Battle of 0-3 team provides chance to see who's ready to give up

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

September 29, 2019 09:27 PM

Rudolph the red-faced quarterback didn’t play well in his NFL debut last week. Mason and the Pittsburgh Steelers would have been even more embarrassed in San Francisco if the favored Niners hadn’t turned the ball over five times.

The sputtering Steelers head into Monday night’s divisional rivalry home game against the Cincinnati Bengals (ESPN, 8:20 p.m.) off this sluggish performance:

  • Pittsburgh was outgained 436-239 on 6.0 to 4.7 yards-per-play. Only the Jets with Luke Falk had a lower total yardage output (a woeful 105 yards at New England) that Sunday. 
  • Pittsburgh’s passing line of 14-27-1-160 was one of the least productive for the week. Only the Cardinals (127 with a rookie quarterback) and the Jets (69 with a green quarterback) threw for fewer yards back in Week 3. 
  • Pittsburgh converted only 3 of 12 third down tries for a poor 25% rate. Only the Packers (22%), Dolphins (20% with a semi-pro team), Jaguars (18% with Gardner Minshew), and the Jets (0%) were worse that day. Pittsburgh’s offense only drove to the red zone once. 

One of the dangers for recreational bettors relying on highlight shows or the “Red Zone” TV package is that they miss out on a lot of what “isn’t’ happening. You’re more likely to see footage of big plays and touchdowns than incomplete passes and failed third down tries. 

Don’t fall for the narrative of “valiant Mason Rudolph almost led the Steelers to a big upset at San Francisco.” Pittsburgh hung close and covered a six-point spread thanks to a 5-2 edge in turnovers. No defense can force that many miscues on command—or you’d see several aggressive units approaching 70 or 80 takeaways in a season. (Chicago led the NFL last season with 36, the league median was 20). 

Can Rudolph cover as a favorite if the opponent executes well? What would it take for the currently winless Steelers to make a run at a wildcard? 

While bettors can study Monday’s matchup for clues about futures surges (ESPN must be thrilled to have a battle of 0-3 teams!), it’s more likely that one or both of these teams will be towel tossers by the midpoint of the season. Cincinnati showed some of that two Sundays ago in a 41-17 loss to San Francisco (outgained 572-316 on 8.4 to 4.9 yards-per-play).

Red flags for demoralized teams:

  • Poor rush defense. Cincinnati allowed 259 rushing yards to SF, and 175 to Buffalo last week. Pittsburgh allowed 151 to Seattle in the game Ben Roethlisberger left early, then 168 to the Niners last week. 
  • Poor second halves. Give Cincinnati credit for rallying in Buffalo last week in a near upset. Pittsburgh lost their two second halves by a combined 42-30 in the games Rudolph played.
  • Poor body language. This is obviously an eye test rather than a stat evaluation. Take advantage of any national telecasts to evaluate levels of enthusiasm through a full four quarters. 

Will we see Pittsburgh’s famous “terrible towels” Monday night? Or just plain terrible?

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