It’s a familiar, hackneyed script in a B-movie, a sequel with a worn out storyline, heading to a big screen near you as the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the 3-4 Baltimore Ravens in the latest rerun of this former smash hit National Football League rivalry.
The Steelers are coming off a bye week, which in the NFL is typically a welcome source of rest and recovery for the players on a team. In this case, the bye couldn’t have come at a better time…for Steelers Nation…where there is much healing required for fans who are mostly posting poor reviews for their beloved team’s first half performance.
After a triumphant “Redemption Sunday” 43-14 drubbing of the Kansas City Chiefs in week four of the NFL season, Coach Mike Tomlin hoped for more of that Hollywood magic in the team’s most recent game against the New England Patriots a couple of weeks ago.
Instead, it was rotten tomatoes and a box office flop as QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick proved to be overwhelming villains to Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler’s struggling defense.
This sets the stage for “RS3”, a must-win requirement for Tomlin’s team unless they want the theme of 2016 to continue to drift toward “I Coulda Been A Contender”. Will they remain in the conversation as a team most likely to walk on the red carpet in 2016? Or will their season be rolled up in a carpet and thrown in the back of a black Caddy?
Spoiler alert. Here is your Spin:
Gone With The Wind
Sadly, the 2016 Super Bowl script was changed permanently with the Steelers loss to the Patriots. The New Englanders are now 7-1 and barring major injury setbacks are too stocked with talent and too well coached to suffer an end-of-the-year collapse. Regardless of how the rest of the regular season unfolds for Pittsburgh, the road to the Super Bowl will go through Foxborough. Oh…how different the storyline would have been if the Steelers had taken full advantage of home cooking against the Patriots. Instead, they made a real meal of it and the result is more likely to be heartburn than heartwarming at the end of the season.
On The Waterfront
The good news for the Black and Gold is Coach Mike Tomlin is a closer in that his horses always run well in the back half of the season. This task should be even easier since the ponies ahead of him have a combined record of 26-41. In fact, the Steelers will only face two teams with winning records to finish out their season.
Baltimore Ravens 3-4
Dallas Cowboys 6-1
Cleveland Browns 0-8
Indianapolis Colts 3-5
New York Giants 4-3
Buffalo Bills 4-4
Cincinnati Bengals 3-4
Baltimore Ravens 3-4
Cleveland Browns 0-8
The Christmas Carol
When the Steelers take on the Ravens this weekend they will get a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future. For it will be this December 25th when the Steelers will play the Nevermores again at home for…hopefully…a special Christmastime story for Steelers Nation. What will this weekend’s game mean for the Steelers? If they lose to Coach John Harbaugh’s squad, they’ll surrender an AFC North tiebreaker edge that will surely haunt them late in the season. The Ravens have a tougher second half schedule than Pittsburgh with an away game versus the Dallas Cowboys, two matches against the Cincinnati Bengals, and games still in store versus the Philadelphia Eagles and the Patriots. In other words, if the Steelers can get back on track this Sunday, the team has the opportunity to forge a significant advantage against the Ravens with a two game lead and a tiebreaker advantage. If they stumble it could lead to coal in the stockings for all of Steelers Nation.
There is no question the Steelers have lost their balance over the past few games and are in desperate need of a steadying hand. That might just come with the return of Marcus Gilbert, the team’s hulking right tackle. Much attention has been on the disappointing play of G David DeCastro whose play checked out shortly after cashing in with his new major contract. What may have been learned in the last few weeks is how important Gilbert is to the right side of the Steelers offensive line. Count on seeing DeCastro bouncing back now that his right hand man is back in the lineup.
The return to quality play for the Steelers offensive line will be especially important in keeping QB Ben Roethlisberger upright for the remainder of the season. QB Landry Jones’ passing performance was passable against the Patriots, but it also reaffirmed the Steelers are an average team at best with him as the team’s leading man. It must be said as well that Big Ben’s uneven play has been below the bar of Great Expectations, so hopefully he’ll come back with a healthy knee and a steadier hand moving forward.
One thing is certain, the Steelers cannot afford any more Miami Dolphins game type of collapses the remainder of the season. With the Cleveland Browns and their 0-8 record looming ahead, the Steelers have plenty of opportunity to produce some more horror flicks. They have to start being the bully if they are truly champion grade. I remember a friend of mine years ago, who weighed about 130 pounds, was about as unathletic as you can imagine and had thick glasses to boot. One time, he admirably, if unwisely, went toe-to-toe with a bully in our high school who was a talented boxer. In one instant he was talking grade-A smack, and then in a flash, he was receiving a fist to the nose, and in slow motion he fell straight back to the ground like a domino, and was out cold. That was the end of the Revenge of the Nerds. The Steelers need to start behaving like bullies and use their tremendous offensive punch to knock out opponents cold in the first quarter. The Ravens game would give them a chance to demonstrate their uppercut.
As great as WR Antonio Brown is in fantasy and real life football, and as mesmerizing as RB LeVeon Bell can with the football in his hands, it won’t be enough to overcome the team’s defensive deficiencies. That’s just a fact now that we’re almost halfway through the season. For the team to be fully explosive they need WR Sammie Coates to grow up quickly in his role as the dynamic, deep threat needed to take the top off of defenses. That will strip the double and triple teams from Brown and open the gates for Bell. It’s time for Coates to fully be the team’s Mike Wallace. What better time when the founding member of the Young Money Crew is on the same field?
The Grapes of Wrath
With a few notable exceptions, the Steelers defense has played its supporting role admirably for the team. Its performance in the red zone has been mostly impressive, and has kept the Steelers in games when its offense hasn’t been the star performer it needs to be. However; there is one fundamental flaw with Keith Butler’s strategy of bending but not breaking that will kill the team’s aspirations this year. It takes too much bloody time away from the offense. NFL games are extremely short as it is. They are only sixty minutes long, and most of this sand falls while grown men huddle together, sharing words of encouragement. Butler needs to stop draining the clock. There are way too few three and outs generated by this defense, and the lack of splash plays, sacks and turnovers is approaching historical lows. In past glory years, the Steelers have excelled by simply trusting their defense. It’s time for the team to do the same with their offense. Dial up the blitzes. Send in eleven if you must. But get off the field!
The Steelers are a team with a winning record facing a soft schedule for the remainder of the season. They certainly remain in a strong position for entry into the playoffs. There is no panic. There is no desperation. But, if they are going to assert themselves as one of the league’s elite, it is truly High Noon for Tomlin and his team following the bye week. It’s always tough for the Steelers to win in Baltimore, and the fact that the team will have to rely on either Landry Jones or a hobbled Big Ben makes the task even tougher. But the Spin says this game will end with a much needed Tomlin fist pump. Steelers 24 Ravens 17.