In a game that will go down as one of the most disappointing in the nine-year tenure of head coach Mike Tomlin, the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday and lost 20-17 to the now 5-10 Baltimore Ravens. This one was a complete team effort. The offense which had set a team-record scoring 30+ points in six consecutive games only managed 17 against a defense that had given up 35 and 34 the past two weeks. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was terrible, throwing two interceptions and having a third overturned by penalty against a defense that only had four INTs on the season coming in. The Steelers defense gave up a career-high 274 yards passing to Ryan Mallet, Baltimore’s fourth different starting quarterback and a guy who had only been with the team 12 days. And the coaching staff was out-coached again, as they were in the first game in Pittsburgh, by John Harbaugh and his staff. The Steelers can still make the playoffs, most-simply with a win over Cleveland next week and a New York Jets loss at Buffalo, but they now no longer control their own fate. If they fail to get in, it will be the third season in the last four that things ended with week 17 and it will make it a handful of years since their last playoff win. When its time to look back and catalogue the Tomlin-Roethlisberger Era losses like this will feature far too prominently.
*The Steelers came into the game healthy, but suffered three injuries that were identified in the postgame press conference. Antwon Blake suffered back spasms and did not play in the second half. Mike Mitchell repeatedly left and came back into the game with a shoulder injury. At one point it looked like Mitchell was trying to pop his own shoulder back into the socket lying on the ground on the sideline. And Roosevelt Nix suffered an injury to the fifth metatarsal in his foot. The specificity of Tomlin’s comments would lead me to believe it is broken.
There were very few positives from the offense today. A unit that expects to put up 30+ every week picked a bad time to have one of its worst performances of the season.
*DeAngelo Williams continues to be a great story. He gained 80 yards on 8 carries in the first quarter and finished with 100 yards and two TDs on 17 carries. He also caught six passes for 53 yards. It really is shocking that he’s 32 years old.
*Ben Roethlisberger was flat out bad and it was pretty much apparent from the jump. On the Steelers second drive already down 7-0, after a would-be TD pass to Antonio Brown was overturned (more on that below), Ben missed Markus Wheaton on an out-route throwing the ball behind him and forcing the Steelers to settle for a FG. That was the first of a slew of bad throws. On his very next throw, the first play of the next possession, he overthrow fullback Will Johnson down the left sideline, a ball that should have been picked by Jimmy Smith. On the following possession, just four throws later, he tried to float one over the middle to AB and it was easily picked off by linebacker Darryl Smith, the Ravens first interception in 368 plays and just their fifth of the season. In the second half, after a TD drive in the third quarter made it 13-10, Ben threw an interception on the fourth play of the fourth quarter. On 2nd-and-7 from his own 38 he tried to hit Brown with a back-shoulder throw. Jimmy Smith didn’t drop this one. It was a terrible throw by Ben to the field side of Brown when the ball should have been on his other shoulder toward the sideline. On the next drive as the Steelers were driving to cut the Ravens lead back to three, Ben made a high-and-wide goal line throw, again to AB, which bounced off his hands and was returned 101 yards for a TD, again by Jimmy Smith. The Steelers got a reprieve on that one as the Ravens had lined-up offsides, but that wasn’t enough for Ben. He was unable to move the team on its last drive, missing two shots deep which effectively ended things. On the day he completed just 6 passes thrown more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage and was 2 of 12 with two INTs and two pass interference calls on balls thrown more than 15 yards down the field (h/t @Steelersdepot). An uncharacteristically poor performance in what had been a very good season.
*Roethlisberger burned two timeouts early in the second half which proved to be costly as the Ravens were basically able to run out the clock at the end of the game. There is a constant debate about using a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty or whether it is worth saving the timeout for a possible late-game situation. The first timeout was used on the opening drive of the second half before a 3rd-and-5 from their own 26. Ben completed a pass to AB after the TO and the Steelers ended up scoring a TD on the drive. The second came before a 3rd-and-4 from their own 47. Ben was sacked on the ensuing play and the Steelers were forced to punt. Throughout the game the Steelers went deep into the play clock. My guess is the Ravens were doing a very good job of disguising their defensive schemes and Ben was using as much time as possible to get them to “declare” their schemes. Good job by the defense.
