The Pittsburgh Steelers typically don't surrender big leads. Since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, the Steelers had been 109-1-1 in games where they led by at least 14 points before Monday. The loss and tie both took place during the 2018 season, as Pittsburgh tied Cleveland in Week 1 after taking a 21-7 lead. In Week 14, the Steelers took a 23-7 lead at halftime before falling to the Chargers at home, 33-30. Those squandered leads resulted in Pittsburgh missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
On Monday night, the Steelers suffered their second loss in 17 seasons after leading by at least 14 points. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead over Washington, Pittsburgh was outscored 23-3 the rest of the way en route to losing their first game of the 2020 season. And while their undefeated record against AFC opponents keeps them ahead of the Chiefs in the race for the No. 1 seed, the Steelers now have a much smaller margin for error as they enter the final quarter of the regular season. Pittsburgh was also unable to join the Chiefs and Saints as NFL teams who have already punched their playoff ticket.
"I feel like we just kind of relaxed a little," receiver James Washington said, via ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "I don't have an explanation right now, but we just have to play better next week. We can't dwell on this. There's plenty of more ball to play."
The Steelers can take some positive things out of their first loss of 2020. Washington, a third-year receiver who is often lost in the shuffle with Pittsburgh's other receivers, gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead after scoring on a 50-yard touchdown. The Steelers' offensive line did not allow a sack of Roethlisberger for the fifth straight game. Pittsburgh's defense, which played their first game Monday night without linebacker Bud Dupree, tied an NFL record by recording a sack in their 69th consecutive game. T.J. Watt recorded one of Pittsburgh's three sacks of Alex Smith while re-gaining the NFL's sack lead over Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald.
While there were some positives, there are also some serious question marks following Monday's loss. The Steelers dropped seven passes on Monday and currently lead the NFL with 31 drops, according to ESPN's Jenna Laine. Pittsburgh is now last in the NFL in yards-per-carry average. The Steelers were also the victim of questionable decisions on Monday. Instead of trying a 45-yard field goal that would have given his team a 20-17 lead with under five minutes left, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin elected to go for it on fourth-and-1. Instead of throwing to one of his receivers, Roethlisberger instead threw to rookie running back Anthony McFarland, who was unable to come down with his sixth reception of the season. Washington took the lead for good on their ensuing possession before forcing a Roethlisberger interception on Pittsburgh's final possession.
When asked about his decision to eschew a field goal try, Tomlin said that he did not want to put Matthew Wright, who made a 37-yard field goal earlier in the game, in that position. As it relates to his running game, Tomlin said that he is worried about the execution of his offense and not the manner in which they move the ball. Tomlin should be worried about his offense's lack of balance, as Roethlisberger has averaged 49 pass attempts per game over the Steelers' last four games. While there's nothing wrong with having a good passing attack, NFL teams that don't have a strong running game typically don't make it very far in the postseason. The Steelers should know this better than anyone; they were one-and-done in the 2014 playoffs after losing Le'Veon Bell to a hyperextended knee in Week 17. Without Bell for most of the 2016 AFC title game, the Steelers failed to keep pace with the Patriots, who pulled away for a 36-17 win.
"We're getting to that point of the season when you got to be sharp in all areas, your whole team and both sides of the ball and all that stuff," Roethlisberger said, via Ed Bouchette of The Athletic.
Instead of lamenting over what his team failed to do on Monday, Tomlin said that he is excited to face adversity with this team, as Pittsburgh will have to respond to a loss for the first time since last December. The Steelers' quest to start a new winning streak starts in Buffalo against a Bills team that is in pursuit of their first division title since 1995.