As the Steelers traveled to Baltimore the question that hung in the air was “How much of an impact will the exploding Ray Rice controversy impact the Ravens? How will John Harbaugh deal with the distraction.”
- However, if an ignorant observer were to judge by the events on M&T Field, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers who are a team in distraction.
Sorting through the aftermath of the Steelers 26-6 loss to the Ravens and trying to pin point a reason feels somewhat like trying to straighten a bowl of spaghetti. You know the pieces are there, but it is hard to see where one stops and the others begin. Nonetheless, good scribes must try.
Fumbling and Stumbling
After winning the toss, the Steelers took the attack to the Ravens much as they had done to the Browns in the first half of the season opener as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown led the team downfield. It was a workman like drive, but the Steelers had moved into the end zone and looked poised to score.
- Then Justin Brown fumbled after a six yard pass, and the Steelers spent the rest of the night stumbling.
When asked about the impact of Brown’s fumble Mike Tomlin scoffed “The outcome of the game is not going to be defined in the initial moments of the game, whether it’s positive or negative.” Credit the Steeler head coach for refusing to hide behind the fumble as an excuse, but the truth is after that moment, the Steelers lacked focus on either side of the ball.
The Steelers did enjoy some individual bright spots:
- Antonio Brown almost broke the 100 yard mark despite missing time due to an injury,
- Bell continued to make things happen whenever he touched the ball,
- Cameron Heyward continued to play with authority, coming in 4th on the team in tackles
But those performances were hardly indicative of the Steelers as a team. Perhaps the most ominous aspect for the Steelers early season performance is the penalties. The zebras flagged the Steelers 9 times for 75 yards.
Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I am an occasional contributor to BTSC) summarizes the lethal impact those little yellow flags can have.
- The Ravens only outgained the Steelers by 23 yards
- At 5 for 12, Baltimore was actually worse than Pittsburgh at converting 3rd downs
But the Steelers continually extended drives with penalties. Fully 4 of their flags came on personal fouls called against defensive backs – the Ravens scored on each of those drives.
Penalties and turnovers weren’t the only self-inflicted wounds the Steelers suffered. For a second straight week, they failed to secure a turn over and, for the second straight week, signing bonus baby Cortez Allen let an interception slip through his fingers.
At least Allen was in the right place – on that play – as the Ravens capitalized on several other missed assignments in the secondary to put the Steelers away. By themselves, missed assignments are understandable, they’re going to happen.
But the Steelers also failed to get any pressure on Joe Flacco – not a single player laid a hand on him per ESPN stats.
And that lack of pressure is what allows a quarterback to take advantage of miscues.
Defense Follows Script Offense Adlibs
While the performance of the Steelers defense over the last 6 quarters is alarming, it is not unexpected. With many new faces in key spots, as well as older faces in the same spots the smart money had the Steelers defense struggling, at least early in the season.
- The offense was supposed to carry the team, and in that sense this unit is adlibbing.
Despite all of the nice looking cumulative stats and solid individual performances, the offense struggled to stay on the same page:
- An overthrown pass to Heath Miller near the end of the first half cost the Steelers a scoring opportunity
- Scott Brown documented Roethlisberger overthrowing 3 open wideouts before the outcome had been decided
- Heath Miller fumbled away the Steelers first play of the 4th quarter
Two games into the 2014 season the Pittsburgh Steelers remain a team characterized by its lose ends.
Fortunately Mike Tomlin has got 10 days to find a way to tie some of those off. He’d better move quickly, because for the last 6 quarters the Steelers have looked a lot more like the ’13 team that started 2-6 as opposed to the one that finished 6-2.