The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2020 Class will have an unmistakable Black and Gold tinge Troy Polamalu was elected to the 2020 class where he will join fellow Steelers safety Donnie Shell and his former coach Bill Cowher who were inducted as part of the Centennial Class.
All of the news wasn’t good for Steelers Nation however, as Alan Faneca was passed over again.
In the words of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu was a generational talent and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot was a no brainer. Going into the voting the fear was that the “Too Many Steelers” mentality espoused by Peter King and other voters might hurt Polamalu’s candidacy.
Fortunately, voters set aside their any bias or political agendas, and did the right thing.
Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com
Troy Polamalu Once in a Lifetime Talent, Hall of Famer
During his 12 year career, Troy Polamalu made 783 tackles, logged 56 tackles-for-losses, sacked the quarterback 12 times, intercepted 32 passes, dislodged 14 forced fumbles, recovered 7 fumbles and scored 5 touchdowns.
To those regular season numbers, Troy Polamalu added 3 interceptions and half a sack.
This was one of the most spectacular defensive touchdowns in this history of football. That’s easy to remember. But even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is easy to forget the play’s ominous backstory.
The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter holding a 16 to 7 lead. Yet, the Baltimore Ravens took their first 4th quarter possession and marched to the Steelers end zone with startling ease. The Steelers next possession amounted to a 2 yard Willie Parker run followed by Willie Colon penalty and a 3rd down Terrell Suggs sack of Ben Roethlisberger that forced a punt.
In Heinz Field the feeling of “Here we go again” was palpable.
Six plays later, Troy Polamalu took it to the house, exorcising the Ghosts of AFC Championships’ past
Take that play away, and Troy Polamalu probably still has a Hall of Fame worth resume. But with his interception of Joe Flacco, and his wild, zig zaging return for touchdown, Troy Polamalu cemented his status as a legend.
The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.
And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.
While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.
Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com
Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays
Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.
1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon
The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.
On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.
Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.
2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble
The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.
As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.
3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass
Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.
However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.
That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.
On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….
4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt
Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.
Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.
After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.
Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…
The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.
In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.
Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:
Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.
The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome. The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.
In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.
Alas, 2019 will not end with Mason Rudolph leading the Steelers to a miracle finish this Christmas. The Steelers placed Mason Rudolph on injured reserve following the loss to the Jets, making him ineligible to play in the season finale against the Ravens or any playoff games should Pittsburgh qualify.
That is an unfortunate end the season for both the Steelers and Rudolph, but it certainly fits in character with everything else that has transpired during 2019.
Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
Devlin Hodges won the next week against the San Diego er um LA Chargers and Steelers Nation reveretd to his form from interregnum between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger when the back up quarterback became the most popular player on the team.
Mason Rudolph returned for the Steelers against Miami and looked tentative and timid at the end of the game. But after burning Miami with a touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson (with the help of a helacious block form James Washington), Mason Rudolph seemed to find his sea legs.
Rudolph took steps forward in the victories against the Coltsand Rams, but then played poorly against the Browns.
He also suffered a criminal assault at the end of the game, and reverted to the form he showed in the first quarter against Miami against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin inserted Devlin Hodges just after half time, Hodges closed that game at Cincinnati with a win, and won his next two starts.
But after throwing six straight interceptions against the Bills and Jets, Mike Tomlin went back to Rudolph, who tied the game by leading the Steelers to 10 points in just over two minutes (with some help from T.J. Watt.)
Alas, Rudolph got hurt early in the 2nd half of the game against the Jets.
Rudolph remained in the game for awhile, but ultimately had to come up. His injury is to his left shoulder which is not his throwing arm, but it must be fairly serious if the Steelers are ending his season now.
With Rudolph our, former first round pick Paxton Lynch ascends to the starting role, while the Steelers have also signed former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.
The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.
Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.
To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.
But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.
Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect
Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.
The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.
That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.
However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.
But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.
You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.
Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive
Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.
I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.
In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.
The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.
On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.
Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.
With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.
Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.
Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.
Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel
Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.
When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.”
Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.
But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.
Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected through the Immaculate Reception on December, 23rd 1972, combining to make the most spectacular play in football history.
That fateful day came precisely one week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.
Understanding just what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.
Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP
Won 6 Super Bowls, a record the Steelers set in Super Bowl XLIII and that has only been tied since
Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying for 2nd in most championship appearances
Achieved a winning record in 35 of those 46 years, again, more than anyone else
Posted an .621 winning percentage in that time – better than any other NFL team
Sent 78 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams,
Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say
These stats have been updated, but originally they came courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read.
Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.
No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.
The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers
The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.
That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.
The morning after the Penguins ’09 Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.
In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.
An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which sits about 10 miles from the DC border.
But to a 7 year old all of this was “normal.” Neither of my parents followed sports closely, but as a child I naturally asked them if they’d similarly been Steelers fans growing up.
“You don’t understand, the Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were growing up,” was the response.
The Pirates did have their moments in the sun, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were a paragon to futility for 40 years. Aside from failing to win a playoff game, the pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers could “boast” of:
A single playoff appearance (a 1962 loss to Detroit)
A mere 8 winning seasons and 5 more seasons at .500
Not even allowingJohnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever to play, to throw a pass in practice before giving him his walking papers
Cutting Len Dawson, future Super Bowl Champion and NFL Hall of Famer
Trading Bill Neilson away for nothing to the arch-rival Cleveland Browns where he’d appear in two NFL Championships
Passing on future Hall of Famers Bill Schmidt and Lenny Moore opting to pick dud Gerry Glick in the later case
Stubbornly sticking to the obsolete Single Wing formatting deep into the 50’s
The pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers also suffered their share of bad luck.
Legendary Pitt coach Jock Sutherland coached the Steelers two winning seasons following World War II, but unfortunately died after the 1947 season on a scouting trip. Joe Bach was also making progress towards building a winner, until health problems forced him form the game.
Then there was Gene Lipscomb aka “Big Daddy” tragic death to heroin in 1963. Former Colorado stand out Byron White led the NFL in scoring, rushing, and total offense in 1938, but decided to study for a year at Oxford and played for Detroit in 1940. (White later went on to the US Supreme Court.)
The Steelers just couldn’t seem to get a break.
The Immaculate Reception — A Franchise’s Fortunes Change
The root of many if not all of the Steelers ills for those 40 years was the simple fact that Art Rooney Sr., for as decent and honorable of a man he was, was as bad at picking coaches as he was good at handicapping horses.
Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft
Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.
Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.
Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.
Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:
“Dick, don’t over coach him.”
At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.
According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”
That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.
The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.
John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.
The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.
Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.
As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.
And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):
Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.
Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s direction? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.
But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.
Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.
As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”
The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation
Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.
That confluence of forces on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio formed the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.
Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.
Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation. You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.
Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is pleased to see consistent improvement from his students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Bud Dupree & Stephon Tuitt converge on Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Sean Simmers via PennLive.com
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not have had his flashiest day of the season and he certainly did miss on a couple of key throws. But Ben Roethlisberger was hot in the Red Zone and the Steelers converted 10 of 16 third downs paving Pittsburgh’s way to a 36:29 edge in time of possession. One critique, Roethlisberger’s-almost injury on the run was a little reckless. Grade: A-
Historically, the Baltimore Ravens have been a very tough team to run on, but James Conner had 70 yards in the first half alone and added 56 through the air before it was done. Jaylen Samuels had one run for two yards. Grade: A+
Tight Ends Jesse James 51 yard catch in the 4th quarter very well may have been the play of the game. James had one other catch for 13 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 catches for 25 yards, although ball security is becoming an issue with McDonald. The Steelers played a lot of two tight end sets, and James Conner had a lot of room to run. Grade: A-
Wide Receivers Antonio Brown only had 5 catches for 42 yards, but he made them count as one went for a touchdown, and several others extended drives. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team with 7 catches for 78 yards, although he did drop what could have been a long one. James Washington returned to the offense and had two catches with one drop, while Ryan Switzer had 3 catches for 41 yards. Grade: B+
The Ravens pressured Ben Roethlisberger but didn’t sack him until the Steelers final series, and that was after Roethlisberger had burned off ample clock time. Even more impressively, James Conner had room to run, and he exploited it, which was a huge difference from the last outing against Baltimore. Grade: A+
The Ravens had some early success running the ball, and it looked like their line might win the battle upfront. However, that never came to fruition and, while Steelers only registered two sacks of Joe Flacco, they did pressure him all afternoon. Stephon Tuitt had an off sides penalty negate a sack, but he dropped Joe Flacco on Baltimore’s final drive, essentially sealing the game. Cam Heyward had a key stop on the previous drive and blew up the Ravens line to set up Tuitt’s sack. Grade: B
Linebackers Bud Dupree’s stat line might not look like much, but he got pressure on Joe Flacco all day, splitting a sack with fellow linebacker Vince Williams. Jon Bostic and T.J. Watt tied for number 2 on the team in tackles. Anthony Chickillo saw ample playing time and helped drop a rusher behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B+
Secondary Mike Hilton led secondary with three critical plays in the Red Zone, two of which came against runs and another was a pass defensed in the end zone that a “little guy” like him isn’t supposed to make. Sean Davis led the team with 9 tackles is blossoming as a free safety. Morgan Burnett saw his most extensive action, and while he got beaten on a few plays, he stabilized as the game continue. Coty Sensabaugh had another quiet afternoon which is good for a corner.
