CINCINNATI -- This is it, right? There is no fixing it, not now, not in a matter of weeks or even months. The team the Pittsburgh Steelers put on the field Monday night looked old, slow and -- blasphemous as it might seem in the Iron City -- a little soft. Shut down and manhandled in a 20-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers did nothing to contradict the notion that their well-worn nucleus is in decline.
A "Monday Night Football" audience witnessed what close observers have suspected for some time: The Steelers' offense is punchless, and their defense, while still stout at times, no longer can be counted on to make big plays. These roster-wide symptoms have left the Steelers 0-2 for the first time in the seven-year Mike Tomlin era, and they have the potential to take this franchise to unprecedented places.
"If we don't shore something up," safety Ryan Clark said, "if we don't play better than we did tonight, we won't win a game. Period. Point blank."
We should acknowledge that the Bengals played a role in what we saw Monday night. They are a good team and could be the best the AFC North has to offer, but to me the Bengals' performance only accentuated the Steelers' step back.
We saw Bengals running back Giovani Bernard darting through the Steelers' defense, averaging 7.2 yards every time he touched the ball, while the Steelers' crew of grinders slogged to 44 yards on 16 carries.
Every time we looked up, it seemed, a Steelers ball carrier was being tackled at the line of scrimmage. Most egregious: Receiver Jerricho Cotchery was dragged down for a 5-yard loss on an ill-fated reverse. In all, the Steelers ran 16 plays in the first three quarters that netted 3 or fewer yards.
Meanwhile, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of the worst games of his career as a downfield passer. He overthrew nine passes, which, according to ESPN Stats & Information, was the highest total of his career. Was Roethlibserger that off? I don't think so. Watching with an amateur eye, it didn't look like he had much room to squeeze in the ball to receivers who got little separation.
Everything that I'm used to seeing from -- and thinking about -- the Steelers was missing Monday night. They didn't run well. None of their pass-catchers enhanced a play beyond what the scheme called for. Their defense still hasn't forced a turnover this season. Indeed, the Bengals averaged a modest 5.2 yards per play, but they managed to run 79 of them because the Steelers couldn't get them off the field.
"We weren't good enough tonight," said Tomlin, who lost for the first time as a head coach when taking the field with a losing record. "We have to accept that. But I emphasize tonight, like I just emphasized to our group, there's a certain amount that we need to swallow and rightfully so, but we've got to maintain our way."
I didn’t expect the Steelers to give up on their season after this loss, but other than Clark’s pointed statement, I found a staunch refusal to process the evidence that played out Monday night.
Roethlisberger, in fact, suggested that Steelers receivers lost balls in the lights at Paul Brown Stadium. As well, Tomlin and every player I listened to mentioned a debatable tripping call that negated a 33-yard pass to receiver Antonio Brown in the third quarter. The play was a significant turning point, but it wasn’t insurmountable. In fact, the Steelers were within seven points in this game until midway through the fourth quarter.
"That's part of the game," receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "Sometimes we connect. Sometimes we don't. But I think we still made enough plays. Some plays got called back, and sometimes we didn't execute to the best of our ability."
Again, the Steelers have 14 games left to play, and presumably plenty of time to change their identity. The return of tight end Heath Miller would help, and Tomlin promised that speedy receiver Markus Wheaton could get involved.
But a 30-year-old tight end and a rookie receiver aren't going to rescue this team. The Steelers' roster can't change substantively during the season. Perhaps they can find a way to grind out victories without splash plays on offense and regular turnovers on defense, but that path offers no margin for error.
My lasting impression of this team, at least for now, will be of the final play Monday night. With 16 seconds left, Roethlisberger completed an 18-yard pass over the middle to Brown. The Steelers rushed to the line of scrimmage, and Roethlisberger motioned as if he wanted to spike the ball for one final play.
Players lined up, the clock ticked down and center Fernando Velasco -- starting one week after the Steelers signed him to replace the injured Maurkice Pouncey -- snapped the ball with one second left.
Roethlisberger spiked it, looked up and saw no seconds remaining. He and the rest of the team were just a step slow. Is this it for this group of Steelers? Watching Monday night, it sure looked like it.