PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers were coming off a 13-win regular season with the best offensive trio in the game.
Le’Veon Bell sensed the urgency, and the short life span.
“We understand we have a great group here,” Bell told ESPN in January before the Steelers’ divisional round playoff game. “We don’t know if everybody is going to be back or if we’re going to be that special next year. The time that we do have, we have to make it all count. Everybody in this locker room understands that, so we have to go out there and do it.”
Bell and the Steelers haven’t quite applied that advice, following a stunning playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars with an underwhelming 2018 that has them in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
The championship window isn’t closed, but the wind is getting in.
The “Killer B” trio of Bell, Brown and Big Ben was together for five explosive seasons filled with record-breaking performances yet have just three playoff wins to show for it. The promise of that group will remain unfulfilled as Bell’s year-long holdout clears the path to free agency.
The Steelers will never be in rebuilding mode with Roethlisberger and Brown, who combined for another 100-catch season and 15 touchdowns this year. But with Roethlisbergerr turning 37 in March and Brown turning 31 in July, chances are running out.
And that probably goes for an offensive line that’s still highly productive but doesn’t have a starter under age 28 if counting oft-injured right tackle Marcus Gilbert.
Each curious road loss accentuates that reality, and this year there were two: At Oakland and at Denver.
Sitting at 8-6-1 and hoping the Browns pull off a Baltimore upset just to enter the playoffs has offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner feeling uneasy despite his quarterback’s career season. Roethlisberger is on pace for his first 5,000-yard season and he broke the Steelers’ touchdown record with 33.
“I wouldn’t say (the Steelers are peaking) unless we’re winning,” Fichtner said. “The whole thing is coming back to we’ve got to outscore them no matter what, and we didn’t last week, and we haven’t over the last month and a half. So to me, that’s the most important thing … the only thing that really matters in the end.
“It’s not going the Steeler way right now, and we don’t have the accumulative wins that we all expect every time we roll the ball out to win a game.”
After everything broke right last year, the Steelers abandoned their ability to close in 2018. Five of their six losses were decided by seven points or less, including the last three by three points. A defense that ranks first in sacks and ninth in total defense gave up late-game scores in each of the past four losses.
The Steelers have invested heavy draft capital on defense every year since 2013 but still appear incomplete despite obvious young talents.
Players tried to keep a united front in the locker room this week, but a normally vibrant environment was noticeably calmer, almost subdued. This season hurts, knowing they’ve sabotaged what could have been a glorious playoff run in a wide-open AFC race.
“There are some guys that weren’t here with us last year that are getting better but again we aren’t good enough,” said defensive coordinator Keith Butler about his side of the ball. “We are what we are. I don’t know how many games we won by three or lost by three or whatever. Those games we won last year and ended up 13-3. You lose those games like we did this year then we’re where we are.”
The Steelers have youthful building blocks such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a team MVP as voted on by his teammates, and linebacker T.J. Watt, who has 12 sacks this season. Pairing those players with an established collection of veterans likely will keep Pittsburgh among the game’s best teams in 2019.
Coach Mike Tomlin has zero losing seasons in 12 years, but with three playoff wins since 2011, he’ll be tasked with refining a roster to maximize Roethlisberger’s final years. Roethlisberger turns 37 in March and could sign a multi-year extension this offseason.
As the New Orleans Saints have shown this season, luck can change just that quickly with a franchise quarterback. Drew Brees and the Saints produced three straight 7-9 seasons before winning a combined 24 games the past two years.
“I just want to see us win. I don’t care who’s here, who’s at the helm of everything,” said Watt when asked whether he’s a building block for the defense. “I just want to win games. We had a great team last year and I got to see what a 13-3 team is all about, and now I get to see what being on whatever record we are now is about. I just want to be a part of success. If I’m the leader, if anyone else is the leader, I don’t care, I just want to be a part of it.”