In the Wake of the Steelers' Last-Minute Loss to the Ravens, Reflections on One of the NFL's Blue Chip Modern Rivalries

I apologize for the lack of posting yesterday and today. That pesky thing called life got in the way, but I'm pleased to have knocked out an important and time-consuming project. I was up super late doing so however, so pardon me if it takes me another day or so to fully get back on track.

Anyway, onto some more thoughts about the Pittsburgh Steelers' first loss of the season, a gut-wrenching 17-14 defeat to the hated Baltimore Ravens in the final minute of the game. Actually, even though there are some thoughts on the actual game, I intend to take a step back and examine just how competitive this rivalry is - how close the games have been in recetn years, how frequently the Steelers' offense has looked out of sorts against the Ravens' defense (and vice versa for the Ravens' offense when they face Dick LeBeau's defense), and how if either team wants to realize its championship aspirations, they'll have to contend with the other along the way, both in the regular season, and perhaps even in the playoffs as well.

First, a few thoughts from the game. Let's start with a few rapid-fire thoughts...

* I don't think Charlie Batch played poorly on Sunday. He certainly didn't lose the game for the Steelers. Frankly, I'm not sure that Ben Roethlisberger would have necessarily been the difference maker in that particular game either. Obviously, we welcome back Big Ben with open arms, eager to see how good this might be with him in the lineup. We might not be talking about Batch's play ever again, so I wanted to at least make sure I got a quick word down about his performance. I'm sure he would have liked to play better, but he wasn't bad or the reason the Steelers lost. In fact, had Ravens' cornerback L. Webb not made a spectacular last-second play to strip the ball free from Mike Wallace's grasp in the endzone, Steeler Nation would be talking about Batch as the stuff of legends well into the future when thinking back on that year the team started off 4-0 while Roethlisberger was suspended.

So cliched, but so, so, SO true. It's definitely a game of inches in the NFL.

* Looking for a bright spot from Sunday's loss? How about the fact that the Steelers didn't sustain any new injuries - the first time I believe that's happened this preseason and through the first month of the regular season. It appears as if Chris Hoke and Trai Essex will be fully healed by Week 6, meaning the Steelers should have their full cast of characters for what promises to be a very challenging stretch of games in October and early November. More on this in the next few weeks, but after getting hit by the injury bug early and often in August and September, the Steelers head into the Bye without any unfortunate news on that front for the past two weeks.

I've read lots of takes on some of the decisions made by the Steelers' coaching staff during Sunday's loss, especially the decision not to be more aggressive on their final series and try to ice the game with a first down. I would disagree with those sentiments, despite acknowledging that NFL coaches are often too conservative and unwilling to take appropriate risks.

In this instance though, I think the Steelers' coaching staff made a perfectly logical set of decisions late in the game. I actually would like to re-watch the tape to see how the defense was playing on some of those plays that led up to the game-winning score. I'm talking though about the decision to run the ball three times like they did when they had the ball with about 2:30 minutes left.

Look, it's pretty simple logic really when you deconstruct the scenario and not just say 'play to win the game'.

1st Down from the 2 (2:40 seconds left): Obvious running situation here. Baltimore has one timeout left. Got to make them use it. And you certainly don't want to risk the safety there with 2:30 minutes left and only up by 4.

2nd and 8 from the 5 (2:35 seconds left): False Start

2nd and 8 from the 3 (2:35 seconds left): Again, obvious running situation because Baltimore is now out of time outs. The false start didn't help, but it didn't really hurt that much either. You simply must run the ball there and bleed 35 seconds off the clock. An incomplete pass there and it's 3rd and 8 with about 2:25 seconds left. Then what??? You either run it on 3rd down and get it to the 2 minute warning before punting it away, or you gamble and throw again hoping to get the first down.

If you don't get the first down after deciding to throw the ball, there's 2:15 seconds or so left on the clock for Baltimore. They then get an extra timeout basically on offense thanks to the Steelers not getting to the 2 minute warning. That's ridiculous, and no NFL coach would make that decision....well, not any coach that didn't have Peyton Manning or Drew Brees at quarterback, the game's two best decision makers.

3rd and 10 from 3 (2:00 left, Baltimore no timeouts): Again, the most elementary and simple of choices here - you run the ball and bleed as much clock as possible before punting it away. An incomplete pass there and you now give Baltimore the ball at midfield or so with about 1:45 left rather than just over 1 minute. 

