Coming off consecutive losses followed by the bye week the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore Sunday for a big divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens, losers of four straight. The Steelers lost 21-14 largely due to three quarters of the worst offensive football seen in Mike Tomlin’s ten years as head coach. The offensive game plan and lack of in-game adjustments from Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were mind-boggling bad. Ben Roethlisberger’s execution of said game plan was equally poor. And the Steelers fourth quarter metamorphosis into an offense capable of putting up 200+ yards and 14 points only confirmed the asininity that went on the prior 45 minutes. The Steelers have proved to be offensively inept on the road since the opener. They have now been outscored 70-11 in their last three road games in the first three quarters. All in games they have been favored. Mike Tomlin needs to figure this out. Stat.
The Steelers offensive ineptitude was matched on special teams where they allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown, were assessed a 5-yard penalty for too many men on a 54-yard field goal attempt and managed to execute the shortest onside kick in the game’s storied history to effectively end the game.
The defense provided a small silver lining playing perhaps it’s best game of the season—which raises its own coaching questions. Keith Butler dusted of the blitz packages that we’ve become so familiar with of the past dozen years and the Steelers were able to get consistent pressure on a quarterback for the first time all season. Hmmmm, why wait until week 9? Football 101 suggests getting to the quarterback is the best remedy for an ailing pass defense. The Steelers got to the quarterback 48 times last year with an array of exotic blitzes including the Fire X and bringing DBs off the edge. What took so long? The defense did missed a ton of tackles and gave up a 95-yard catch-and-run to former Steeler Mike Wallace, which is now in the Ravens’ record book as the longest play in their history, but they played well enough to win—albeit against an impotent Ravens offense.
*Ben Roethlisberger, not surprisingly, did start and play the entire game. His injury did not, in my view, in any way inhibit his performance.
Three Steelers suffered three injuries in the game. Maurkice Pouncey left after the second play with a dislocated thumb. He did return, but was not able to finish the game. Darrius Heyward-Bey left with what was described as a “mid-foot” injury by Tomlin afterward. If DHB suffered a lisfranc injury his season is likely over. (As much as I like what DHB, he shouldn’t be a starting receiver on this team. He is a deep threat and solid special teams player, but nothing more.) Jordan Dangerfield suffered a groin injury.
For the first time since week three Mike Tomlin actually had to make decisions as to who to sit rather than have injuries make them for him. And I thought he made some curious/questionable choices. He dressed Cobi Hamilton over Markus Wheaton (more on that later), Al Shabazz over Justin Gilbert and Sharmarko Thomas over Rosie Nix. Also not dressing were third-string QB Zach Mettenberger, OL Brian Mihalik, DL L.T. Walton and LB L.J. Fort.
Cameron Heyward, Markus Gilbert and Shamarko Thomas all returned after being out multiple weeks.
After the Miami game I wrote, “The offensive game plan was a disaster and its execution was worse.” Flip that for this one. The offensive execution was a disaster and the game plan was worse. Through three quarters the Steelers had 69 yards of total offense, 2 first downs and were 0-for-9 in third down conversions. Here is the first half dive chart:
3 plays, 3 yards, punt
3 plays, 5 yards, punt
5 plays, 21 yards, punt
3 plays, 16 yards, punt
3 plays, -8 yards, punt
3 plays, 8 yards, punt
3 plays, 3 yards, punt
1 play, kneel down, halftime
After making the necessary halftime adjustments here’s how things went through the first drive of the fourth quarter:
3 plays, 5 yards, punt
1 play, interception
3 plays, -2 yards, punt
3 plays, 7 yards, blocked punt returned for a touchdown
After the game Mike Tomlin was asked about the continued efforts to run the ball which proved unsuccessful. He responded that he didn’t want to become “one-dimensional.” For three quarters plus, they were even less than that.
*I was banging the drum for Eli Rogers all game, as I have been all season. From the first quarter:
Rogers missed some time after a toe injury in the Eagles game and being benched against the Patriots—which Mike Tomlin has yet to explain. But he is one of only three receivers that can effectively operate in the middle of the field (two in this game as Tomlin chose not to dress Markus Wheaton). It appeared Rogers was repeatedly open through the first three quarters but Ben rarely looked his way catching 1 of 4 targets for 7 yards. On the last three drives he caught 5 balls on 8 targets for 96 yards. He needs to be a central part of the game plan going forward.