The Baltimore Ravens were 4-12 on third down and many times Joe Flacco simply had nowhere to throw. Grade: A
Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com
Special Teams Chris Boswell missed another extra point, which is becoming worrisome. Ryan Switzer had some good punt returns as well as a good kick return. The Ravens return game didn’t break a big one, but they had more success than you’d like to see. Grade: C
When the Baltimore beat Pittsburgh just 35 days ago at Heinz Field, the Steelers looked like a team doomed to be mired in mediocrity for the entire season. In the four games since then, the Steelers have established themselves as the sole leader of the AFC North.
Keith Butler has brought the defense along since that ugly night.
The Steelers defense still has issues and remains a long way from the shutdown form it was flashing just one year ago, but Butler’s boys have managed to reduce the long plays while playing the pass more consistently, even when they can’t constantly harass the quarterback.
Randy Fichtner’s offense has also improved.
5 weeks ago the Steelers offense only seemed capable of producing in the 2nd and 3rd quarters and couldn’t convert third downs. Since then Steelers offense has consistently done both, while improving in the Red Zone.
Finally, we focus on Mike Tomlin. The Steelers had a rough September, and the last loss to the Ravens seemed punctuate every troublesome trend from the first 3 games. But both Tomlin and his team filtered out the naysayers and have played with poise and maturity since then. Grade: A
Unsung Hero Award
12:39 remained in the fourth quarter. A holding penalty on Alejandro Villanueva had just sent the Steelers back to their own 5 yard line, bringing up 2nd and 20. And trainers had just helped Ben Roethlisberger from the field. If ever there was a moment for the Ravens to tip the momentum in their favor it was this.
Those were the conditions that under which Joshua Dobbs made his NFL debut.
And the rocket scientist not only didn’t flinch, he executed a picture perfect pass that secured a first down and set up the next long play that set up the next score. For his poise under pressure, Joshua Dobbs wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Their defense couldn’t stop the big play, couldn’t pressure the passer, while the offense remained incapable of consistency.
A different Pittsburgh Steelers team took the field against the Ravens at M&T Stadium to earn a 23-16 victory and sole possession of the AFC North lead. While notching an AFC North road win was important, the key take away from the win over the Ravens is how the Steelers secured victory.
In his press conference, Mike Tomlin pointed to Red Zone performance and the ability to convert third downs as the drivers of the Steelers victory. And Tomlin is right. But the qualities underlying the Steelers success in the Red Zone and on 3rd down are far more important: Focus, balance and poise.
Joshua Dobbs prepares to fire off a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Sean Simmers, PennLive
About That Red Zone Differential
The key stats in the game are the Steelers and Ravens respective performances in the Red Zone.
The Steelers made four trips to the Red Zone and scored 3 touchdowns and 1 field goal.
The Ravens made three trips to the Red Zone and scored 2 field goals and 1 touchdown.
The Steelers first two touchdown passes represented workman like efforts, that culminated in short touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger to James Conner and Antonio Brown. The Ravens drives were also reasonably workman like, but they featured some nice runs by Alex Collins.
While it would be incorrect to conclude that Baltimore was imposing its will on the Steelers rushing defense, both field goal drives proved that the Ravens could run on Pittsburgh. But thanks, in no small part, to efforts of Mike Hilton against the pass and then against the run, Baltimore was forced to settle for 3 points both times.
The mathematical difference of is easy to understand, but Pittsburgh’s Red Zone superiority also altered the dynamic of the game as the Steelers would show at beginning of the 2nd half.
Steelers Balance Disrupts Ravens Equilibrium
Thanks to some stout work by the defense, the Steelers got the ball back with 49 seconds left to go in the 2nd quarter. Instead of mounting one of their patented 1 minute drives, Vance McDonald proceeded to test the collective cardiac health of Steelers Nation with two almost fumbles.
Instead of going into the locker room with extra points, the Steelers clumsy close to the first half opened the door to doubts about their ability stay in control.
