really has it all — infighting, shocking twists, complete breakdowns, temper tantrums, betrayals, the list goes on. It’s entertaining, thrilling or infuriating depending on your point of view.
It’s called “The Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Instead of starting 2-0 and leading the AFC North, as predicted, the Steelers are 0-1-1 after tying the Cleveland Browns on the road and losing to the Kansas City Chiefs at home. They’re sitting at the bottom of a weak division, stars are holding out or skipping practices and players are publicly calling each other out in the press.
Let’s recap, shall we?
— Contract negotiations with running back Le’Veon Bell went nowhere over the summer (again), and he decided to hold out into the season rather than playing on the franchise tag for a second-straight year. He missed the team’s first two games and will miss their third, and now the Steelers are opening up trade discussions for him.
— Members of the Steelers publicly criticized Bell’s decision, including offensive linemen David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster, leading to a Twitter frenzy over whether or not that was appropriate. (It wasn’t.)
— The Steelers tied a division opponent that had lost every game since Dec. 24, 2016. Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions to go along with his two lost fumbles, the Steelers defense blew the 14-point lead they had heading into the fourth quarter and the offense couldn’t capitalize on multiple opportunities to win it in overtime, including a missed field goal.
— About that missed field goal — Pittsburgh’s normally excellent kicker Chris Boswell (my personal favorite of the team’s “Killer B’s”) has already missed his only two field goal attempts and is 6-of-7 on extra point attempts so far this season, leading to calls from some fans for the Steelers to cut him.
— The defense played abysmally against the Chiefs, as Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes II threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five). The offense got off to a slow start, but with Roethlisberger’s eventual 452 yards, zero interceptions and four total touchdowns, there is no excuse for a 42-37 loss.
— Antonio Brown has been even more dramatic than usual. He got into a fight with new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner on the sideline, he skipped practice the day after the Chiefs loss and he has already had to apologize twice for Twitter gaffes in which he threatened a reporter and dared the Steelers to trade him.
So yes, the Buffalo Bills might have had a starter retire during halftime of the team’s second game, but even with that, nothing in the NFL rivals the absolute fiasco that has been the Pittsburgh Steelers this season.
The Steelers need to turn this season around fast, and not just with a decisive win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night. In addition to settling down on the field, limiting offensive turnovers and hopefully playing some defense, the players need to drop the behind-the-scenes drama.
Head coach Mike Tomlin has always run a pretty loose operation in terms of his team’s off-the-field conduct, but he needs to start stepping up. The distractions have reached an absurd rate, and it’s no longer enough to “talk to” Antonio Brown about his social media use. This is not the first time Brown’s social media (and other) antics have hurt and distracted the team, so if Tomlin needs to tell him to get off Twitter for a few weeks, he should do so. Brown is extremely passionate, which makes him a great football player, but he needs to learn to save it for the field.
The Steelers also must put Bell in their rearview mirror. His replacement, James Conner, has been playing decently, but he only got eight carries against the Chiefs, and with a 0-1-1 record there is absolutely no pressure on Bell to come back anytime soon for fear of his value diminishing. I hate to see it, but Bell’s done with Pittsburgh and it’s time for the Steelers to move on from and stop talking about him.
Finally, there’s no concrete solution for this problem, but the Killer B’s need to stop killing themselves. Roethlisberger struggles on the road just about every season, but his turnover rate typically correlates with the Steelers’ losses (just look at their 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, in which Roethlisberger threw five interceptions). He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league when he shows up, but “Road Ben” is a major concern for Pittsburgh. And while last season Boswell kicked multiple game-winning field goals as time expired, he hasn’t looked anything like himself this year. Calls to cut him are absurd, but the Wizard of Boz needs to get his magic back as quickly as possible to prove his skeptics wrong.
The beginning of this season has generated plenty of disastrous storylines to entertain (or exasperate) fans. I, for one, am ready for the Steelers’ redemption arc.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.