This was the game. Beat the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers were right back into the AFC North division race. Lose to the Ravens and last week’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals was just a victory over a sad sack team.
I drove up to Pittsburgh Saturday morning with Steve S., a Burgher now living in the Washington DC suburbs. We met for the first time in Manila few weeks ago. The commonality being the city of Black & Gold. We’re a generation apart. I’m in my 60’s; he still skirting the upper edge of his 30’s. Yet, it was like we had been making this drive for years together. Got to stop in Breezewood at Crawford’s Black & Gold Headquarters gift shop just in case we forgot any Steelers gear. Not even a mention, just pull into the parking lot and step into one of the entry ways into Steelers Nation.
We both knew that the drive back to DC Sunday night would either be a happy or sad occasion. No in-between. That’s just the way it is. We’d either be driving back exulting in a Steelers victory; or making the drive of shame conducting a postmortem to identify just where it all went wrong. We hooked up with Rich N., the 3rd of our Philippines cohorts just before the game. Even got to meet Steve’s brother who was slinging beers at Stage AE.
I also have to mention Canada Glen. He flew down from Toronto on Saturday to celebrate his 55th birthday in Pittsburgh. A solid part of the international contingent of Steelers fans from around the world.
The Steelers Forecast
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
Matthew Marczi was on a much-needed hiatus and we missed his articles badly. Matt is back in the USA, so looking forward to seeing what to watch for next week against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Tom Mead identified the matchups to watch this week. He directed our attention to the Ravens run game versus the Steelers defense. Specifically, the Ravens 11 personnel package against the Steelers Nickel defense. The Ravens were averaging over 200 rushing yards a game going into this matchup. The defense held Baltimore to 138 yards on the ground.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Ravens prediction. Alex foresaw the Steelers winning if the defense controlled the line of scrimmage, the cornerbacks could cover the receivers one on one, and the special teams could compete in the battle for field position. Alex saw defeat if Mason Rudolph got confused, James Washington could not make a big play, or if the defense played too much man defense thus giving Lamar Jackson opportunities to run wild. In the end, Alex predicted a 29-13 Raven blowout. He did not foresee Rudolph getting knocked senseless; the ill-advised use of the wildcat for an interception and loss of yardage on a 2nd & 1 play. It was also JuJu Smith-Schuster who failed to come up with the big play in overtime. Yoi.
Dave Bryan identified the keys to a Steelers victory. First key was limiting Mark Ingram & Mark Andrews. Second was for the defensive line to exploit injured center Matt Skura. Third was for Mason Rudolph successfully throwing deeper downfield. The fourth key was receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster gaining yards after the catch (worked once for a TD; the last catch not so well). Then the Steelers defense needed to keep Lamar Jackson in the pocket and not running away with the ball. The sixth key was to limit Marquise Brown and prevent any explosive 20+ yard receptions from him. The final key and a significant one as it turns out was the Steelers return game and resulting field position battle. This seventh key put the Steeler in a hole early in the game and impacted Mike Tomlin’s decision-making after the overtime coin flip. Yoi.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex Kozora’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
The Steelers brain trust really outsmarted themselves early in the game. I always thought it was former offensive coordinator Todd Haley who eschewed quarterback sneaks or would throw the ball instead of just running up the middle behind a talented offensive line on short yardage plays. But we found out before the game that Randy Fichtner doesn’t like quarterback sneaks. As the current coordinator, he must take a share of the blame for going to the wildcat on the second drive. A drive that lasted one play when Jaylen Samuels threw an interception on first down. Result: Baltimore touchdown and a 10-point lead in the first quarter. Fichtner and Tomlin, who blesses his coordinator’s game plans, must also share the blame for calling a wildcat on 2nd & 1 from the Ravens 7-yard line. Result: a 5-yard loss and a field goal instead of a touchdown. That 4-point swing after a turnover was decisive in a close game.
The offense did have good moments in the first half to keep it close. After a 21-yard completion to James Washington, James Conner had two strong runs. A short pass to JuJu, who broke a tackle or a defender trying to punch the ball loose and he is in for 35-yard touchdown. Mason Rudolph also just overthrew Johnny Holton on a 3rd & 10 play. I thought Holton could have laid out to try for a diving catch, but it was just a step and a half in front of him. Following another turnover, the Steeler had to settle for a field goal to end the half with a timeout and two downs still available. The Steelers got the ball at their own 25-yard line with 33 seconds on the clock but could only manage to get three plays off before settling for a field goal. The time killer was the first down pass to Jaylen Samuels who was tackled in bounds after a 4-yard gain. Yet another 4-point swing.
