By David Todd
The Steelers lost their fourth game 34-27 to the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium in London, England on Sunday, dropping their record to 0-4 for the first time since 1968. The Steelers again found themselves in an early hole from which they never recovered, playing from behind the whole game for the second week in a row. The defense was poor, missing a ton of tackles and giving up three plays of 50+ yards, two of which went for scores. It was by far their worst effort of the season on that side of the ball. The offense again showed some improvement and second round draft pick Le’Veon Bell looked good in his professional debut. But another poor performance by the offensive line and Mike Adams in particular hindered the offensive attack and the Steelers again lost the turnover battle, 2-0. On the year they have turned it over 11 times and, remarkably, continue to be the only team in the NFL to not force even one. Mike Tomlin sounded agitated in his postgame press conference and intimated there could be changes in store after the bye week this week. At 0-4 one would expect nothing less.
Ramon Foster left the game in the first half with a chest/pectoral injury, briefly returned, then was ruled out for the game. Kelvin Beachum replaced him at left guard. I’m sure the team has its fingers crossed that it’s not a torn pectoral muscle as that would likely require surgery. The last thing the Steelers need is to lose another member of an already short-handed O-line. Ben Roethlisberger suffered a hand injury when he and a Vikings players hit hands as he was releasing a throw on the Steelers last drive, but he was able to finish the game. Safety Da’mon Cromartie-Smith suffered a quad strain and linebacker Kion Wilson had a hamstring injury. Rookie wide Markus Wheaton dislocated or broke his pinkie but was able to return.
*Le’Veon Bell made his professional debut Sunday. File away that it was at Wembley in London, England as the answer to a good trivia question a few years down the road. He touched the ball 20 times, gaining 57 yards on 16 carries and adding four catches for 27 more. He also scored two touchdowns, one early on an 8-yard run where he bounced outside and outran everyone to the pylon, flashing all the talent that tantalized the Steelers during his limited work in training camp. There’s no question he will be The Man from here on out if he remains healthy.
*Despite turning it over two more times Ben Roethlisberger again almost single-handedly kept the Steelers in this one. He finished the day 36/51 (including three spikes to stop the clock) for 383 yards and a 48-yard pass interference call, but again was constantly under pressure, getting sacked five times. There is no question he occasionally holds the ball to long, but he repeatedly extended plays and kept drives alive with this pump-faking and scrambling ability. The Steelers were solid on third down, converting eight of 15 opportunities.
*Coming off a nine catch game for a career-high 196 yards, Antonio Brown caught a career-high 12 balls on just 13 targets for 88 yards and also set up the Steelers second touchdown by drawing a 48-yard pass interference call. Eight of Brown’s catches went for first downs and four were third down conversions.
*It’s hard to underestimate the value of a healthy Heath Miller to this offensive. After putting up 19 points in the first two games, the Steelers have put up 50 with Heath back. Sunday he caught 6 balls for 70 yards and provided the sealing block on the edge on Le’Veon Bell’s first touchdown run.
*The fact that Mike Adams played the entire game at left tackle speaks volumes as to how little depth the Steelers have on the offensive line. Adams was awful, giving up 2.5 sacks, 2 tackles-for-loss and a pass defensed to Jared Allen who created problems all game. The Steelers were forced to give Adams help as the game went on. I would be surprised if Adams is the team’s starting left tackle when they come out of the bye week.
*Ben Roethlisberger turned it over two more times. While overall Ben was the reason the Steelers stayed in this game, the turnovers continue to be a killer. On the last drive he got the Steelers in scoring position, but he absolutely cannot take a sack/fumble to end the game. He has to get the ball out and give the Steelers one more opportunity to tie it up.
*The Steelers were 3/6 inside the red zone and 2/4 inside the Vikings ten-yard line. They left a lot of points on the field. Had they converted an earlier opportunity they would have only needed a field goal to tie in the waning seconds.
*The Steelers again didn’t look fully in-synch or efficient when trying to run the hurry-up offense. Late in the third quarter they were huddling, down 17. They had to know they had only a limited number of possessions left, but there was no sense of urgency. On the final drive Ben chose to spike the ball on three different occasions to stop the clock. This didn’t come back to hurt them, but once the team has reached the line of scrimmage, giving away a down to stop the clock is a very risky strategy. Ben has to have more plays called in the huddle or be able to make calls at the LOS. They did not look well-prepared to deal with the situation and the finer details of clock management. Again.
