By David Todd
It was an unusual week leading into Thursday’s nationally televised Steelers-Ravens game. The build-up had nothing to do with what has been one of the NFL’s best rivalries and everything to do with Ray Rice, a video released by TMZ, the Ravens ultimate decision to release Rice and what impact that would have on the Ravens’ performance. When the game finally did take center stage at M&T Bank Stadium Thursday night, the Ravens played the starring role and the Steelers looked like a team that needed to do a lot more rehearsing, not one auditioning for a playoff role come January. 14 of last 15 match ups between the two teams had been decided by less than 10 points, the lone exception coming three years ago to the day when the Ravens rolled to an easy 35-7 season opening win. The exception was the rule again last night as the Steelers were dominated 26-6, dropping to 1-1 on the season.
The offense failed to score a touchdown for the first time since late in the 2011 season and turned the ball over three times. The defense again committed a ton of penalties, sustaining Baltimore scoring drives and tired in the second half giving up big chunks of yards on the ground as the Ravens controlled the ball for over 35 minutes. It was a lackluster performance with few bright spots. Lots of work to be done before another nationally-televised road game next week against Carolina.
The only injury of note occurred to defensive lineman Steve McLendon. McLendon left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury. Early in the game Antonio Brown was hit in the head and was taken to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion. He passed the tests and did return. Ramon Foster left the game in the first half with a leg injury, but returned. Lawrence Timmons was injured in the fourth quarter but returned on the very next play.
*Little to discuss here. Le’Veon Bell was excellent once again racking up 107 total yards. Bell carried 11 times for 59 yards including a 21-yard highlight where he demonstrated fantastic balance, vision and speed.
*Antonio Brown was dynamic early, but did little after having to leave the game to be tested for a concussion after making a great catch and absorbing a big hit by Darian Stewart. He did extend his streak of games with five catches for at least 50 yards to 18, one shy of the NFL record, catching seven balls for 90 yards.
*The Steelers haven’t scored a TD in their last six quarters and went without one for an entire game for the first time since they lost to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, December 19, 2011.
*Turnovers. The Steelers turned it over three times in this one. On the opening drive the Steelers had the ball for almost eight minutes and drove 65 yards deep into Ravens territory before Justin Brown lost a fumble on a short reception over the middle. It was a big mistake by the rookie who also lost one in the preseason. It will be interesting to see if he continues to get a helmet on game-day when Lance Moore returns. Heath Miller also lost a fumble deep in Steelers territory that led to three points and Roethlisberger was picked by Haloti Ngata late in the game as the Steelers tried to mount a comeback.
*It was not Ben Roethlisberger’s best night as he struggled with his accuracy and was continually under pressure from the Ravens D. In the second quarter Ben missed Justin Brown up the seam on 3rd-and-1 on the Steelers second drive. It was almost exactly the same play the Steelers ran against Baltimore on the road last year where Ben hit Heath up the seam for a big gain after looking off the linebacker and safety on a bunch right formation. It was almost a replay two drives later as Ben missed Miller this time on a similar pattern on 3rd-and-9 from the Baltimore 41. Both incompletions led to Steelers punts. On the night Roethlisberger was 22-for-37 for 217 and a quarterback rating of 64.8. Hard to know if the monster shot he took from Courtney Upshaw on the third play of the game which drew an unnecessary roughness penalty had any impact.
*Marcus Gilbert got worked again. Last week it was Paul Kruger, this week Elvis Dumervil. Gilbert, who signed a big contract extension during training camp, has not played well the first two weeks and was responsible for both sacks of Ben, demonstrating bad technique with both his hands and body position.
*Again, not a lot to choose from here. The defense did come up big on the Ravens’ last drive of the first half and opening drive of the second half. With the Steelers having kicked a FG with 2:50 left in the half to cut the lead to 10-3, the defense stopped Baltimore with a three-and-out giving the ball back to the offense with just under two minutes left and all three timeouts. They also got a three-and-out coming out to start the second half highlighted by a couple nice plays by Steve McLendon. Those were the only two three-and-outs the defense got in the game.
*Just as the offense hasn’t been able to score the last six quarters, the defense hasn’t been able to stop anyone the last six quarters, giving up 50 points.
*No sacks. After getting three sacks last week the defense had trouble generating consistent pressure on Joe Flacco. On one occasion they came with a six-man blitz bringing a safety and linebacker down near their own goal line causing Flacco to throw on the run, off his back foot. Cortez Allen had a chance to make a pick, but couldn’t make the play while trying to stay in bounds and the Ravens settled for a FG.
*No turnovers. No sacks and no turnovers is not a winning formula. In 2010 the Steelers defense generated 35 turnovers. Since then they seem to have lost the magic formula. In 2011 they created just 15 and in 2012 & 2013 they got only 20. They have not caused a turnover in their first two games.
*Last week I wrote, “The run defense continues to be a major problem.” Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The Steelers gave up 41 yards rushing in the first half, but were gutted for big gains as the game went on giving up 116 yards in the second half and 157 for the game after giving up 183 last week. It’s a good bet the Steelers will be last in the league against the run when this week’s play is completed. Cam Thomas was terrible last week and no better this week. Look for Stephon Tuitt to start to see more action.
*Poor tackling. An unfortunate trademark of the defense last year and last week was evident again. One play stood out when Steve Smith took a short cross and broke tackles by Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Ryan Shazier.
*Play action. Not being able to stop the run leaves a defense susceptible to play action. Last week the Steelers bit hard and Brian Hoyer took advantage of big openings to his tight ends in the middle of the field. The Ravens obviously took notice and twice ran play action near the Steelers goal line. Both times the Steelers blew the coverage leaving TE Owen Daniels open for two easy scores.
*Mike Mitchell. Get this guy a protractor. Mitchell continues to take bad angles, got two personal foul penalties and has not made any big plays in the first two weeks. It’s probably a bit unfair to single out Mitchell when Jason Worilds was invisible, Jarvis Jones was poor and Cortez Allen was also racking up penalties, but the Steelers big offseason signing has been a disappointment so far. (I have strongly advocated the Steelers getting Shamarko Thomas on the field, but he would not be a straight replacement for Mitchell. Robert Golden is Mitchell’s back up at the free safety position.)
*Shaun Suisham and Brad Wing were both solid again. After some concerns in the preseason Wing has locked down the punting job. He punted four times for 45.8 yard average.
*Jacoby Jones gained 47 yards on two punt returns. The coverage teams have to do better.
*The offensive game plan again looked good early, but after the Justin Brown fumble and the Antonio Brown injury they never seemed to find their rhythm.
*Since there is no “Front Office” category, I’ll stick this in here. The Steelers most-notable signings in the offseason were Mike Mitchell, Cam Thomas, LeGarette Blount and Lance Moore in free agency and Marcus Gilbert, Cortez Allen and Shaun Suisham to contract extensions. Other than Suisham the Steelers have gotten virtually nothing from this group through the first two games.
*The Steelers chose to dress only two running backs and four wide receivers with the injuries to Dri Archer and Lance Moore. I questioned the decision before the game because of the impact one injury might have. When Brown left the Steelers were shorthanded.
*I would have expected more no-huddle when the Steelers were struggling.
Big Officiating Calls
*Back-to-back unnecessary roughness calls against Troy Polamalu on Owen Daniels and Mike Mitchell on Steve Smith were both questionable. I thought the call on Polamalu was defensible. The call on Mitchell was terrible.
The Steelers will take on the Carolina Panthers Sunday, September 21 at in North Carolina. Kick-off is scheduled for 8:30 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.