Pittsburgh’s fortunes changed dramatically in their first possession of the second half. Mason Rudolph had evaded the rush, rolled out and completed a pass to James Washington to convert a 3rd & 11 into a first down. Unfortunately, cheap shot artist, Earl Thomas ended Rudolph’s night with a brutal helmet to helmet shot. A penalty was called but Thomas continued playing while Rudolph wobbled off the field clearly out for the game.
Enter Devlin Hodges, one of Samford University’s finest. After handing off the ball to Conner, Hodges was given the opportunity to throw the ball. It reminded me of 7-shots back in minicamp. He’s short but can rifle the ball. Vance McDonald took the ball to the one on a nice catch. Conner bulled it in for a clear touchdown though the referees felt the need to review it for a long time – to get a television commercial in. Hodges threw an interception on an ill-advised cross body throw but a defensive penalty saved him. Offensive penalties killed the drive, but the “duck-caller” was boldly throwing his ducks in a row. He showed he has wheels with a 21-yard scamper that led to a field goal that put the Steelers in a temporary 23-20 lead in regulation.
In overtime, Hodges did his job. He completed his only pass to the Steelers best playmaker – JuJu Smith-Schuster. Unfortunately, JuJu could not hold onto the ball and break the tackle. A bad bounce kept the ball inbounds and Instead of a first down near midfield the Ravens and their kicking machine had the ball to end the game in their favor.
The defense was far from perfect in the first half but managed to keep Pittsburgh in the game. Baltimore had six possession in the first half. Their average starting position was the Pittsburgh 39. The crucial play on the first drive was a 10-yard completion to Mark Andrews on 3rd & 8 which eventually led to a 3-0 Baltimore lead. Baltimore just needed to gain 15 yards to score a touchdown following Samuels interception. The 3rd drive was on the defense who allowed Baltimore to go 75 yards for a 17-7 lead after the Steelers finally got on the scoreboard. The crucial play on that possession was a 24-yard completion to Andrews on a 3rd & 9 play. After that, the defense buckled down. Kameron Kelly ended one drive by intercepting a pass intended for Andrews. Pittsburgh stymied Baltimore’s next drive with consecutive sacks by T.J. Watt and Vince Williams. Then another sack by Cam Heyward and Mike Hilton intercepting Lamar Jackson’s pass to set up the Steelers field goal to end the half. A rough start but a good ending.
The defense limited the Ravens to three field goals in the 2nd half. They did allow one long drive and got as close as the 9-yard line, but a holding call, and sure tackling limited the Ravens to a field goal. The opening drive was ended by a Devin Bush interception. The Steelers almost capitalized on a punt downed at the one-yard line by Artie Burns. Stephon Tuitt & Watt stopped Gus Edwards for no gain, but it sure looked like he never got out of the end zone. I hoped for a review, but it did not happen. Not sure if the play was blown dead or if he had forward progress but I never saw his feet leave the endzone.
The critical play on the last possession in regulation was the 2nd & 8 roughing the passer call on Ola Adeniyi. He was wrapping his arms around Jackson and did not launch himself into the quarterback. A ludicrous call that converted what should have been a 3rd & 8 play from the Ravens 27-yard line to a first down near midfield. Even if Ola was wrapping Jackson around the ankles it should have been a non-call. If you can’t even wrap your arms around a quarterback, the NFL is no longer playing tackle football.
In overtime, the defense did their job. I believe that Mike Tomlin made the right call to defer after winning the coinflip. Bud Dupree sacked Jackson to force the punt. Baltimore was already in kicking range when they recovered JuJu’s fumble. The defense gave up six more yards, but the die was cast.
Special teams play can be broken down into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays). I believe John Harbaugh is the only career special teams coordinator who is currently a head coach in the NFL, and it shows. Baltimore has the best NFL kicker/punter duo in Justin Tucker & Sam Koch.
Both Chris Boswell and Tucker were perfect in field goals. They combined for 7 field goals in the game.
