Steelers vs. Ravens: echos of San Francisco?

Justin K. Aller

Sunday's game was disappointing but not discouraging. It was a typical Steelers v. Ravens match up with Baltimore prevailing by a thin margin. The edge may have been the result of a factor that had a whiff of deja vu in relation to a loss to the 49ers last year.

First let's deal with the disappointments. There really weren't many but obviously enough to add up to a loss.

Byron Leftwich. This is not a knock on Byron's basic capabilities. Indeed, he gave the Steelers a lead by leveraging one of his weaknesses, his lack of mobility, and scoring a touchdown. But it was apparent that he was playing a large portion of the game hurt, and that injury was of sufficient severity that it adversely effected his performance. In this regard it put me in mind of last year's San Francisco game where Ben's physical struggles most likely hurt the team's ability to compete. You can argue it both ways as to whether Tomlin should have pulled his quarterback in either case. If I'm Byron I certainly would not have taken myself out of the game. Like Ben, the leadership and competitive issues would be too great, and then there is the additional factor of the question of when he might get another chance. I'm not saying he was being selfish. I believe that he believed that he could tough the situation out and succeed. It is also clear that Tomlin is loath to intervene in these cases and I think there is an argument to be made for that position even if you risk losing in the short term, which is what occurred in each instance.

Haley. To this point I have been pretty supportive of the Haley offense, but in this instance I believe he put too much emphasis on Leftwich having to make plays. I haven't seen the stat sheet but I don't recall that the Steelers ran three consecutive running plays all night. I would have liked to have seen there be more weight put on the offensive line and the running backs to make plays. While his opportunities may have been constricted by the need for him to help out with pass blocking, I still believe that Heath Miller has been underutilized for the last game and a half. It may also be possible that this was an available option that Byron did not choose. But a greater emphasis on the tight ends would have taken pressure off of all parties on offense. I took particular issue with the pass to Wallace in the end zone from the two yard line. The degree of difficulty was just too great in my opinion. Too cute.

Clock Management. I don't know the mechanics of play calling for the Steelers but both the Haley and Arians offenses seem to have difficulties consistently getting plays to the quarterback in a timely fashion. Both Ben and Byron have had to exhort the sidelines to transmit information. It is relatively rare that timeouts aren't wasted because of this issue. This is not directly a Tomlin problem, but he is probably going to have to make certain that it is solved. It seems to transcend either Arians or Haley. There is a systems problem here somewhere. Perhaps it is a more common problem across the league than I am aware of, in a situation like this game where the margin of error is so narrow it can be a difference maker. And I believe in this particular instance it was.

Suisham. Not a huge issue, but Suisham's ability to get the ball in the end zone on kickoffs has seriously deteriorated. It has an impact on both opportunities for opponents to make a big play in the kicking game, and creates subtle field position issues, even if it does not lead directly to points or prevents the Steelers from scoring.

There was also good news.

The Defense. They played well enough to win. Ten of the Ravens thirteen points were directly attributable to mistakes or failures of the offense and special teams. The Pittsburgh defense has found its stride, and is playing extremely well even given the continued absence of Troy Polamalu and the relative sub par performances of outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Woodley and Harrison stepped it up in the second half, made a difference and gave the offense chances to win the game. The play of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons was of good quality. Casey Hampton was the most outstanding defensive line player and Brett Keisel and Cameron Heyward also did well. But the top performance for the entire team came from the cornerbacks, and particularly Keenan Lewis. Ike Taylor deserves particular mention as well. Carnell Lake once again has the defensive backs playing at a high level.

The defense is playing at a championship level. I believe the offense is capable of playing winning ball even without Ben, but the best man leading this unit may be Charlie Batch. Leftwich's physical condition may conveniently make a difficult decision in this regard unnecessary. The margin of error may have narrowed some as a result of this defeat, but qualifying for the playoffs and the possibility of a deep run is still very much on the table.

Time to move on to Cleveland.

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