The Steelers offense answered those doubts by opening the 2nd half with a 15 play 75 yard drive that burned 8:14 seconds off of the clock, and put Pittsburgh up 20 to 6.
Now, down 14 points, Baltimore was forced to abandon its running game and become one dimensional.
For a time, however, it looked like one-dimensional might be enough, as the Joe Flacco led the Ravens an 11 play 75 yard drive that narrowed the difference to 7 in just 3:50 seconds. The Steelers offense followed with a 3 and out and momentum appeared to be shifting to Baltimore as the third quarter ended.
Pittsburgh’s Prevails on Poise and Focus
Keith Butler’s defense responded by forcing a 3 and out of their own as Vince Williams and Bud Dupree teamed to sack Joe Flacco at his own twelve. Yet, the Steelers found themselves in almost exactly the spot on the field, as a penalty on a Ryan Switzer punt return put the Steelers on Baltimore’s 15.
A pair of penalties and an injury to Ben Roethlisberger left the Steelers at 2nd and 20 on Baltimore’s fifteen, leaving Joshua Dobbs standing under center taking his NFL snap.
The conventional wisdom of the situation screamed: Hand the ball to James Conner!
And that is apparently what Randy Fichtner intended to do. But the young Rocket Scientist turned NFL quarterback saw something he liked in the Ravens alignment, and with the poise worthy of a 10 year veteran, Dobbs checked out of the running play, dropped five yards deep into his own end zone, planted his feet and rifled off a 22 yard dart to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Two plays later Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James, who saw the ball bounced and bobble off his body, but James maintained focus, brought the ball home and moved the Steelers 51 yards down the field. This time the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone, but a Chris Boswell field goal was enough to extend the lead to 7 points.
The Ravens got all the way to the Steelers 19, aided by a Coty Sensabaugh pass interference play, but head up plays by Cam Heyward, Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo forced Baltimore to settled for 3 again.
The Steelers next drive only saw them go 19 yards, but in converting 2 third downs, Pittsburgh milked over four and a half minutes off of the clock. Baltimore got the ball back with 44 seconds left to play, but a Stephon Tuitt sack of Joe Flacco rendered the rest of the Ravens plays into an academic question.
Steelers Win Fourth Straight with Same Formula
35 days ago the Steelers 2018 season seemed to be dead in the water. Pittsburgh was 1-2-1, tied for last in the AFC North without a conference victory to their names. Since then the Steelers have authored victories against the Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and now the Baltimore Ravens.
While the victory over the Falcons can rightly be labeled as a blow out, the outcome of each of the other 3 games remained in doubt until end of the 3rd quarter, if not later.
In each of those games, a breakdown on the part of the Steelers allowed their opponents to threaten a comeback with a late score. But in each instance, Pittsburgh responded with poise instead of panic which has paved their for the Steelers offense and defense to respond with scores and stops of their own.
While you’d like to see your team put opponents away, Pittsburgh’s poise under pressure is a quality that will serve the Steelers well down the stretch.
From the grade book of a teacher who wonders if his students are underachieving or simply underwhelming to begin with, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2018 home loss to the Ravens.
What’s wrong with this picture? James Conner’s tackle of Anthony Levine was perhaps his best play of the night. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com
Again Ben Roethlisberger started slow in the 1st quarter, played like a stud in the 2nd quarter and then fizzled out in the 3rd quarter. The Steelers failed to cross the 50 in the second half and were 3-11 on third downs. Ben Roethlisberger not only missed several open receivers, he had several almost interceptions. Grade: F
Running Backs James Conner had 19 yards on 9 carries and 3 catches for 15 yards. In contrast, Le’Veon Bell has owned Baltimore in the Steelers last three games and this Raven’s run defense, while improved is hardly impenetrable. The run blocking was suspect, but the Steelers needed more from Conners, and didn’t get it. Grade: D
Tight Ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James caught every pass thrown their way and McDonald’s 33 yarder was impressive. However, his fumble set up Ravens’ touchdown and the Steelers defense doesn’t need its offense to do the opposing teams any favors. Grade: C-
Wide Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster had four catches and Antonio Brown managed 5 catches 11 targets. James Washington caught 2 of four. While it IS clear that Ben Roethlisberger is out of rhythm with his receivers, it does take two to tango, and there were many plays when no one was simply getting open. Grade: C