Koch punted three times averaging 51.7 yards per punt. Ryan Switzer managed one 13-yard return. Jordan Berry punted four times averaging 43.8 yards per punt. Baltimore had one 2-yard return. I’d call this battle for Pittsburgh. Three of Berry’s 4 punts put the Ravens starting point behind the 20 including one downed by Artie Burns at the 1-yard line. Koch punted longer but had a touchback, a punt returned for 13 yards by Switzer into Baltimore territory and the final punt in overtime that was fair caught at the 32-yard line.
However, kickoffs were a substantial difference. It seemed like when Steelers returners received kicks, the Ravens were already swarming past the 20-yard line. Conversely, when Boswell’s kicks reached the endzone, Steelers kickoff teams were between the 30- and 25-yard line. I’m hoping Dave or Alex analyze this bit of film, but it makes a difference.
Boswell kicked off 5 times. Four were touchbacks and his one short kick was returned 46 yards from the 13-yard line all the way back to Pittsburgh’s 42-yard line. So, their starting position from kickoffs was the Baltimore 25, Pittsburgh 42; then Baltimore 25, 25 & 25. Justin Tucker is well capable of kicking the ball out of the end zone whenever he desires. Instead; he kicked the ball near the goal line or just inside the endzone. The resulting starting position for Pittsburgh was their own 11, their 12 (after a holding penalty), the 25, 25, their own 15 and finally the 25. Pittsburgh’ average starting position was behind the 20-yard line while Baltimore’s was around the 32.
Now the Steelers defense did force a Baltimore punt after their long kick return but this disparity in starting position does make a difference, especially when you have inexperienced quarterbacks.
Your Hot Takes During the Game
First Half Reader Comments
Steelers Depot readers commented 985 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Just below the standard but respondents were stunned that the Steelers were hanging into the game with just a 13-17 deficit at the end of one half of play.
Alevin16 had the top-rated comment as he delved into the mind of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner: “Fichtner is on the sideline thinking ‘Hey how about the wildcat, they won’t see it coming.’” Paepercup explained the obvious, “it worked last week which means it will work all the time.”
Nunya shared a lot of people’s sentiments when they showed the wildcat early: “If they don’t let Mason go ahead and play today, we are gonna get obliterated.”
Psteelers was perplexed at the play calling on short yardage “2nd and 1 and we have to try and trick them. SMH I hate this brand of football.”
Predictably after digging an early hole, VaSteeler got agreement on his assessment of the Steelers coaching staff: “This is the worst group of coaches ever assembled in Steelers franchise history! No preparation! No adjustments! Same exact game plan from last week!! Maybe they would do better if they actually lived in their fears and had to worry about losing their jobs!!”
Chris92021 did not candy-coat his feelings early in the game. “Worst coached defense in the league, ladies and gentlemen.” Later in the half after some reflection he noted, “Nearly everything is going wrong and we are only down 4.”
Let’s see what reactions Steelers Depot respondents had in the second half ….
Second Half Reader Comments
A strong showing of 1419 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. I was at the game so did not contribute much to the conversation. But yinz carried the day.
Greg Payne shared Burgher’s saltiness while comparing the quarterback roughing penalties, “Yah, that’s roughing, but if you give someone a concussion there is no flag.”
Mrwirez identified the moment when Roger Goodell’s squad of striped lying flying monkeys helped decide the outcome of the game: “It all goes back to the refs bad call.” Instead of 3rd & 8 on a play where Ola Adeniyi wrapped his arms to tackle the quarterback, the Ravens are rewarded with a first down.
Dirtdawg1964 saw reasons for the loss differently: “Nope. It goes to bad special teams. Holton has to be told you don’t advance it from the end zone. Ever. And running the wildcat on second and one? Nonsense. Some bad coaching today.”
Walter had another take, “We needed that safety.”
Nunya saw the silver lining in a dark cloud of the loss, “Ok…as frustrated as I have been this game, it has taken me back to the good ole days of this rivalry. It’s been fun>” Shane Mitchell was similar, “I hope we don’t go conservative, play to win.”
Alevin16 summed it up this way, “A well-coached team vs a poorly coached team.”
