Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin often references "situational football" and the importance of winning key battles which ultimately determine who wins and loses football games.
The Steelers lost 20-14 in Cleveland Sunday afternoon to a Browns team that came into the game with a 2-8 record. You can point to injuries such as the SC sprain to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that led to him missing his second straight game as the main reason for the loss. However, the game was there for the taking despite the absence of Roethlisberger, as well as Troy Polamalu for the seventh week in a row and Antonio Brown for the third straight game.
Bottomline is, the Steelers were outplayed and came out on the short end in just about every key situation.
The running game
For years, the usual refrain from Steelers fans with regards to the ground game under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was that his running backs may have put up decent numbers over the course of a season, but when it came down to crunch time--3rd and short or goal line situations--the ground game failed to produce way too many times. Under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, there was excitement about the running game once again in 2012, especially after it overcame a very slow start during the first five weeks of the season and averaged 155 yards a game in Weeks 7-9. Heading into Week 12, Pittsburgh was down to its third string quarterback in the soon to be 38 year old Charlie Batch, and if ever there was a situation that called for a dominating running game, it was Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. Unfortunately, the running game came up very small. Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and rookie Chris Rainey combined for 49 yards on 20 attempts and each back took turns fumbling the football away; that's right, 2.5 yards a carry and four fumbles on a day when the Steelers' offense sorely needed its stable of backs to come through.
I've been screaming about turnovers and splash plays seemingly forever, and I thought Christmas came early when, on the Browns' first possession of the game, linebacker Lawrence Timmons reeled in a tipped Brandon Weeden pass courtesy of Brett Keisel and took the football 53 yards for the defenses's first touchdown since Week 3 of 2011. Unfortunately, it would be Pittsburgh's only takeaway of the day as Ike Taylor and Will Allen combined to drop three potential interceptions and Larry Foote was denied a fumble when the officials ruled Cleveland running back Trent Richardson down late in the game, preventing a possible last-gasp chance by the offense to pull out a victory the team clearly wouldn't have deserved. Speaking of the offense, in addition to the four fumbles by the running backs, Batch was also intercepted three times. All-in-all, the Steelers turned the football over an astounding eight times, and the Browns scored 17 of their 20 points from those miscues. When you're minus-7 in the turnover department, you're not going to beat anyone, even the Cleveland Browns.
Third down conversations, time of possesion and the battle of field position
By my estimation, the Steelers offense didn't run a play in Cleveland territory until there was less than a minute remaining in the first half and not again until very early in the final period. But maybe that's because the offense was only 1 of 9 on third down the entire afternoon. For the day, Batch was 20/34 for 197 yards, the three picks and a paltry 38.5 passer rating. Pathetic, especially for a veteran quarterback who has proven to be dependable in the past. The offense possessed the football for just over 26 minutes and the only sustained drive of the afternoon was aided greatly by a pass interference call in the Browns' own end zone on a pass to the newly acquired Plaxico Burress shortly before Rainey's one-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half. For its part, Pittsburgh's defense limited the Browns to 3 of 17 on third down all afternoon and only 238 total yards. For the third week in a row it had to make up for an offense that could only generate a single touchdown. The defense also registered four sacks to go along with its pick-six. It clearly did enough to win the game. This loss rests solely on the offense.
The Steelers were penalized nine times for 68 yards, including a costly holding call on Kelvin Beachum, filling in at right tackle for the injured Mike Adams, on a play where Batch hooked up with Heath Miller for a 33 yard pass that would have erased a 2nd and 26 in the third quarter. I realize the Browns were penalized 10 times, but championship teams are supposed to rise above not sink to a lesser opponent's level.
The Steelers have now lost three games to teams with a combined record of 10-23, and are now 6-5 and tied with the Bengals for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
With a trip to Baltimore next week, more than likely minus Roethlisberger for a third straight week, the Steelers will be facing a Ravens team hell-bent on shoveling more dirt on the Steelers' 2012 season.
Certainly a situation Tomlin and Co. can't be looking forward to.