Really there was one play where the Steelers could have perhaps thrown the ball - on 1st down. After that, it becomes elementary math to run it, drain the clock, and leave it to your defense -- your top-rated defense, ahem -  to keep the Ravens out of the endzone with no timeouts and 60 seconds or so to work with.

* As fans, it's fun to dissect decisions made by coaches. It's part of being a fan. It's annoying when fans say things like 'we're fans, they're coaches, they obviously know better.' Duh. That's not the point. It's that there's always more than one option and set of variables  to consider when making decisions. Evaluating all those choices is especially interesting in games of strategy - which football definitely is. Fans should be encouraged to think critically about the nuances of the game, and how/why they might differ in their decision making. It's really only a turn-off when we  resort to lazy, loud name-calling: 'what an idiot!?? Not that helpful. How about, 'what a dumb decision...here's why'. Anyway,  just don't think Tomlin and Arians got it wrong on that last series.

* Unfortunate mistake by Bryant McFadden on the game-winning touchdown by T.J. Houshmandzadeh. McFadden knows this, but you've got to give up the sideline in those situations rather than get beaten over the middle of the field. At worst, you give up the yardage and make the Ravens have to try to throw it into the endzone from inside the 10-15 yard line. The passing windows get awfully small inside the redzone, and because Baltimore didn't have any timeouts, they really wouldn't have had many options except for fade passes and different combination routes in the endzone. The Steelers had kept the Ravens from scoring the series before in that type of situation. In fact, it's rare that a week goes by that an NFL team won't come close to the game-winning or tying score, only to falter inside the redzone when they're very limited in what they can call.

It's easy to chastise B-Mac for that mistake, but it's easy to forget that plays in the NFL materialize in about, oh, 3 seconds tops. It just can't be easy to always make the sound decision mentally when things are happening so lighting fast. But that's one I know he'll be thinking about all week.

*It didn't go unnoticed by fans that McFadden had no help over the top on that play as a result of Polamalu blitzing. Who knows if that was a designed blitz or if No. 43 was free-lancing. If it was a called blitz, all the more reason for McFadden to not give up the middle of the field. We could also wonder why blitz Polamalu and not say, a nickel back like William Gay? The objective of the blitz is to get the sack and end the game, but even just hurrying a throw for an incompletion is a success. So I'm not sure why it makes sense to send your last line of defense in Polamalu when other desirable outcomes can be pursued by someone with less responsibility than Polamalu.

Who knows, maybe it was a simple mis-communication between players and coaches, players and players, whoever. With just a few seconds left in the game,  things are happening quickly, the adrenaline pumping is, the opportunity to huddle up is rare -- all make it more difficult to calmly think about assignments.

Oh well, the real issue was the Steelers' inability to create the same type of suffocating pressure from their front-seven as usual. That's not to say that James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons weren't in the face of Flacco at times, but when Harrison and LaMarr Woodley (and recently Timmons) have the upper-hand against the opposition, it's just about impossible to beat the Steelers. On Sunday, the Steelers' pass-rushers did not have the upper-hand. Harrison and Timmons played beastly games - amazingly competitive and relentless performances by the two of them.  The Ravens did an incredible job though of not letting the Steelers defense wreak total havoc with their stable of fast, ferocious, and agressive linebackers.

* I was really impressed by the play of Baltimore's offensive line. No, they weren't able to open up many running lanes for Willis McGahee or Ray Rice, but they sure did a nice job in pass protection. James Harrison got close a number of times, but left tackle Michael Oher did a commendable job keeping Deebo out of the face of Flacco for most of the afternoon. It helps when you get out of your stance before the snap without being penalized, of course. But Sunday wasn't the first time I've seen tackles get away with that.

On the right side Marshal Yanda, who was starting in place of Jared Gaither ate up LaMarr Woodley in pass protection. Woodley was a big reason why the Ravens' running game was held in check. He was great in that regard, and he made a few solid plays in coverage. But he just wasn't able to break through and beat Yanda too often on Sunday. Interestingly enough, Woodley had his way with Oher last year when he was at right tackle, while Deebo did just fine against Gaither. Who knows, maybe the change was made this year for that reason only - keep Woodley and Harrison off our franchise quarterback.