All of the ups and downs of the game led to a set of circumstances that put Pittsburgh into a position to win the game at the end. Mike Tomlin made the right decision to defer on the overtime coin flip. Baltimore had been winning the field position battle on kickoffs all game. Justin Tucker’s career long field goal is a full 8 yards further than Boswell’s best. They just have to make it to the Pittsburgh 42-yard line to be within his range. Tomlin bet on his defense holding and they held.
Instead of starting from behind their own 25, young Devlin Hodges got the ball at the 32-yard line. That meant Pittsburgh was 33 yards from getting within Boswell’s potential range. Hodges did his part getting the ball into the Steelers best playmaker’s hands for what would have been a first down and no more than 20 yards to get within Boswell’s range. Unfortunately, JuJu did not protect the ball and Marlon Humphrey punched it out and recovered his own forced fumble. Appropriately, Justin Tucker applied the coup de grace.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-4. Predictably, there are the boo birds calling for Mike Tomlin and the rest of his staff to be fired. It’s not happening folks. For those howling in the wind for Tomlin’s pink slip, you must be happy with Dan Snyder who holds his coaches under account. Go be a Washington Redskins fan. Pittsburgh made the decision long ago to forgo the coaching merry-go-round after years of mediocrity from 1933-1969 and some 15 different head coaches if you count the Steagles & Card-Pitts. That’s a new head coach about every three seasons. Go be a Cleveland Browns fan. The Steelers are not a perfect team and the coaches are certainly fallible. Their inexplicable decision to run the wildcat put the team in an early hole. The defense gave up some early plays. There were some dumb penalties. This is not Bill Belichick and Tom “Peter Perfect” Brady. You want that, go be a New England Patriots fan.
Pittsburgh fans live with their emotions on their sleeves. They expect winning football. It is not happening right now. I love Steelers Nation, but it’s flawed just like our team. Steelers fans are great when the team is winning. But just watch and listen when they lose. Heck, I remember Pittsburgh fans booing Roberto Clemente when he was hurt and pulled himself from games. The “Great One”! I can recall Franco Harris being booed for running out of bounds instead of trying to ram the ball for an extra yard or two after a first down. Terry Bradshaw, an owner of four Super Bowl rings and an MVP was booed when his arm just didn’t have the zip anymore. Witness Pittsburgh’s reaction to the hapless Pirates. It was before my time, but Art Rooney once stopped announcing the Steelers starters before games because the booing was so bad – before the kickoff even took place.
The Steelers have lost four All-Pro talents over the past two seasons (Ryan Shazier, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and now Ben Roethlisberger). No matter, the standard in Pittsburgh remains. Win or be booed. Some are already talking about tanking the season to get a good draft choice next year. Wait, oops Kevin Colbert traded it away for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers don’t position themselves during the season to lift their position in the draft. They play to win. Even if it means ending up 8-8. You don’t like it? Go be a Miami Dolphins fan. I’m not very tolerant of the snowflake generation. But truth be told, Pittsburgh fans have always been snowflakes when their teams lose. Time for a meltdown until we find the really stalwart fans. They’ll be there. They still might boo, but they will be there in their finest Black & Gold apparel. That’s just what we do.
Really the only antidote for curing the Pittsburgh cynicism is winning. Art Rooney II knows it. Mike Tomlin knows it. The veteran Steelers know it. The Chargers are up next. Mike Tomlin needs to come up with a plan to beat them with either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges quarterbacking. In 1976 the Steelers were 1-4 in what was then a 14-game season. Few gave them a chance to bounce make and make the playoffs. Pittsburgh is a throwback city. Even the car radio plays music that is often a couple decades behind the latest. Realistically we know that past success does not guarantee future results. But past glory does give us that glimmer of possibility. What can be. The Chief, Art Rooney was in the elevator on his way to the locker room to console his team when Franco ran to the ball. He never saw it; but he certainly must have heard it. The Steelers are 1-4 with their backs to the door. Eleven more games to go. Time for the Steelers to channel 1976. I’m not happy today.
The Steelers lost but I got my Black & Gold on today. Here We go.
Your Music Selection
I always like to offer a music selection. For those that listened to Friday’s Terrible Podcast, here is Don’t Bring Me Down by the Electric Light Orchestra. I’m sure Dave Bryan has a foam “Disco Sucks” beer can cooler stashed somewhere in a storage box. But have to admit to listening and dancing to Cut the Cake by the AWB back in the day.