Steelers looked ahead, now have long wait for 2018 season

By The Sports Xchange  |  Jan. 15, 2018 at 11:27 PM
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The Pittsburgh Steelers were looking past the Jacksonville Jaguars and ahead to the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Now they have all offseason to look ahead to the 2018 season.

Looking back, it's inexplicable how Steelers players felt the freedom to openly talk about a rematch with the Patriots when a team like the Jaguars was coming to town for a playoff game.

The Steelers lost to the Jaguars by 21 points during the regular season. That should have been enough reason for the players to keep their mouths shut before the game. But they talked about playing the Patriots again and gave the Jaguars even more motivation.

Changes are coming to the Steelers as a result. The makeup of this roster won't be the same next season. It never is.

The coaching staff will change, too. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley almost assuredly won't be back. After the defense gave up 45 points changes could be coming there as well.

The Jaguars managed only 10 points a week earlier in a wild-card victory against Buffalo. But they controlled the game from the outset with their running and short passing game. The Jaguars had receivers running wide open all over the field, the result of mental lapses and communication errors.

"Forty-five points is not acceptable at all," defensive end and team captain Cameron Heyward said. "We should take heat for it. As a leader for this defense that's not supposed to be happening. It's unacceptable."

On a third-and-5 late in the fourth quarter, Jaguars quarterback Blake Borltes threw a swing pass to running back T.J. Yeldon, who ran 40 yards to set up another Jaguars touchdown. If the Steelers had gotten a stop there they would have had a chance to tie the score.

"Someone was supposed to be in the flat and wasn't there," inside linebacker Sean Spence said.

Something similar happened on the first drive of the game when Bortles threw a short pass in the flat to tight end Ben Koyack, who gained 21 yards without a Steelers defender close to him.

"Miscommunication," Spence said. "We were in one defense when we were really in another. You can't do those things in playoff football, man."

The Steelers finished the regular season 13-3, but they finished the season with the appearances of a team in disarray on and off the field.

This isn't a job for head coach Mike Tomlin to rectify. It was Tomlin who first brought up the Patriots Nov. 26 in an interview with NBC's Tony Dungy. That set the stage for his players to feel the freedom to openly talk about them, too.

Team president Art Rooney II is the only person who can rectify this situation. He has to make it clear such behavior won't be tolerated in the future. The first person he should address is Tomlin.

--Defensive captain Cameron Heyward said Monday the poor performance from the defense is all on the players. As head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler come under fire for the Steelers allowing 45 points, Heyward placed all the blame on the players who were on the field.

"It's not the scheme," Heyward said. "I think we had a great game plan, but execution has to be part of the situation. When you don't execute on your assignments. ... it doesn't matter what you play. You're sacrificing the team's success over your own. That's a critical thing we have to learn from as a group. If one guy doesn't do his job, then you're hurting the other 10 guys. I'm not trying to point one guy out. We all have to get better from this. It falls a lot on me, being the defensive leader. We have to grow."

With five starters with two years of experience or fewer, the Steelers fielded a young defense. Heyward said their inexperience can't affect the team's performance again next season.

"Sometimes you have to execute where the plays allow you to," Heyward said. "Sometimes you think you're going to win this way. Instead of being in your gap you think you can go make a play. And sometimes guys try to make too many plays. It sucks sometimes because I know these guys can make the plays. We have to execute as a defense. That happens in this game. It comes with younger guys. We have to learn from that. We have to be a complete unit that understands it's one agenda. Everyone has to be accountable for their gaps. Everyone has to be accountable for run and pass. I look forward to righting that wrong. I know we can't do it this instant. But we have a whole offseason to think about it."

--Receiver Martavis Bryant demanded a trade in October, but he has since changed his mind. He'd like to return for the final season of his rookie contract.

"I just want to bring another trophy here," Bryant said Monday. "I just want to win. Love the guys here, love the coaches. I don't feel like starting that chemistry all over again by going to another team."

Bryant finished the regular season with 50 receptions for 603 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass in the 45-42 playoff loss to the Jaguars Sunday.

"Each day I just came to work," he said. "I know I had a couple of distractions, but at the end of the distractions I kept working and things started to get better toward the end."

The only offensive starter with an uncertain status next season is running back Le'Veon Bell, who could get the franchise tag again.

REPORT CARD VS. JAGUARS

--PASSING OFFENSE: C - Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards - the second-most passing yards in NFL postseason history - and five touchdowns, but two costly turnovers had the veteran quarterback taking the blame for the 45-42 loss to the Jaguars. Roethlisberger's first-quarter interception at the Steelers' 18-yard line set up the Jaguars' second touchdown of the game and gave them a 14-0 lead. His fumble late in the second quarter was scooped up by linebacker Telvin Smith and returned for a touchdown and a 28-7 lead. Roethlisberger kept the Steelers in the game by throwing to Antonio Brown and Vance McDonald, but the Steelers could never get a lead after those early miscues.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: C - The Steelers fell behind early and never could establish the running game. They had just 18 carries for 83 yards. Le'Veon Bell had 16 carries for 67 yards. Bell is an All-Pro, but the Steelers didn't get him in position to make meaningful plays. Bell had a chance to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 21 in the first quarter, but he was tackled for a four-yard loss. It was that kind of day for the Steelers offense.

--PASS DEFENSE: F - The Jaguars had receivers running wide open through the Steelers' secondary all day long. Blake Bortles passed for 214 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. The Steelers, who led the NFL in sacks during the regular season, had zero Sunday. The lack of a pass rush hurt because the secondary had problems covering in the back end. The Steelers have invested heavily in their secondary the past few years, but the results have been inconsistent.

--RUSH DEFENSE: F - The Steelers allowed the Jaguars to rush for 164 yards and in doing so allowed Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to control the game with his excellent play-calling. The Steelers knew the key to beating the Jaguars was stopping the run, and they failed miserably. The incredibly poor performance should have the front office contemplating major changes over the offseason.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: F - Much like the regular season, the Steelers' special teams didn't do very much to impact the game. Robert Golden deflected a punt in the second half, which gave the Steelers the ball in Jacksonville territory with a chance to tie the score. But that was about it. Chris Boswell didn't perform very well on his kickoffs and P Jordan Berry failed to pin the Jaguars deep when he had a chance.

--COACHING: F - Head coach Mike Tomlin set the tone for the Steelers overlooking the Jaguars when he idiotically started talking about the Steelers and Patriots likely meeting in the AFC Championship Game. That was on Nov. 26. Is it any wonder his players felt free to talk about the Patriots days before playing the Jaguars? Before becoming the Steelers' head coach, Tomlin spent his previous years in the league coaching defensive backs, but his expertise in that area hasn't rubbed off on his players. The Steelers' secondary struggled mightily against the Jaguars.

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