*Ben Roethlisberger was terrible. On the road. Again. Remember this one from a few weeks back?
Ben threw a TD late to even out the road numbers at 18 after that tweet during the Miami game and had 1 and 1 vs. the Ravens to make it 19 and 19.
Ben likes his receivers “college open,” meaning clear of any defenders. He has struggled against zone defenses and Sunday was no different. He made some terrible decisions and some terrible throws. He should have had two passes picked off and he made some other throws that had no chance of being caught. Have the Bengals and Ravens figured Ben out and will others follow their blueprint? In Ben’s last two starts he has produced 2 of the 13 lowest Total QBR ratings by any QB all season. The Steelers aren’t going anywhere if that doesn’t change.
*Antonio Brown’s right, the Steelers other receivers need to step up. Sammie Coates dropped a potential TD in the back of the end zone and finished with no catches in five targets.
While acknowledging that the Ravens offense isn’t good, the Steelers defense was solid. After giving up 21 yards on the first 4 running plays, they held the Ravens to 29 yards on 25 carries the rest of the way which included a 14 yard scramble by Joe Flacco. They were able to sack Flacco three times and got their first interception by a DB this season. Baltimore converted only 4-17 third down opportunities and were 0-1 in the red zone.
*Artie Burns was solid in his first start at corner. Burns played every defensive snap and finished with his first career interception, four tackles, one tackle-for-loss and two passes defensed. I would expect Burns to be the starter going forward. As for the TD, Burns got beat on an 8-yards slant, but the 95-yard TD isn’t just on him.
*James Harrison had his best game of the year continually getting the best of Ravens first round pick Ronnie Stanley registering six tackles, two sacks and three tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble.
*Ryan Shazier continues to show how dynamic he can be when he can stay on the field. He finished with nine tackles, half a sack and 2.5 tackles-for-loss. He caused a big forced fumble that produced a 13-yard loss and killed another Ravens drive.
*Mike Mitchell. Talks a lot. Missed two tackles that cost the Steelers about 115 yards and a TD. Finished the game with one tackle.
*Cam Heyward didn’t have a bad game, but was very quiet in his first game back from injury registering only two tackles.
Rough day for Danny Smith and his units.
*After a poor 28 yard first punt, Jordan Berry did an excellent job. He finished the day with 9 punts for a 47.9 yd/avg. while limiting Devin Hester to just 3 returns for 15 yards.
*Shamarko Thomas did a great job downing a Berry punt inside the five yard line.
*I have no idea what Sean Davis was thinking on the Ravens punt block for a touchdown. He whiffed on his man on the edge and didn’t make any effort to recover. Inexplicable.
*With 00:08 seconds left in the first half the Ravens lined up for a 54-yard FG. Not exactly a chip shot, even with Justin Tucker as the kicker. The Steelers got penalized 5-yards for having 12 men on the field. Again inexplicable.
*As for the short onside kick in the history of the game….was the technique really going to have any impact in terms of fooling the Ravens hands team? I doubt it. Why make things any harder than they need to be. Inexplicable number three.
This was a miserable performance and responsibility starts at the top. The Steelers are 5-12 in their last 17 road games against opponents below .500. This isn’t a narrative and it starts with the head coach, his staff and the quarterback. The Steelers have been outscored 70-11…….70-11 in their last three road games in the first three quarters.
*On the Ravens opening drive they faced a 3rd-and-2 from the Steelers 35. The Steelers blitzed and forced Flacco to throw incomplete. The Ravens were penalized for illegal use of the hands to the face mask of Jarvis Jones. Mike Tomlin accepted the penalty rather than let the Ravens attempt a 52-yard FG. On the ensuing play pressure from Mike Mitchell and Stephon Tuitt caused another incompletion and forced the Ravens to punt. Good decision by Tomlin to accept the penalty.
*Did I mention the offensive game plan?
*13 penalties coming out of the bye week?
*I do not understand the decision to dress Cobi Hamilton over Markus Wheaton. It made no sense.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Some questionable calls as always, but nothing that impacted the outcome.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Dallas Cowboys (7-1) at Heinz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:25 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after 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.