No team is the same from one year to the next, but one can learn about where a team is going by studying where it has been. We've watched each Steelers game last year play-by-play and pulled out a certain amount of trend-setting and trend-extending plays that earned the Steelers both a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff loss. We'll highlight what each of those plays meant from a bigger picture perspective on the season that was in 2011.
This was arguably the most overwhelmed the Steelers have ever been. It's tough to blame anything but preparation, but even perfect preparation can sometimes be too little. Baltimore had every single bit of motivation working for them in this game; coming off a playoff loss in January, 2011, a game in which they, frankly, blew their chance to finally get past Pittsburgh in the post-season.
Their frustration stewed for an entire offseason before the catharsis we witnessed in Week 1.
The Ravens were said to have brought in consultants to help draw up a game plan in which to be able to beat the Steelers. Whatever it was, the game plan was essentially to remove Casey Hampton from the run defensive effort.
Stretch Zone Running
Baltimore's first offensive play, Ray Rice ran a zone sweep to the Steelers' left side. Zone running consists of the offensive line moving as one in one direction, pushing defenders to varying levels, with a deep handoff to the running back, who looks for an opening, as opposed to running to a predetermined spot.
RG Marshal Yanda took Hampton out at the legs, who, in turn, fell into RDE Brett Keisel's legs. LDE Aaron Smith, LB Lawrence Timmons and LB LaMarr Woodley were all lost in the wash created by Hampton's and Keisel's sprawling, massive bodies. LB James Farrior was swallowed up by LT Bryant McKinnie, and LB James Harrison and SS Troy Polamalu were setting the edge, as they're supposed to, waiting for the pursuing linebackers to make a play on the ball carrier.
With them stuck in no man's land, and FS Ryan Clark missing the tackle 11 yards down the field, Rice cruised through the hole for a 36-yard gain on the game's first offensive snap.
This is a scheme several Steelers' opponents would use against them throughout the year.
Baltimore had always been a smashmouth power running football team, and their strategy to attack the discipline of the Steelers defense couldn't have worked better on that play, or in this game. The key to defending a zone running team is staying in line with the play. Interestingly, Houston, the best zone running team in football, had large amounts of success running the same scheme against Pittsburgh in Week 4 (a 17-10 win) and in the playoffs against Baltimore (a 20-13 loss).
The Identification of Bryant McFadden
Two plays after Rice's game-opening run, the Ravens went for the throat. Catching the Steelers in a Cover 1 (one deep safety, in this case, Clark), Baltimore sends Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin on fly routes, with TE Ed Dickson running down the seam. RBs Vonta Leach and Ray Rice release short to pin the linebackers in, suggesting they're really looking for Dickson matched up with SS Troy Polamalu. QB Joe Flacco doesn't look anywhere but Boldin, and throws the first of a few passes that seem to be becoming his signature; dropped into the receivers hands at his hip, and away from the sideline.
You might remember those passes; Torrey Smith caught one to beat Pittsburgh in the re-match, and Evans dropped one in the playoffs against New England.
It's a well-thrown pass, one that CB Bryant McFadden just missed in coverage. Boldin bobbled it, but held on and managed to get his feet in bounds.
The cameras immediately flash to Ravens coach John Harbaugh talking excitedly to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The topic of that conversation is unknown, but considering they go after McFadden again on the next two passing plays, it's fair to say he said something to the effect of "keep isolating 20 and go after him."
It was the beginning of the end of McFadden in a starting role.
Red Zone Offense
It certainly wasn't a game in which we can glean vast amounts of information on the Steelers' performance in the red zone. They were barely ever in there. The one time they were, however, their ability to control the line of scrimmage waned.
After two runs by RB Rashard Mendenhall for 12 yards, respectively (moving the Steelers from the 22 to the 10), the Steelers ran twice more, losing five yards. Roethlisberger hit Emmanuel Sanders for nine yards, and threw incomplete to Mendenhall.
He then hit Sanders for an 11-yard touchdown pass on 3rd and 11.
Obviously, points are great, and aren't prejudiced against the method in which they are scored. But Mendenhall had been running well to that point (when the game was still in question), and the inconsistency of blocking and the lack of emphasis on succeeding up front would be a main headline for the Steelers in 2011.
The Steelers struggled against the run at times in 2011, highlighted mostly by Week 1 against Baltimore, Week 4 against Houston and in the Wild Card round of the playoffs against Denver. It's not a coincidence they represent three of the Steelers' five losses last season.
McFadden is probably seen as a goat in this loss, but the lack of deep help due to the scheme (you can blame Clark, but he's never been asked to cover the deep secondary sideline to sideline without help) put a huge amount of pressure on him. It would eventually lead to his demotion, and the Steelers taking on a Cover 2 look often through the year.
The team's lack of consistency in running the ball is something they'll look to address this offseason. This game isn't the best example due to the lopsided score (mostly in the second half), but the offense largely stalled inside the 20 on their lone scoring drive, requiring a 3rd-and-11 pass to seldom-used Sanders touchdown reception to avoid the field goal.