*Cam Heyward batted down a pass? LaMarr Woodley had a strip-sack? The defense got a late stop to get the ball back with 1:43 to go? There was very little good on the defensive side of the ball, but those were three positives.
*Dick LeBeau’s defense has three basic principals.
1.) Stop the run. The Vikings ran for 145 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per play with almost all the damage being done by Adrian Peterson. The Steelers knew the task at hand beforehand and they didn’t get it done. They are now giving up a average of 122.8 yards/game, 29th in the NFL.
2.) Tackle the catch. The Steelers corners generally play soft rather than press coverage. On the Vikings second possession they had a 3rd-and-4 from their own 30 yard line. Cortez Allen, making his first start since being injured in the opener, played 8-10 yards off Greg Jennings, seemingly having no idea of down and distance. Jennings caught a six-yard hitch just past the sticks and Allen, William Gay and eventually Troy Polamalu missed tackles and Jennings turned it in to a 70-yard touchdown. The Steeler tackling was terrible throughout and I wouldn’t be surprised if the final tally of missed tackles is north of 20.
3.) Don’t give up the big play. The Steelers allowed a 70-yard touchdown catch, a 60-yard touchdown run and a 51-yard completion that led to another score. According to my Terrible Podcast co-host Dave Bryan and Pro Football Focus, that is the first time the Steelers have allowed three plays of 50+ since 1999.
*No turnovers. Four games, no turnovers. The Steelers were unlucky on the Woodley strip-sack, but the total lack of splash plays is astounding.
*The linebackers. Vince Williams was not good. The Steelers got no production or pressure out of the Jarvis Jones/Jason Worilds combo on the right side and they finished with one tackle between them and Lawrence Timmons has been invisible the last couple weeks despite leading the team with six tackles on Sunday. The linebackers are designed to be the playmakers in the Steelers defense. They weren’t on Sunday.
*Cortez Allen had a tough return to the lineup missing multiple tackles and getting beat in man coverage for a 16-yard TD late in the third quarter. There was some hope that Allen’s return to the lineup would provide a lift similar to the end of last season when he had a hand if five turnovers the last two weeks. Instead, Allen was a liability.
*Last week I was critical of Zoltan Mesko. Well dial that one up again. Mesko punted four times this week. First from his own 37 and he got off only a 38 yard boot. Next, from the Vikings 48, he forced a fair catch at the 15 which was solid. Then, early in the second quarter punting from the Steelers 30, he got off only a 30-yarder to the Vikings 40. Adrian Peterson went 60 yards on the next play. His last punt originated from the Steelers 34 and was fair caught at the Vikings 24 for a net of 42. He finished with 4 punts for a 35.8 yard average. One of Mesko’s strengths is directional punting, but in four games we have yet to see him really impact field position. He is last in the league with only two punts inside the 20 and he’s also last in the league with a season long of just 52 yards. Mesko is next last in average at 41.9 and 27th in net at 37.6. I would not be at all surprised to see the Steelers bring in someone to challenge him for the job next week.
*Jarvis Jones has been excellent on special teams early in the season and the Steelers kickoff coverage unit led the league coming into the game. However twice on kickoffs Sunday Jones was the first guy down the field but ran right by Cordarelle Patterson the returner. He has to breakdown and be able to make the tackle or getting down field so quickly is of no value.
*Despite their record the Steelers continue to play hard. They have battled back in every game until the end despite being down big at times.
*There is plenty of blame to go around. How much do you criticize Dick LeBeau for his players not making tackles? How much do you criticize Todd Haley when his O-Line can’t block? This is clearly Mike Tomlin’s biggest job to date. It will be interesting to see where this team goes from here.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Not many questionable or impactful calls in this one.
Up Next: The Steelers are off this week and will take on the New York Jets in New York Sunday October 11. Kick-off is scheduled for 1:00 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, the Steelers Nation Radio app on iHeart Radio or DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.