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The Steelers’ frustrations are starting to bubble over

SB Nation logo SB Nation 9/19/2018 Adam Stites

Video by FOX Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers were high on the list of Super Bowl favorites in preseason, but there’s much less optimism after an 0-1-1 start to the year.

It’s not just that the team hasn’t won, either. It’s that they blew a winnable game in their opener against the Cleveland Browns by turning the ball over six times, and followed that by getting stunted on by Patrick Mahomes.

The Steelers haven’t had a single losing season since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft, and got two Super Bowl rings along the way. But now the quarterback is 36 and showing signs of age.

Roethlisberger is under contract through the 2019 season and has teased retirement the last few years. He’s dealing with an elbow injury that kept him on the injury report prior to Week 2, and even though he managed to throw for 452 yards and three touchdowns, it still wasn’t enough to beat the Chiefs.

Frustrations are boiling over and things don’t look good in Pittsburgh. Is this the end of an era for the Steelers?

Pittsburgh isn’t hitting the big play and Antonio Brown’s annoyed

Explosive plays have been a staple for the Steelers for much of the Roethlisberger era. No team had more pass plays of 40 or more yards in 2017.

Leading the way for years has been Antonio Brown. The six-time Pro Bowler has averaged more than 100 receiving yards per game in three different seasons, and has a career average of 13.4 yards per reception.

Two games into the 2018 season, Brown has 160 receiving yards and is averaging 8.9 yards per reception. His longest play was for 22 yards.

A nagging calf injury has likely contributed to the slow start, but Roethlisberger’s inaccuracy downfield has been a problem.

It hasn’t been for a lack of effort. Brown has already been targeted 33 times through two games — the most of any player in the NFL. But the struggles are clearly causing some frustration to bubble to the surface.

When a former Steelers public relations rep tweeted Monday that Roethlisberger is the reason Brown has found so much NFL success, Brown responded with “Trade me let’s find out.”

No, Brown isn’t going to be traded, nor is he actually asking to be. But the tweet definitely reflects his discontent with the start to the season.

It was also evident on Sunday when Brown could be seen arguing with Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner on the sideline.

And if his sideline demeanor and tweets didn’t raise alarm, Brown missing team meetings Monday should. There was no practice a day after a game, but players were at the facility and didn’t know why Brown wasn’t there, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It is not clear if Brown’s absence was excused by coach Mike Tomlin, but several sources indicated they did not know why Brown didn’t show up with the rest of his teammates for meetings and film review.

Tomlin chose not to elaborate much on Brown’s absence or tweet during a presser Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus issued a statement that said the receiver “just wants to win” and the drama regarding his tweet and Monday absence is a “non-story that has been blown out of proportion.”

On Wednesday, Roethlisberger admitted they were all feeling the disappointment of their winless start to the season:

It doesn’t help that one of the team’s best offensive weapons is voluntarily watching the team from home.

The Steelers miss Le’Veon Bell

James Conner has been good, but he’s not Bell.

Through two games, Conner’s averaging 3.9 yards per carry and has three rushing touchdowns. He’s also chipped in 10 receptions for 105 yards.

Conner is certainly the more cost-effective back on his four-year, $3.16 million contract. Bell is holding out to set himself up for a big pay day in the spring, and voiding chunks of his one-year, $14.544 deal under the franchise tag in the process.

But Bell’s absence has taken its toll.

Bell has averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in each of the last four seasons and is as polished a route runner as any running back in the league. It’s only logical that the Steelers offense would improve with the return of one of the most dangerous all-purpose weapons in the game.

The holdout has affected the Steelers off the field too.

It created drama in the Steelers locker room earlier in September when a few players ripped into the running back for being selfish. Bell’s pursuit of a premium contract has cast a shadow on Conner, who is perpetually compared to the player whose shoes he’s attempting to fill.

When Bell returns is still an unknown, but it’ll be November, at the latest. When that happens it’ll add another delicate situation for a team that is already dealing with a lot.

Oh yeah, the defense might be a problem too

The Browns looked helpless for most of their matchup with the Steelers, but Mahomes sure didn’t.

The Chiefs’ second-year quarterback sliced and diced the Pittsburgh secondary to the tune of 326 passing yards and six touchdowns. It’s possible it was just a bad day against a young passer who played surprisingly well.

But next on the docket is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have been one of the most surprisingly explosive teams through the first two weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw four touchdowns in each of the first two weeks and could really bury the Steelers’ season on Monday Night Football.

Pittsburgh is a perennial powerhouse, but if the Steelers can’t correct their defensive issues and their difficulty finding big plays on offense, it could mean the Roethlisberger era ends with a fizzle.

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