Of course, your offensive line looks better when your offensive coordinator deliberately calls well-designed, quick-hitting passing plays. By my count 21 of Flacco's 27 completions were of the 'short' variety -  fewer than ten yards down the field, and rarely, if ever, off a 5 or 7 step drops from Flacco. That's just a job well done by Cam Cameron and the Ravens offense at limiting the effectiveness of the Steelers' relentless pass rush, and keeping the defense off-guard and reacting rather than dictating getting rid of the ball fairly quickly. Doing so also limited the effectiveness of Troy Polamalu. Without that extra second to sniff out was materailizing in front of him, Polamalu was largely relegated to just chasing down guys after the catch. He finished with just four tackles and zero game or momentum changing type plays. Even though the Steelers linebackers and defensive backs had a fairly solid day tackling, the Ravens were still much more effective against Dick LeBeau's group than the first three opponents of the year had been.

It's kind of scary really to think how good Baltimore could be when Ray Rice gets healthy and Flacco gets more aclimated and comfortable with his two new threats at wide receiver - T.J. Houshmanzadeh and Anquan Boldin. Yuck. I would prefer to just say 'I hate Baltimore', but if I'm going to bother writing, I might as well call it like a see it. You need great QB play to win in this league - at least in the longrun - so we'll see if Baltimore can do more than just be 'very good' this year and next. But there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that they are going to be in the playoffs this year and next.

* With that out of the way, I can now say why I'm not too concerned whatsoever by the outcome of Sunday's game. Had one or two small plays or breaks gone differently, the entire country, ourselves included, would be talking about just how resilient, impressive, and multi-dimensional the Steelers are. It's silly to play the 'what-if' game, but let's just do so with one of Jeff Reed's two missed field goals. Not both, just one, namely, say, the one that clanged off the upright from 49 yards out. Half an inch to the left and that ball clangs in, and the Steelers and Ravens are theoretically going to overtime after Baltimore's late TD. Again, foolish to play the 'what-if' game, but this is just a reminder of

2009 (first meeting): 298 yards offense, L 17-20

2009 (second meeting): 286 yards offense, W 23-20

2009 season averages: 23 points per game; 371 yards per game

***

2008 (first meeting): 237 yards, W 23-20

2008 (second meeting): 311 yards, W 13-9

2008 (third meeting): 275 yards, W 23-14

2008 season averages: 21.7 points per game; 312 yards per game

***

In three encounters with the Ravens during the 2008 season, the Steelers never matched their season average of 312 yards per game. And there were some pretty awful offensive performances that season.  It was also interesting for me to remeber how 14 of the 59 points against Baltimore that season came on defensive touchdowns. (The first was by LaMarr Woodley early in the season; the second by Polamalu to clinch the AFC Championship Game and punch the Steelers' ticket to the Super Bowl. Only one Steelers player scored offensive touchdowns against the Ravens that year - Santonio Holmes. Other than that it was defensive scores and Jeff Reed FGs.

Conversely, the Ravens never look their best against us. But they always show up ready to play and compete. It's what makes the rivalry so great. Both teams are well-coached, both rosters are stocked with hard-hitting, don't-back-down personalities, and well, they hate each other. It makes for ugly football at times, football that leaves us fans wondering why we look so ineffective, unimaginative, and so on. But the fact of the matter is simply that these teams are similarly well-constructed, they know each other inside and out at this point, and have for the past three seasons at least, competed directly with each other for precious playoff positioning. You can just about throw out the likelihood of the either team dominating in the next two years or so, minimum.

* While doing the research for that previous section, I realized a troubling fact - the one Steelers player that has been able to gash the Ravens' defense in recent years is no longer on the team. That would be Santonio Holmes, the only guy to score an offensive TD against Baltimore in three games back in '08. Rashard Mendenhall and Dennis Dixon found the endzone last year, but Holmes certainly wasn't quiet in two games last season. He had a TD reception in both games, giving him five in five games during the '08 and '09 seasons. In case you were wondering or had forgotten, Holmes had three TDs against the Ravens in '07 as well. Add it all up and Holmes has 8 career scores against the Ravens. Like I mentioned, only Dixon and Mendenhall scored in two season's worth of games.

So, even though it looks like the Steelers' offense has more than enough weapons provided Hines Ward and Heath Miller stay healthy, I know wonder if we're going to be able to get by our most hated and competent rival. The Steelers have proven that they can win close, tight games against Baltimore, but in almost every instance in recent memory, Holmes played a huge role in finally getting the offense the big play(s) it needed to compliment the efforts of the defense. Color me concerned.

* Shorter, more topic-specific posts on Sunday's game, what lies ahead for the Steelers, and other goings-on in the NFL soon enough.

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