The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Heinz Field Saturday night wearing an 0-3 playoff millstone around their neck, an embarrassing loss to the Houston Texans and an escape like win vs. the lowly Cleveland Browns. In contrast, the Steelers had closed their season with 4 straight wins looking as a team that had hit its stride.
- The Ravens of course turned the tables, tossed off the millstone and won the day to the tune of 30-17.
Some faithful in Steelers Nation have looked to the statistics and see the Steelers coming out ahead in terms of yards, plays, and time of possession and scratched their heads asking “Why?”
In a game like this, numbers that measure fundamentals and not Fantasy Football stats are what really carry the day. And on that front the Ravens dominated where it really counted and in doing so they revealed limits of how far the 2014 Steelers could realistically aspire to.
Bubble Gum, Spit and Duct Tape Secondary Only Gets Steelers So Far
Throughout Steelers Nation, fans are fingering any number of the Steelers flaws to explain the Raven’s first playoff win at Heinz Field. Most of what’s being discussed is on point and will find its way into this article further on down. But there’s something most are missing:
- The Steelers secondary may have been good enough to get it to the playoffs, but lacked the talent to carry them through the playoffs.
Just six days before, Cris Collinsworth – whom no one will ever accuse of favoring the Steelers – praised the job that the Steelers “spare parts” secondary had done. The secondary earned that praise, as they pushed the Steelers over the Bengals. The Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi noted how the group had virtually eliminated the long-ball in the season’s final weeks.
- But the playoff introduce an entirely new dynamic.
And in this new dynamic, the Steelers secondary was out of its depth. Brice McCain had a shot at an interception – very similar to the one he made in the regular season a week ago. Interceptions are harder to make in the playoffs.
Steve Smith Sr., Owen Daniels, and don’t call him “David” Crockett Gilmore all had catches for over 20 yards. But the numbers only tell part of the tale. The Joe Flacco may have passed for fewer yards than Ben Roethlisberger, but he connected with his receivers when he had to….
…And there’s a reason for that.
Ravens Dictate at the Line of Scrimmage
Like all good Steelers-Ravens match ups, this one was won and lost in the trenches. It would be wrong to say the Ravens controlled the line of scrimmage all night. Saying they dominated at the line of scrimmage when they needed to would be right.
- The Steelers defensive line offers a perfect example.
Credit Dick LeBeau and Johnny Mitchell for adjusting to shut down Justin Forsett in the second half. As Behind the Steel Curtain’s editor Neal Coolong pointed out, Forsett had fewer yards at the end of the game than he began the 3rd quarter with. All of those “Tackles for loss” look pretty on Vince Williams, Lawrence Timmons, and Jason Worilds stat sheet.
But such appearances fail to mask the reality that the Ravens imposed their will by rushing the ball down the Steelers throat during the final 26 yards of their first touchdown drive.
More importantly, the Ravens offensive line kept Joe Flacco clean, giving him the time he needed to pick apart the Steelers secondary.
- The story is similar on the other side of the ball.
The Steelers offensive line struggled in the first half, but improved somewhat in the second half. There were times when Ben Roethlisberger had all day to throw. But the Ravens didn’t simply sack Ben Roethlisberger 5 times, Baltimore collapsed Pittsburgh’s pass protection at the worst possible times:
- Haloti Nagata knocked the Steelers out of field goal range on their first drive
- Elivs Dumervil ended a 3rd and 11 with a sack on the Steelers next drive, forcing another field goal
- Brandon Williams sacked Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers at the Raven’s ten, scuttling the series and helping force another field goal
- Elivs Dumervil ended the Steelers final drive of the 3rd quarter by sacking Roethlisberger for a 12 yard loss
- Courtney Upshaw’s final sack of Roethlisberger didn’t end the drive, Bruce Gradkowski kept it alive
But when Roethlisberger returned to the game, he promptly threw an interception in the end zone….
Steelers Stumble, Ravens Rumble
…It was that kind of a game for the Steelers. However, if any one word describes the 2014 Steelers it is “resilient.” The Steelers defense not only kept the Ravens pinned down against Pittsburgh’s end zone, Shamarko Thomas blocked a punt, netting a safety.
Suddenly, the Steelers were within 13 points…
…And just as suddenly, the ever reliable Heath Miller was fumbling the ball back to the Ravens.
- And so ended the Steelers 2014 season.
Credit the John Harbaugh and his Baltimore Ravens squad – they were the better team at Heinz Field Saturday night. They made the plays when they needed to, they deserve the victory.
Ravens Advance, Pittsburgh Picks Up Pieces
The 2014 Steelers have been an erratic bunch, and for whatever reason they reverted to their early season form in the playoffs. It is impossible to know why.
- Credit the Steelers for refusing to use the absence of Le’Veon Bell as an excuse, but clearly not having Bell hurt the Steelers.
But Bell’s absence had nothing to do with the epidemic of penalties, including three bone-headed personal fouls. Playoff inexperience may have contributed in part. But that fails to explain the poor line play (Maurkuice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and Ramon Foster all have post-season experience) or execution failure by the likes of Heath Miller.
Steelers Nation may resist swallowing such a bitter pill, but the Ravens remain the class of the AFC North, as they have been since their November 2011 win at Heinz.
- Baltimore proved it by advancing to the divisional playoff round.
The truth is that the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers probably went as far as their talent could take them, and for that, this team should hang its head high. For the first 3 quarters of the 2014 season, the Steelers slipped into “win a game, lose a game” mode, until late in the season when the team succeeded in stepping up its focus enough to string together four straight victories.
If this playoff loss can teach these players to apply the same lesson then next time they reach the post-season, then this loss will not be for naught.