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After 1-3 start, Pittsburgh Steelers show early signs of historically bad season

GREEN BAY, Wis. — With emotions boiling over, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster slammed his tablet to the ground with both hands from his seat on the bench.

Minutes earlier, he failed to haul in the first of two significant throws from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that, if caught, could’ve turned into points or chunk plays.

The Steelers were trailing by a score in the second quarter, and Smith-Schuster was wide open in the seam with a clear path to the end zone. But there was too much air on the ball, and it went sailing over his hands.

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“I’m human,” Smith-Schuster said. “I have feelings. I was on the sideline. I got upset with myself because I make those plays. I never show emotions on the sideline, because I know I’m always being watched. A game like this in a critical time and moment, situation like that, I’m frustrated at myself.

“I’m not mad at the team, I’m not mad at the playcalling, I’m not mad at Ben making a throw. It’s all on me.”

His temper boiled over again in the third quarter after another missed connection with Roethlisberger. And again, Smith-Schuster accepted the blame.

“It was a miscommunication,” he said. “Ben didn’t know where the safety was, so he threw me inside. I was just trying to reach back and then come back to it and get under it. But I didn’t get there in time.”

It isn’t all on Smith-Schuster. Far from it. He fell on the sword after Sunday’s 27-17 loss to the Packers, but the offensive struggles extend far beyond those two plays.

Three other times during Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the team has started 1-3 or worse.

In all three instances — 2013, 2018 and 2019 — the Steelers missed the playoffs but escaped a losing season.

But this time, staring down the fourth 1-3 hole in 15 seasons, it feels different. Like maybe the ceiling for this iteration of the Steelers is .500.

“Disappointing outcome, but it’s nothing mystical about it,” Tomlin said. “Like I just told the team, we need more detail in our play. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays and then they’ve got to make more plays.

“And so, we’re all collectively in our circumstance together. We’ve got to continually get better. Those are our intentions. We don’t like where we are.”

Roethlisberger also shouldered the blame for the misses, as he’s done in each of the Steelers’ other two losses.

“In order for a deep ball to be successful, both parties have to be on the same page,” he said. “They have to understand the coverage and what’s going on. But at the end of the day, I’m the one throwing it, I’m the one that has to make it happen. I’m the one that has to hit the guys. Regardless of where they are on the field, regardless of what the coverage is, it comes down to me. I have to get them the ball.”

For the third week in a row, the offense couldn’t sustain any kind of rhythm, and Roethlisberger, facing a Packers defense that pressured him only 7% of the time, completed 26 of 40 attempts for 232 yards and one touchdown with one interception. The run game showed signs of life with Najee Harris averaging 4.1 yards per carry, but the team had 62 yards rushing on 16 attempts.

The anemic offense coupled with a defense that couldn’t get pressure on Rodgers or stop the run culminated in a third consecutive loss by at least nine points — the first time that has happened to the Steelers since 1988.

After the first month of the season, the Steelers are on pace for a historically bad season — even if, on paper, they’ve been here before.

The Steelers have a minus-26 point differential through their first four games, their worst since that 2013 season — one that ultimately turned into an 8-8 season after then-rookie Le’Veon Bell helped jump-start the run game.

The 2018 and 2019 seasons finished 9-6-1 and 8-8, respectively, but they had players who emerged to keep it from completely unraveling. To this point, that glue guy for the 2021 season hasn’t been revealed.

“We’ve had some down years, probably never started like this,” Roethlisberger said after the loss. “What a challenge for us. I think this is going to test us all. We need to look in the mirror, and we need to figure out what path we’re going to take.”

The first step in a positive path forward is simple: get a win. How to do it, though, is far less obvious.

Up next is a 3-1 Denver Broncos team that could be without quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (concussion), followed by a Seattle Seahawks squad that will be coming off extended rest after a Thursday night game against the Los Angeles Rams.

The schedule is far from the only obstacle. Tomlin’s issue each postgame has been some variation of the same thing: The details weren’t executed and the team wasn’t successful on possession downs. During the week, he describes the issues in the offense as one thing going wrong that keeps the whole play from being successful.

Against the Packers, the Steelers were 4-for-11 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down. In both fourth-down calls Sunday, Roethlisberger threw the ball short of the sticks, and the first play appeared to be a repeat of the fourth-down throw to Harris against the Bengals that went nowhere.

Tomlin said after this loss that he was “concerned” about his team, but he emphasized that he isn’t hitting the panic button.

His quarterback isn’t, either.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve had some really good games, some really bad games. Some good years, some bad years. I still love to play this game. I love what it is.

“It’s just one of those things that when we lay our head down at night, can we say that we’re proud of our performance? And if not, how do we make adjustments and changes so the next time we come out we can say we are proud of our performance?”

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