The Steelers-Raven game was supposed to be on Thanksgiving. COVID-19 pushed it to Sunday. And then to Tuesday. And then to Wednesday. By the time they actually played, the Baltimore Ravens had called up 11 players from their practice squad.
- Everyone expected a JV-Varsity game.
- Stephon Tuitt, himself out on the COVID-19 list, tweeted about padding stats.
- We did see a JV-Varsity effort.
Except the Baltimore Ravens brought their Varsity game, while Mike Tomlin labeled the Steelers’ effort as “J.V.” As they’ve been many times this season, the Steelers were below the line in all three phases. And, just like in other outings this year, Pittsburgh prevailed 19-14 despite that.
But the critical question is, how much longer can continue to do that?
First Quarter Foreshadows Things to Come
The Steelers and Ravens began by exchanging punts, then on the first play of Baltimore’s second possession, a failed exchange between Robert Griffen III and his running back landed on the grass with Vince Williams pouncing on it to give Pittsburgh the ball at Baltimore’s 22.
In other words, things happened exactly as they were scripted to.
Lack of practice had reduced the Ravens to struggling with fundamentals, as Pittsburgh looked poised to go up early and easily. But instead of capitalizing, the Steelers stumbled. Sure, Ben Reothlisberger and Benny Snell had a nice 13-yard hookup that brought the ball to the Ravens 6, but the rest of the drive consisted of 1 and 2 yard runs by Snell and piecemeal catches by Eric Ebron.
- Unable to score on 3rd down, the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1.
As he’s done too many times this season, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone. The Steelers squandered an opportunity to go up by an easy 7.
But that didn’t seem to matter. The script that destiny had drafted for this game continued to impose its own inertia. On the Ravens very next possession, RGIII looked to convert a very easy 3rd down to James Proche, but Joe Haden read him all the way, picking off the ball and taking it to the house.
- What the Steelers offense couldn’t do, the defense did for it.
It took about a minute and a half longer, but the Steelers still got their early touchdown. Except the score was only 6-0 instead of 7-0 because Chis Boswell missed the extra point, foreshadowing things to come.
Ravens Force Role Reversal, Steelers Oblige
Had the Steelers offense scored its easy touchdown AND had the defense brought home its pick six, it is easy to imagine the game evolving very differently. No, John Harbaugh’s team would NOT have quit on him. But often times when inexperienced teams get behind early in big games, they start trying too hard.
- Balls get loose.
- Blocks get missed.
- Easy catches bounce off hands.
- Simple tackles slip and big gains ensue.
And that is exactly how things evolved following Chris Boswell’s missed extra point. Except the Baltimore Ravens rejected the role of method actor, opting to go improv and the Steelers willingly obliged by flipping the script.
You can pin-point the Steelers somersault with precision. With the help of a Cam Heyward sack, Pittsburgh seemed to be slamming the door on the Ravens by forcing a quick punt.
Unfortunately, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled the return, giving Baltimore the ball at Pittsburgh’s 16. 6 plays later, the Ravens were up 7-6 and Steelers Nation was primed for what is perhaps the sloppiest 48 minutes of play in recent history. It was JV football at its most mediocre. Here are the low lights:
- The Steelers had to settle for Red Zone field goals, twice
- Eric Ebron, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool all either had Red Zone drops or passes batted away
- RGIII gored the Steelers defense with a 39 yard run on 3rd an 11
- The Steelers failed to convert a 4th and 2
- Minkah Fitzpatrick dropped an easy interception/pick six
- Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick missed tackles allowing Trace McSorley (who) to connect with Marquise Brown for an easy touchdown.
Yet, in spite of all that, the Steelers to eeked out a win. Let’s look at why.
JuJu and Snell Gamers to the End
Athletes who are good enough to reach the pros generally give it their all. But “gamers” are athletes who give it their all but manage to find a little something extra when the game is on the line. Franco Harris in the Immaculate Reception and James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII are two easy examples.
- But true gamers find ways to deliver that something extra on bread and butter plays.
To use Mike Tomlin, in his William and Mary eloquence, the Steelers had “sucked” in the Red Zone throughout the game. By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.
But in truth JuJu would not be denied:
Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.
The Steelers other “gamer” is Benny Snell Jr., who on that self-same touchdown drive, got the ball on a 3rd and 3, had ZERO room to run, reversed field and ripped off 10 yard run. Later, with the Steelers looking to kill the clock, Snell exploded for a 13 yard run, forcing the Ravens to use a precious time out, and then ended the game by converting a 3rd and 1.
Sloppy Play Carries Consequences
With 5:31 left to play, Trace McSorley fired off a deep pass to Marquise Brown. Minkah Fitzpatrick almost intercepted it.
- Bud Dupree had blitzed the passer, slipped and immediately began pounding the turf.
Later, we not only saw him walking with the trainers to the locker room, but he did so under his own power. Surely, this couldn’t be serious, could it? Alas, it was serious as he’d torn an ACL.
If the Steelers had made half, perhaps even a third of the plays they’d left on the field, Bud Dupree would have been out of the game, resting up for Washington. Instead, he’s out for the year.
The Steelers had slipped but recovered enough to win, but as Dupree’s injury reveals, sloppy play has its consequences.