NEW ORLEANS – JuJu Smith-Schuster sat in his locker, unable to move some 15 to 20 minutes after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ gut-wrenching 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Dazed, devastated, disheveled, the second-year wide receiver remained in full uniform. His eyes – red and puffy from the tears shed after his fumble killed a potential game-winning drive in Saints’ territory with 32 seconds left on the clock – stared at the floor in front of him. But his mind kept replaying the fateful turnover. It came at the tail end of an 8-yard catch that had moved the ball to the 34-yard line – at the very least, potentially in range for at least a game-tying field goal.
For the fourth time in five games, the Steelers experienced yet another unlucky break.
A month ago, an interception in the end zone sealed a 24-17 loss to Denver. The week after that, back-to-back penalties negated missed field goals and finally positioned the Chargers for a winning kick. The week after that, the Steelers missed a potential game-tying field goal when Chris Boswell slipped in a 24-21 loss at Oakland.
Now it was Smith-Schuster experiencing the misfortune. He saw himself as a potential hero – gutting it through a groin injury that put his availability in doubt, he recorded 11 catches for 115 yards and then on the final reception got hit by Sheldon Rankins, and Demario Davis recovered the fumble.
"For it to come down like this every week, it sucks," he softly said about a half hour later after managing to collect himself, shower and dress. “This feeling sucks.”
Smith-Schuster’s teammates wouldn’t let him shoulder the blame for the loss.
“There were so many bad plays by each and every guy,” guard Ramon Foster said. And he was right. There were two fourth-quarter fumbles (Smith-Schuster’s and one by running back Stevan Ridley), a failed fake punt (stopped a yard short), six penalties (some questionable, some blatant) for 79 yards … and those were the obvious plays. As was the case in the three previous final-possession losses, the Steelers had their chances but fell prey to self-inflicted wounds.
And what made Sunday’s defeat most excruciating was the fact that because of those three other losses, they had no margin for error. Beating the the Saints was almost a necessity after AFC North rival Baltimore defeated the Chargers on Saturday night. The loss pushed Pittsburgh out of first place in the division and out of the playoff picture.
And now, at 8-6-1, the Steelers (who in mid-November boasted a 7-2-1 record) find themselves needing both to handle the Bengals next Sunday and the Browns to topple the Ravens.
“This is the NFL. There are so many ups and downs in it,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “I wish the path was always easy, man. But we’ve got to finish it the right way. We had too many turnovers. It just sucks overall, I mean. This team works really hard, but we keep coming up a little bit short. Guys better come in on Wednesday ready to (expletive) work because we’ve got to play a good football game on Sunday.”
Outside of saying the right things, the Steelers really are at a loss for their struggles.
“You guys see us. We’re a pretty good team,” Foster said. “We’ve got a lot of offensive tools, we’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback that’s pretty good also.”
They all work hard. They all strive for greatness. They all refuse to quit. Sunday’s third quarter reflected that. The offense kicked into high gear, and Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for two touchdowns while the defense briefly derailed Drew Brees with relentless pressure.
But they can’t figure out why the crippling errors – like the two fourth-quarter fumbles – and last-second collapses keep occurring.
Roethlisberger said, “You can be as skillful as you want; both sides and special teams. But there is still an element of luck to winning football. A guy on the line, not on the line. There is still a small element of luck involved. It’s just football.”
Maybe he’s right to a degree. Last year, eight of the Steelers' victories came by a one-score margin. Now, this team has found itself on the wrong end of those kinds of contests. But it can’t all be luck. The great teams find a way. The Steelers remain well-rounded and talented, but they can’t figure out how to get the job done. As a result, they could miss the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Coach Mike Tomlin – whose job status is the subject of much speculation despite the fact he has never had a losing record in 12 seasons – refused to delve into the sources of his team’s repeated shortcomings.
“I’m just here to talk about this game and what transpired today,” he said. “I’ll address some of those things on Tuesday when it’s more appropriate. I’m just here to give a synopsis of this game.”
He took the blame for the failed fake punt, which gave the Saints the ball at the Pittsburgh 46 with 4:11 left – setting up New Orleans for the touchdown that resulted in the final score of 31-28. He wanted to remain aggressive, he said, and maintain possession.
But otherwise, as far as the Steelers’ postseason prospects go, Tomlin said he and his players simply must continue to work and remain focused.
“We made the bed and we’ll lay in it and I expect us to lay in it very well and perform,” Tomlin said. “We’ll control everything that we can control and that’s our preparation and play next week. All other things out of our control, we won’t worry much about. Like everyone else, we’ve had 15 opportunities to this point. We won’t lament about our position. We’ll simply control the things that are in front of us, and that’s next week’s preparation.”
The problem is, that still might not be enough. Cincinnati also is reeling, having lost six of its last seven. Pittsburgh should be strong favorites. But even if the Steelers do win, a sickening end could still await.
Said Foster, “The worst thing that can happen to a team that should’ve been in the playoffs is that first weekend at home when you’re sitting there saying to yourself, ‘Damn. I don’t want to be here, and we could’ve probably beat that team right there.’ That is one of the worst feelings and situations to be in and we have to (understand) it. It’s all or nothing.”
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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