Statistics say Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit once. But the pocket seemed to collapse quickly, and several of the Ravens front 7 batted down passes. Nor did the line effectively open holes for the running game. The Ravens won the battle of scrimmage. Grade: D
Defensive Line Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and Stephon Tuitt had 4 with Javon Hargrave registering three, a tackle for a loss, and QB hit and a sack. The Ravens team rushing total of 3.2 years won’t impress any fantasy football owners, but Baltimore ran the ball when it needed to especially in the 3rd half. The Steelers defensive line failed to pressure Joe Flacco. Grade: D
Linebackers Bud Dupree sacked Joe Flacco and had a decent night. Jon Bostic led the team in tackles, and looked to get men lined up properly. T.J. Watt had four tackles but was otherwise invisible. L.J. Fort looked good after Vince Williams got hurt. The Steelers linebackers weren’t a liability, but they failed get pressure and failed to deliver a 2nd half stop when it was needed. Grade: C-
Secondary Joe Haden had an outstanding night – after whiffing on those two touchdown passes, one of which he and his fellow defender appeared to be confused on. Terrell Edmunds recovered a fumble that Sean Davis forced, although Edmunds barely avoided getting burned on a Joe Flacco overthrow. Baltimore was 8 of 17 on third down, and while that’s not all on the secondary, a lot of it is. Grade: D
Special Teams Chris Boswell splitting the uprights not once, but twice for 34 and 39 yards provided the night’s lone bright spot. Jordan Berry also punted reasonable well and the Steelers coverage units didn’t give up any long returns. A special teams spark would have been nice. Grade: B
The Post-Gazette’sRon Cook channeled his inner Chuck Noll when he quipped, “The Steelers problems are great, and they are many.”
For all of the accolades that Ben Roethlisberger has won, and for whatever statistics milestones the offense had achieved before the game, the Steelers offense had been inconsistent all season long as it struggled on third downs disappeared for quarters at a time, only scoring 13 points in the 1st and 4th quarters.
Why does the Steelers offense explode in the 2nd quarter only to tapper off in the 3rd and then completely peter out in the 4th?
Do Randy Fichtner’s scripted plays fall flat, leading him to adjust only to have defenses readjust?
That’s almost certainly a simplistic explanation, but it makes as much sense as any other offered. Clearly Ben Roethlisberger must be more consistent, but is just is clear that Randy Fichtner must create the conditions for Roethlisberger to be consistent. Thus far Fichtner has failed.
On defense, it is hard to know what to say.
Is it Keith Butler‘s fault? Or is Mike Tomlin micro managing him? Has Kevin Colbert, with or without Mike Tomlin’s assent, emphasized drafting for athletic talent at the expense of polished football skill? Or are the Steelers assistants deficient in developing that talent?
Mike Tomlin with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette
Sure the Steelers forced field goals and secured a turnover in the Red Zone, but that hardly matters when an offense can protect a 4 point lead by authoring back-to-back 6 minute plus 2nd half. If the Steelers coverage is so weak that it can only rush 3 men, then perhaps the disease is worse than the cure, because at least big plays get the offense back on the field quickly.
And the fact that we’re even having this discussion underlines just how deeply into dysfunction the Steelers defense has sunk.
Worse, the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing with confidence. Notice the change in demeanor between the Steelers before and after Vance McDonald’s stiff arm against Tampa. Absent a spark like that, the Steelers are not taking the field with the attitude of a team that believes it can win, and that is on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F
Unsung Hero Award
This young player caught a couple of passes, including a key 3rd down conversion, ran a play out of the backfield, and feathered the Ravens with a long enough kick return that they squibbed the next kickoff it to Roosevelt Nix and for that Ryan Switzer wins the Unsung Hero Award for 2018 loss to Baltimore at Heinz Field.
Something felt different about the Baltimore Ravens 26-14 defeat of Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. In terms of 21st century NFL rivalries, Manning vs. Brady may have supplied a lot of sound but Steelers vs. Ravens generated genuine football fury. Consider:
Heath Miller once suffered a hit so ferocious it kept him out for 2 weeks afterwards – and this was before the NFL instituted its concussion protocols.
Both teams were staking legitimate claims to being biggest boy on the AFC North block and neither was backing down.
And that’s what made this one feel different. The Ravens didn’t necessarily assert their AFC North superiority — Cincinnati’s still leads the division — but Baltimore laid bare the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers mediocrity for all the world to see.
