Mike Tomlin's Steelers are no longer undefeated, and they're suddenly undependable when it comes to catching the football.
Pittsburgh pass-catchers dropped eight passes in Monday night's surprise loss to Washington, the second straight contest in which the Steelers dropped at least six passes. The issue is a new and concerning one, as the Steelers have become increasingly reliant on the passing game, especially when running back James Conner isn't available. Ben Roethlisberger has thrown at least 40 passes in each of Pittsburgh's last four games, and the Steelers rushed for just 21 yards Monday night.
An increase in passing is fine if the team in question can complete attempts consistently, but when targets are open, they aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
"They can catch the ball or they can get replaced by those that will catch it," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I expect guys to make routine plays routinely."
Drops are quickly becoming routine, an alarming development for a team that owned the best record in football until Monday night. But so is Pittsburgh's struggle to move the ball consistently, or to gain even a single yard when needed, as evidenced by the Steelers' crucial turnover on downs on fourth-and-1 late in Monday's game.
Pittsburgh broke the huddle with a heavier set, sending out a sixth lineman as an eligible receiver and two tight ends in line. In the shotgun, Roethlisberger motioned running back Anthony McFarland wide, creating temporary confusion for Washington's defense and also eliminating the option to run the ball behind the eight-man line.
Roethlisberger received the snap and tried to take advantage of a late-arriving defender near McFarland, but his pass sailed over the hands of the running back, falling incomplete and handing the ball back to Washington. Alex Smith responded by leading a go-ahead scoring drive that changed the game for good.
"We're just not good enough," Tomlin said of his offense's struggles. "If it was one identifiable thing, you'd pluck that one thing out."
Scheduling irregularities have likely played at least a secondary role in Pittsburgh's sudden problems, but Tomlin refused to use that as an excuse for his team's issues.
"If you're a legit unit, a unit that has the goods, you can absorb irregularities in the schedule, missing players, and rise up," Tomlin said, via ESPN's Brooke Pryor.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is now tasked with solving this newfound puzzle with only four games left to play. A change in play-calling style could be in order, but there isn't a ton of room to make personnel changes. After all, the Steelers demonstrated early in the season they're well-equipped to move the ball. They just aren't doing it lately, at least not consistently enough, which Tomlin said tells him "it's time to get back in the lab."
"Certainly," Tomlin said when asked if he would consider changing the way plays are called. "We're open to doing anything that helps us find the fluidity we once had. ... We've got to maintain fluidity as players available to you change. ... We've got to become a more solid group."
Pittsburgh has four games left to figure things out before the postseason arrives, and with three of those contests coming against postseason contenders in Buffalo, Indianapolis and Cleveland, there aren't many easy matchups to pick out as one during which to try new things. They'll have to experiment on the fly, and with Cleveland (9-3) suddenly creeping up on Pittsburgh in the AFC North standings, the margin for error isn't great.
The going is getting tough. It's time for the legit to get going.