The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to M&T Bank Stadium coming off their bye week with relatively strong health against a Baltimore Ravens team that had lost four straight. At the end of the day, none of those off the field aesthetics mattered at all, as the headline Baltimore beats Pittsburgh 21-14 communicates a basic reality.
- The Baltimore Ravens improved their winning streak over the Pittsburgh Steelers for one simple reason:
Across the board, the Ravens beat the Steelers by because they had better execution of fundamentals that define winning football. That’s the stark truth of the matter.
Ravens Dominate the Line of Scrimmage
Todd Haley’s game plan became crystal clear very early on in the game: Use Le’Veon Bell to dictate the pace of the game. Given how effective Le’Veon Bell has been with the ball in his hands this fall, few should fault the logic behind Haley’s thinking, even if Baltimore did enter the game with the NFL’s number 3 rush defense.
- But if you’re going to run the ball effectively, you must dominate at the line of scrimmage.
And the Steelers offensive line got dominated by the Raven’s front seven. The Pittsburgh’s offensive lineman may have provided decent pass protection, but they chronically failed to open lanes for Le’Veon Bell. On paper the Steelers offense is designed to take advantage of those situations.
- If it were all just a simple fantasy football exercise, frustration upfront should give Ben Roethlisberger time to do damage downfield.
Except real football doesn’t mimic a fantasy game, and Ben Roethlisberger looked very rusty and consistently misfired in trying to hit receivers downfield. That stat sheet shows that Ben Roethlisberger only threw one interception, but the fact is he threw two or 3 passes that could easily been interceptions.
In this case the numbers don’t lie, and the picture they paint isn’t pretty for Pittsburgh:
- Antonio Brown had 2 catches for 9 yards going into the 4th quarter
- The Steelers failed to convert a 3rd down until the 4th quarter
- Even 4th quarter garbage time “surge” Roethlisberger failed to find Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey on 8 attempts
What’s more, failed exchanges between B.J. Finney and Roethlisberger came together to make up a comedy of errors. And that’s without even considering the special teams….
Butler’s Adjustments to Steelers Defense Effective, but Insufficient
Before turning to the special teams, a review of the performance of the Steelers defense vs. the Ravens is in order, because of the context it provides.
Fans can be forgiven if they abandonded all hope when the saw Terrance West open the game with runs of 8, 6, and 5 yards. He also tacked on another 9 yard effort and then opened the second half with runs of 8 and 5 yards.
- Yet, when it was all over, West walked away with a total of 21 rushing yards.
Kenneth Dixon didn’t do much better. Credit Keith Butler for making the in-game adjustment to effectively shut off the Raven’s rushing attack. Likewise, credit Butler’s crew for forcing the Ravens to punt as many times as the Steelers did.
- The 2016 Steelers have forged identity of a team that struggles on the road.
During the Steelers road losses to the Eagles and the Dolphins, Keith Butler’s defense was a glaring liability on so many fronts. The same cannot be said of the Steelers loss to the Ravens (or to the Patriots for that matter.) Yes, the defense did give up a 95 yard touchdown pass which isn’t forgivable.
- But Keith Butler’s defense went into Baltimore, and held the Raven’s defense to 13 points at home.
While no one will confuse the 2016 Ravens with the 1989 49ers, the 1993 Cowboys or the greatest show on turf, if you go into an opposing stadium and hold their offense to 13 points, you’re generally playing winning defense….
Steelers Special Teams Disaster in Baltimore
…Unless you have a total collapse elsewhere, as the Steelers did on Special teams. Since Danny Smith arrived in Pittsburgh the Steelers special teams haven’t been very special, but they’ve avoided being a liability.
- The Steelers special teams were a liability against the Ravens.
A roughing the kicker penalty gave the Ravens a second lease on life, although the Steelers defense did damage control. The coverage units might not have given up a big run, in a game of field position every yard counts.
It says here that the Steelers late 4th quarter surge was little more than garbage time glory against a Raven’s team with plenty of its own internal demons. Nonetheless, if you take it strictly by the numbers, without that blocked punt the Steelers score enough to win the game. The Steelers special teams broke down at a critical time in the game.
John Harbaugh has Mike Tomlin, Steelers Number
When the Baltimore Ravens beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in November 2011 to complete John Harbuagh’s first season-sweep of the Steelers, Dejan Kovacevic suggested the victory might have represented a changing of the guard in the AFC North.
- At the time critics balked.
However, it is now November 2016. Ben Roethlisberger STILL has not won a game in Baltimore since 2010 and the Baltimore Ravens now own four game winning streak over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cincinnati Bengals might take exception to any “changing of the guard to Baltimore storyline” but the bottom line is that right now John Harbaugh has the number of Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
And until Mike Tomlin’s team changes that reality on the field, the Steelers will continue to be AFC also-rans. Today’s latest loss underlines just how far Mike Tomlin and the Steelers still have to travel.