The Steelers' 34-24 loss to the Chargers clearly shows that, though this defeat makes sense in Pittsburgh's mind-boggling season. The Steelers can beat the top teams in the NFL, and they can lose to the worst ones. Pittsburgh can take down the defending Super Bowl champion Giants one week and then lose at the last-place Browns. The Steelers can upset the defending AFC North champion Ravens and then get punched in the face (those are Ryan Clark's words) by the lowly Chargers.
It comes down to a lack of focus, a lack of energy and a lack of urgency. Time for coach Mike Tomlin to get Dr. Phil on the phone before it's too late. The Steelers play down to their level of competition and anyone who doesn't believe that should put on the tape of the Steelers' losses to Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Diego.
The players called the loss frustrating and humbling. What no one wanted to say was how disturbing this lack of consistency has become. The Steelers came out flat against a team that hadn't beaten anyone else except the Chiefs since Week 2 and Roethlisberger looked like a quarterback who last played four weeks ago. It's disappointing when an unnerving loss like this happens in September. It becomes a red flag when it happens in a playoff race in December.
"We coached poorly today and we played poorly today," Tomlin said. "It's a shame given the opportunity that was in front of us, but it is what it is. Hopefully, we can make corrections and move forward because, regardless of what happens in other stadiums, if we play the way we played today, it does not matter."
The only thing that went right for the Steelers happened in other stadiums. The Ravens and Bengals both lost, which meant the Steelers didn't lose any ground. Pittsburgh (7-6) remains tied with Cincinnati (7-6) for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. The Steelers also stayed two games back of the AFC North-leading Ravens (9-4), although there's only a slim shot at the division title with three games remaining. Pittsburgh closes the season by playing at Dallas before home games against Cincinnati and Cleveland.
Being lucky that the Ravens and Bengals lost doesn't overshadow the fact the Steelers looked far from a playoff team at home against a crumbling one. Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown dropped long passes downfield when the game was still close. The blocking was so poor that Roethlisberger scrambled frequently and nearly ended the game as his team's leading rusher (his 31 yards were just one shy of Jonathan Dwyer's total). And Roethlisberger's two turnovers in the second half (a fumble on a lateral and a fourth-quarter interception) led to touchdowns and sealed the loss.
It was a total team meltdown. Nickelback Curtis Brown was so bad on third downs that he was benched for Josh Victorian, a practice squad player just promoted this week. The special teams also allowed the Chargers to convert a fourth-and-2 on a fake punt.
How can the Steelers win in Baltimore with a third-string quarterback and lose at home with the franchise's leading passer to a last-place team?
"I have no clue," said Roethlisberger, who was 22-of-42 for 285 yards in his first game back since injuring his rib and shoulder on Nov. 12. "If I knew, I don't think that we would do it anymore. We just have to play better."
The scary part is that the Steelers aren't surprised that they lost to the Chargers, a team that had to address rumors all week that their coach and general manager are about to get fired. In fact, Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel warned teammates before the game, "If we don't come out and play, this team can beat us."
Keisel said he spoke out for two reasons: He didn't feel any urgency from the team and he knew how the Steelers have played this season against struggling teams.
"I wanted us to be ready to play and we weren't," Keisel said. "You got to be ready to play regardless of who you're playing. Hopefully guys start to realize that. We got to play better especially coming down these final games or we're going to be watching [the playoffs]."
Mike Tomlin's Steelers have lost to the Raiders (3-10), Titans (4-9), Browns (5-8) and Chargers (5-8).
Keisel's speech obviously provided no inspiration. The return of Roethlisberger didn't, either. Roethlisberger was ready to come back, showing he can make all of the throws and can take hits. He was just never in sync with his teammates, completing only nine of his first 20 passes for 105 yards.
In the first half, Roethlisberger was let down by his receivers and offensive line. In the second half, Roethlisberger made two costly mistakes deep in his own territory. He threw a pass into the back of tight end David Paulson that ricocheted into the end zone and was recovered by the Chargers for a touchdown. He then was picked off when he tried to force a pass over the middle, a turnover that the Chargers converted into a touchdown for a 34-10 lead.
"I didn't make plays," Roethlisberger said. "I didn't get it to the receivers or the right guy. I didn't give them a good ball to run or catch with."
In Pittsburgh's first seven drives, the Steelers punted six times and failed to convert a fourth-and-1. The longest drive in that opening stretch was 28 yards.
"We just keep tripping over our own feet," Wallace said. "We can't get out of our own way. If we eliminate our mistakes, we'll be a much better football team."
That's easier said than done when it comes to Wallace. Even though he scored two touchdowns -- his first since Nov. 12, the last time Roethlisberger played -- Wallace let a deep pass go through his hands with no one between him and the end zone. That happened in the second quarter when the Chargers were ahead 3-0. The sellout crowd at Heinz Field let Wallace know their level of dissatisfaction with him this year.
"The way we played, we deserved to be booed," Wallace said.
The only time the crowd cheered in the second half was when the scoreboard showed that the Ravens and Bengals were losing. Baltimore fell in overtime and Cincinnati lost in the final seconds. The difference with the Steelers is they were never in this game.
"You can't clap when you see Cincinnati and Baltimore losing on the scoreboard when you play worse than both of those teams," Clark said. "We're not excited about that. The thing that it does give us is an opportunity to continue playing for the playoffs."
The Steelers say they're focused on making the playoffs. But, as those who have watched the Steelers know, focus hasn't been this team's strong suit.