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Steelers Lose Heartbreaker To Rival Ravens, Lose Third Straight To Fall To 6-5

First of all, if you're curious about where the AFC playoff picture stands as of the completion of Sunday's games, check out my breakdown here. On to my thoughts about the Pittsburgh Steelers brutal 20-17 loss to the rival Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night. Fans are understandably frustrated with not only this loss but the 2009 season for Pittsburgh in general. 6-5 for the defending champs will do that to the morale of a team's fanbase. All the close losses are hard enough to swallow. The fact that the Steelers held late leads in all five losses makes it even tougher to digest. But Pittsburgh's loss Sunday night, on the road against a bitter rival fighting for their playoff life, was hardly what I'd call a major disappointment or setback. In the grand scheme of things, the game was just another example of how hard it is to win close games consistently in this league; it also confirmed how much this defense relies on Troy Polamalu, as well as how competitive this squad is even without their top two players on the entire roster - Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger

Some thoughts on the game as well as what the future may hold for the Steelers moving forward in to this final 5 weeks of the 2009 season.

Before I begin in earnest though, let me say this: what a game! We watch the National Football League to be entertained. It's part of our lives and we attach deep seated emotions to seeing the team we love succeed. But at the end of the day, it's about escaping from our everyday lives for a few hours each week to watch a game between the most accomplished and awe-inspiring athletes on the planet. Tonight, both fanbases were treated to fantastic drama, if not perfect football. Too many fans get caught up in the end results. I don't critique them for that. I don't legislate emotions or tastes (we all are drawn to certain things for different reasons and to different degrees) but for me, I have a hard time being too upset after getting to watch an immensely entertaining and emotionally draining game like the one played between the Steelers and Ravens. Last year, the Steelers emerged victorious in all three hard fought battles with the Ravens. This time, they got our number. With our star safety and starting quarterback shelved. 

The outcome sucked, but the game itself was outstanding, as was the buildup all week to the game. It's rare that the game itself leads up to the anticipation and the hype. Tonight was one of those nights. That's why we watch the games and care so much.

* Let's first start with Dennis Dixon, who filled in for Ben Roethlisberger on short notice after the coaching staff of the Steelers opted to sit Big Ben because of the headaches he was getting following practice sessions earlier in the week. Here were Dixon's numbers for the game. 12 of 26 for 145 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 3 rushes, 27 yards, 1 TD

Dixon was neither spectacular nor awful. He made a few really nice plays both in and out of the pocket; he did a generally good job getting the offense in and out of the huddle; he went through his progressions fairly well without getting flustered in the pocket; and he showed a competitive spirit that proved the biggest of stages wouldn't overwhelm him emotionally or psychologically. 

He did however make some mistakes. Obviously the late interception was costly. He got away with a few other bad decisions - most notably the out pattern he threw that was almost intercepted by L. Webb in the 2nd half. He also had several very positive plays negated by penalties. His lengthy 31 yard run on 3rd down during the Steelers second possession was erased by a holding penalty. He also had a big gain to Santonio Holmes taken away due to a Mewelde Moore hold on Ray Lewis. The Steelers would have had the ball at the Ravens 23 yard line with the score tied at 7. Instead they were forced to punt and the Ravens capitalized with a touchdown drive of their own to take a 14-7 lead in to intermission. It's an awful lot to ask of a kid to lead a team to victory in Baltimore's house in the first place. It's an even greater task to expect him to do so when two of his better plays get negated by penalties. 

All in all, I'd give Dixon a grade of B for the evening, all things considered. That was an awfully tough spot for him to make his first NFL start. His teammates helped him at times, but they probably could have done even more to lift some of the burden off the young kid's shoulders. That's the way the cookie's crumbled for Pittsburgh so far in 2009. Still, the Steelers now know they have something in Dixon as Big Ben's backup. Given the number of hits Ben takes, that's good to know.

* To all those who are bashing Bruce Arians left and right for his game-calling tonight. First of all, take this in to very strong consideration. If Tyler Palko is asked to play in this game, the Steelers maybe gain 5 yards of total offense. One hit to the not-exactly-statuesque Dennis Dixon and Tyler stinkin' Palko is playing on the road in Baltimore. That would have been so comically disastrous I don't even know where to start. So, yes, that's most certainly a consideration when crafting a game plan for Dixon. 

More importantly though, lots of people seem to be complaining that Dixon didn't get nearly enough designed runs or roll outs as he should have. Well, remember first that Roethlisberger was only scratched late in the week, meaning Dixon wasn't exactly getting all the reps or the undivided attention of the coaching staff leading up to the game. He got some work in with the first unit all week because it wasn't clear whether or not Ben would go, but up until late in the week, the plan was to have Ben start the game. It's pretty simple then - Dixon didn't have a full week to work with Arians and the Steelers offense to get a complete gameplan ready in case of emergency. 