*On the Steelers opening drive they moved the ball right down the field behind the running of Williams. They faced their first third down, a 3rd-and-4 from the Baltimore 28, and Ben threw his first pass of the game, a 3-yard completion to Jesse James. Facing 4th-and-1 they went back to the ground with a very deep hand off to Williams that got blown up. Underrated nose tackle Brandon Williams got the best of Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro and center Cody Wallace, driving them back into a pulling Ramon Foster who tripped. Williams was stopped for no gain and the Steelers turned the ball over on downs. Solid drive, no points and a very questionable play call with deep handoff and pulling Foster who doesn’t pull nearly as well as DeCastro.
*The Steelers were just 2-8 on third down conversions and 0-2 of fourth downs. Clearly not good enough.
*During the game I tweeted that although Martavis Bryant’s stats on the season are respectable, particularly since he has missed five games, he hasn’t lived up to expectations and he isn’t making the tough catches. In the past three games Bryant has had his hands on four balls in the end zone and hasn’t come up with any of them. All difficult catches for sure, but if he’s going to take the next step to being an elite receiver he’s got to pull some of those balls in. Unfortunately, Bryant made me look prophetic. On the Steelers last drive Ben took a shot deep to Bryant who had gotten behind the defense. His feet got tangled up and he was falling to the ground as the ball arrived. Again, a tough catch, but one he absolutely has to make. He finished the day with 1 catch for 6 yards and was a complete non-factor.
The Steelers defense came into the game off their best half of the season, holding the Broncos scoreless and generating two turnovers. In games they have gotten turnovers the Steelers were 9-2, 0-3 when they didn’t. They didn’t get any in this one and another slow start proved too much to overcome.
*The Steelers made some good individual plays in the second half. Ross Cockrell made an excellent play on one of the few deep throws in the game. Brandon Boykin got the Steelers only sack coming off the right edge on a corner blitz. And on a crucial 3rd-and-2 with just under four minutes left from the Steelers 44, Stephon Tuitt made a great tackle of running back Terrance West for no gain forcing the Ravens to punt.
*On the Ravens first possession they drove 75 yards on 15 plays, converting four third downs and overcoming a 10 yard intentional grounding penalty. This was the Steelers defense at it’s very worst. They couldn’t stop the run as the Ravens mixed in the outside zone, a problem for the defense all game, and a power run game targeting Ryan Shazier who can’t shed lineman who get to the second level and weigh 100 pounds more than he does. And the defense also couldn’t stop the short passing game. Ryan Mallet went 5-7 on the drive taking all the easy throws the defense gave him with their soft coverage and then completed a pass up the seam for the touchdown. The Steelers haven’t been able to stop seam routes all season, so this was no surprise. The Ravens went 61 yards in 11 plays on their next drive which culminated in a FG. On their first two possessions the Ravens had the ball for 26 plays.
*Early in the fourth quarter up 13-10 the Ravens got the ball back at their own 42 after Roethlisberger’s second INT. The Steelers defense desperately needed a stop. On second down Baltimore was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty and faced a 2nd-and-23 from their own 29. William Gay was covering Chris Givens on the right side. Gay is willing to gamble on occasion as we saw with his pick-six against the Bengals. He will look to jump routes. He did on this play and got burned. He figured Givens was running an out to the sideline and he bit. Mallet made a perfect throw up the sideline. Mike Mitchell couldn’t get over in time and the play went for 39 yards. After being flagged for a false start the Ravens had a 1st-and-15 on the Steelers 37 on their next play. On this one it was Shazier who got burned. He was responsible for fullback Kyle Juszczyk coming out of the backfield. Shazier played run first and then appeared to be expecting a short pass as he turned and looked back at the quarterback. Juszczyk got behind him and Mallet hit him with a short pass that he turned into a 34 yard gain to the Steelers 3. Two plays 73 yards at a crucial juncture of the game, reminiscent of what happened in Kansas City earlier in the season in a similar situation. The Ravens scored the winning TD two plays later.