Terrell Edmunds unable to stop Javorius Allen in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Barry Reeger, PennLive.com
Against Ravens, Steelers Follow Script Rote
It is still too early in September to draw conclusions in the NFL calendar, but team’s tendencies do become clear by the end of the month. And four weeks into the season the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have their script down pat:
The defense gives up an early touchdown
The offense will go 3 and out
The offense will give up a turnover; if not special teams will surrender big gain
The opposing offense takes advantage and scores another touchdown
Ben Roethlisberger completes a big pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Vance McDonald
Down a few scores, the Steelers offense comes to life to tie the game or take the lead
Having taken the lead, the Steelers offense goes AWOL on 3rd down
Not coincidentally, Ben Roethlisberger fail to hook up with Antonio Brown at critical stages
The Steelers defense goes AOWL on third down
The game ends alternatively as a player like T.J. Watt or James Conner makes a dramatic dramatics that keep the Steelers from losing, OR the Steelers defensive front seven, which features 3 number 1 picks, 1 number 2 pick and a number 3 pick, gets abused by a running back on a play when EVERYONE knows is coming.
Sound sarcastic? Sadly it is not.
The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers follow a pattern, and they follow it well. And Pittsburgh would be in business if could convince Roger Goodell fashion a sort of pro football equivalent of a Fabulous Freebirds Rule (Google it) declaring that the Steelers only need keep score for the 2nd and 3rd quarters.
Were that the case the Steelers wouldn’t simply be 4-0, they have outscored their opponents 87 to 30.
Alas, the game of football is still played for 60 minutes, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been outscored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters.
Erratic Play from Roethlisberger Continues
Yet, if the Steelers have followed a script thus far in 2018, Ben Roethlisberger has not.
As the Steelers strong performances in the 2nd quarter suggest, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.” He’s still capable of making every throw he needs to make, he can still work the two minute drill, he isn’t playing with a compulsion to force the ball, and he can still make good decisions.
But by his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t on the same page as anyone.
Is this because Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play enough in preseason or during training camp?
Is it because he takes of Wednesdays and needs more preparation?
Mike Tomlin had better figure out the answer, because the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to carry them. Four games into 2018 the Steelers now know that they have a good NFL running back in James Conner. Steelers fans can now also see the difference between a good NFL running back, and a great, Hall of Fame Caliber talent in Le’Veon Bell (who, by the way reminds us he still wants to retire a Steeler – thanks Le’Veon).
Deceptive Perceptions of Defensive Decency in Pittsburgh
Fantasy football owners who started the Steelers for team defense very well may be happen this week. After all, in 2018 holding an opponent to 19 non-turnover assisted points is often times more than enough. And on paper, Keith Butler’s defense made some other improvements:
The Ravens had to settle for 4 Justin Tucker field goals in final 3 quarters of the game
After the first touchdown the Steelers secondary stopped surrendering yards in big chunks
On paper it would seem like the Steelers defense approached decency against the Ravens. However, the Steelers defense couldn’t deliver when it counted, as the Ravens converted 8 of 17 third downs. Worse yet, as Baltimore was nursing a 6 point lead, the Steelers defense gave up two six minute plus drives.
Yet neither they, nor anyone else did. Worse yet, no one watching the game would have felt the Steelers defense was capable of making a game-changing play.
Can the Steelers Salvage Something of 2018?
The quarter pole of the 2018 season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1-2-1 and mired deep in mediocrity. If Ben Roethlisberger find a way to play well for more than just the 2nd and 3rd quarter, the Steelers could compete with a lot of teams. Maybe.
If Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler could could find a way to both pressure the passer AND not leave gaping holes in their secondary, the defense could play well enough not to require transforming each game into a shoot out. Maybe.
If the special teams could set up and make a play ever now and then, it would take some heat off of offense and defense. Maybe.
That’s a lot of maybes. And teams that depend on “maybes” heading into October are by definition mediocre ones. That’s who the Pittsburgh Steelers are right now.
That’s not surprising, since the Steelers dynamic duo was unstoppable all night. Down the ballot, Chris Boswell claimed third place which should come as no surprise as he kicked four field goals, including a 52 yarder and of course the 46 yard game winning field goal.
Le’Veon Bell cam in 4th with 21 votes, on the heels of a very strong, 100 yard from scrimmage performance against a tough Ravens defense. T.J. Watt, whose strip sack of Joe Flacco sealed the game, was close behind earning 50 votes which was enough for 5th place.
#Shalieve50 came in with 19 votes19, as support for Ryan Shazier and his inspiration to the team was very evident both on the field and in the stands at Heinz Field. Jesse James, who just missed a 100 yard receiving game and came up with several clutch catches throughout the night came next, with 19 votes.