Pittsburgh’s roller-coaster season takes another unexpected dip in embarrassing loss to Cardinals

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers thought they had things figured out. That the black cloud that lingered near the end of former offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s tenure was gone.

The yards were starting to come, with points hopefully soon to follow. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was back from a hamstring injury, giving the Steelers their three defensive cornerstones — Fitzpatrick, linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Heyward — for the first time since the season’s opening quarter.

The schedule yielded a soft spot, with a pair of two-win teams on the immediate horizon for a club that believed it was rounding into form as December began.

Over four-plus maddening hours on Sunday, the good vibes — much like the sun that gave way to a line of storms that generated a pair of lengthy delays — vanished.

Pittsburgh remains an enigma. One that let an opportunity to strengthen its playoff position slip away in a 24-10 loss to Arizona that ended with starting quarterback Kenny Pickett’s right leg in a boot and his teammates baffled as to how they were outclassed and outplayed by a team that began the day with six wins, total, since the start of the 2022 season.

“We got our (butts) kicked,” Watt said. “I don’t know if it got away from us. We got pummeled today.”

Fitzpatrick, who played the second half with a broken left hand, called it “the worst football we played all season, all around the board.”

In every area. The star-laden defense included.

The Steelers (7-5) failed to produce a turnover for just the second time all year and were called for nine penalties — including a pass interference in the end zone on rookie Joey Porter Jr. that set up James Conner’s 1-yard dive in the third quarter that made it 17-3. Three trips to the red zone resulted in just one touchdown, and that was in garbage time with the outcome all but decided.

For a team that considers itself a playoff contender — and still is one in the standings — it was a stunning setback.

“Just (junior varsity) football in a lot of ways,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

Ways that are acceptable and maybe even understandable in August. Not so much with Christmas approaching.

Yet there the Steelers were in a subdued locker room, trying to explain how they were blown out by a team that is pointing to 2024 and beyond.

“Just shot ourselves in the foot too many times,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “Unacceptable penalties. Two illegal formations, three maybe. Just (helped) our opposition out a lot.”

Now Pittsburgh needs to get ready for reeling New England (2-10) on a short week. And the Steelers will have to do it with uncertainty at quarterback after Pickett left late in the first half with an ankle injury when Arizona defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter fell on Pickett’s legs while tackling Pickett just short of the goal line.

Pickett tried to stand up but couldn’t. He eventually left under his own power and was replaced by Trubisky.

Tomlin, well aware his team is 28th in the league in scoring, opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the Arizona 1 on Trubisky’s first snap. An inside handoff to Najee Harris went nowhere and the Cardinals responded by going 99 yards in 15 plays — converting five third downs in the process — to take a 10-3 lead they never really came close to squandering.

Trubisky will get the nod if Pickett can’t go Thursday, though Trubisky was largely ineffective until the game was out of reach.

The weather appeared as if it might give the Steelers a chance to regroup after a series of storms sent fans scrambling to the concourse.

They rolled in shortly before halftime and forced the start of the second half back by 30 minutes. The clouds briefly parted, long enough for Pittsburgh center Mason Cole to botch a shotgun snap to Trubisky. The Cardinals fell on it and Conner eventually mashed his way into the end zone for the first of his two touchdowns to make it 17-3.

A second delay of nearly an hour followed. Pittsburgh treated it as an extended halftime, with the players trying to keep warm while the coaches tried to come up with adjustments on both sides of the ball that worked.

They didn’t.

The Steelers drove into Arizona territory after the second break but stalled, with Trubisky’s heave down the seam to Connor Heyward going through the tight end’s hands at the goal line. Kicker Chris Boswell then saw his 45-yard field goal attempt drift wide right.

Fitzpatrick, who said he will be ready to play Thursday, tried to find a silver lining amid the misery. The vast majority of the mistakes were self-imposed. That is fixable.

“When it’s stuff that we’re doing and it’s not people just playing us, you know, I want to say it’s not alarming,” Fitzpatrick said. “But it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”


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