*The Ravens went 9-18 on 3rd downs. This was an offense led by a quarterback who had been with the team 12 days and a bunch of guys who spent much of the season on the practice squad.
*The Steelers continue to get virtually no pressure from their edge rushers Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats. On the day they combined for two QB hits and one pass defensed. None of them have excelled this season—they have 14 sacks as a group. The Steelers haven’t had a dominant edge rusher since the heyday of Lamar Woodley before he got hurt in 2011. The only sack of the day was registered by Brandon Boykin on a corner blitz.
*Missed tackles continue to plague the defense. On the first play of the Ravens second drive Shamarko Thomas made a rare appearance and blitzed off the edge on first down. He ran right past the handoff, but Will Allen was up in run support in perfect position to make the tackle. He completely whiffed and the play went for 14 yards. Later in the same drive the Ravens faced a 3rd-and-3 at the Baltimore 41. Mallet threw a short pass to the right sideline and Antwon Blake was in position to make the tackle short of the sticks. He didn’t. The Ravens proceed to drive for a FG to go up 10-3. Just two examples of many in the game.
*I gave Ross Cockrell credit for making a really good play on one of the few deep shots that Ryan Mallet took in the game. On the play Cockrell tipped the ball away from the intended receiver and up into the air. Safety Mike Mitchell came over and laid a hit on the receiver, paying no attention to the ball. I don’t know if he could have made the interception but I have no idea what Mitchell was thinking on the play. Play the ball first.
*No turnover, no win.
*At the end of the first half the Steelers got stopped and had to punt the ball back to the Ravens with 38 seconds left. After a 42-yard punt by Jordan Berry, Shamarko Thomas made a great tackle for a 1-yard loss on the return ensuring the Ravens would have to gain at least 30 yards to get in FG range. They didn’t.
*I’m searching so hard for “good” things in this game, that I’ve resorted to random bounces. After the Tuitt tackle forced the Ravens to punt with under four to go Sam Koch’s punt bounced hard the Steelers way into the end zone. Good play.
*Nothing of note.
*The Steelers again played much better defensively in the second half and were able to make adjustments to hold the Ravens to 7 points. They got burned by the back-to-back big plays.
*The Steelers got out-coached. Offensively they couldn’t get the passing game going and weren’t able to find away to get Martavis Bryant into the game at all. The Ravens defense scheme appeared to surprise Ben and the offense. Defensively, they couldn’t stop an inexperienced QB on his two opening drives. The gameplan wasn’t good enough.
*The Steelers had a 96 yard advantage in penalty yards and it still wasn’t enough.
*The Steelers ran the ball very effectively early in the game, but it’s fair to question if that had any impact on Ben never being able to get into rhythm in the passing game. Their offensive identity has been defined by their ability to throw the football. They didn’t do that early in this game. Then, in the second half they rarely went back to the run when the passing game was ineffective. What was the offensive gameplay?
*It took a second half injury to keep Antwon Blake off the field. I still have no idea why he is getting the playing time that he is.
Big Officiating Calls:
*On the Steelers second drive Antonio Brown caught a 16-yard pass that was initially ruled a touchdown. Upon review the call was overturned. The debate about what is a catch in the NFL has become the most universally mocked thing in sports. And rightly so. I watched the play numerous times and while the football certainly moved, there was no point where I thought AB was not in full control. Former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira agreed.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 27, 2015
Up Next: Sunday the Steelers take on the Browns in Cleveland. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE before every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.