They did have enough time to get a few plays ready though. We saw one of them on Pittsburgh's second touchdown of the game -  a 24 yard scamper midway through the 4th quarter that gave Pittsburgh its first lead of the game. The play call was exquisite, with Mike Wallace coming in motion from the right side; Dixon faked the handoff to him, then rolled right with Mewelde Moore. Dixon had the option of keeping it or dumping it off to Moore depending on what the Ravens defender in pursuit did. Dixon took off, Moore threw a key block and Dixon was off to the races to the endzone. The play call was outstanding, and the execution perfect.

Yes, I too had some issues with some of Arians' play calls. I thought it was silly not to call timeout for example after Carey Davis picked up that big run as the 1st half came to a close. A timeout after that run gives the Steelers roughly 35 seconds or so to get another 25 yards in 30 seconds to attempt a long Jeff Reed field goal. Instead they chose to let the clock wind down in the half and head in to intermission content that the score was just 14-7. I thought that was a mistake.

I also thought it was a bit of a mistake to not try those bubble screens to Santonio Holmes more often than they did. I believe they called that play twice. Both were completed for solid gains. I might say the same about getting Mendenhall the ball in the passing game a bit more. See how Baltimore isolated Ray Rice against James Farrior in key moments? Well, people were hard on Farrior for getting dusted in that situation, but believe me, Mendenhall would have left Ray Lewis in the dust too had he been in the exact same situation. Arians could stand to see the value he has in Mendnhall in the passing game outside of just the traditional dump offs and screens on the perimeter. Rememer that one pass Mendenhall caught on the outside and took for a big gain after breaking a tackle? What stuck out to me was how fluidly Mendy caught the ball. Same for his catch last week against Kansas City.

Other than that though, I really had no major beef with the gameplan Arians called. Consider this - the Steelers had 38 rushes to just 26 passes. Pittsburgh averaged a solid, if not spectacular, 4.0 yards per rush. Their commitment to the run kept them in the game in the first half after Baltimore forced an early three and out and then scored on their first drive. Pittsburgh had over 150 yards rushing, something they've not even come close to achieving in recent meetings. 

Look, I definitely feel the Steelers could benefit from hiring somebody other than Bruce Arians to coordinate this offense. I just don't think he deserves all the ridicule and vitriol he's gotten after this game. As far as I'm concerned, he did a very good job concocting a gameplan that shortened the game, took responsibility and pressure off of Dixon and ultimately put the defense in position to win. The defense deserves a nod for their work in the 3rd quarter, but at the end of the day, they couldn't seal the deal once again in the final minutes.

Finally, for the haters out there, be happy this season is playing out the way it has because if the team does miss the playoffs or even get bounced out in the opening round, you'll probably get your wish and see Arians shuttled out of town after this season. 

* Big props to the offensive line of the Steelers for their efforts. The big eaters up front paved the way for 158 rushing yards while keeping Dennis Dixon off his back all evening. Dixon wasn't sacked once and frankly, the times he was pressured most heavily was a result of Mewelde Moore getting lit up by Ray Lewis. Definitely one of the better games the Steelers offensive line has played all season considering the circumstances. Kudos to Trai Essex, Justin Hartwig and Ramon Foster in particular for holding down the fort in the interior of the line. Max Starks and Willie Colon also did a very nice job in both pass protection and the running game.

* In case you were beginning to wonder if the Steelers didn't miss Aaron Smith, let tonight be a reminder just how valuable he is too our defensive success. The Ravens rushed for 132 yards on 29 attempts, good for 4.6 yards per pop. The experience Ziggy Hood is getting is a very good thing, but he got blown off the ball several times tonight in the run game in a way that would never happen to Aaron Smith. The Steelers need him almost as much as they do Troy Polamalu when playing a team like Baltimore. By that I mean the Ravens don't match up particularly well when they're r endered one-dimensional. But with the emergence of Ray Rice as a formidable threat both inside and outside the tackles, the Steelers very much could have benefited from Smith's gap-clogging abilities. I was very impressed with Rice tonight. He displayed an amazing sense of what was going on around him and proved to be both tough, careful protecting the ball, and capable of breaking off a big play on a moment's notice when it looked as if nothing was there. I don't love this Ravens roster, but I will say this - with Ray Rice, they're capable of beating anybody on any given day come January. He gives them a chance to maintain leads, erase deficits and keep teams off balance with his dynamic skill set. 

* Special teams rears its ugly head again. Kickoff coverage was better this week, but it was punt coverage that hurt the Steelers this time around.  Chris Carr averaged 14 yards per punt return and came close to taking one to the house not once, but twice. Thankfully, one of them was called back due to an illegal block in the back. Still, the Ravens first touchdown drive was set up by a 17 yard punt return that gave them the ball at their own 42 yard line. Carr then took one 34 yards inside Pittsburgh territory in the 4th quarter for what could have been a backbreaking series by Baltimore's offense. Instead, Lawrence Timmons forced a fumble and the Steelers capitalized. But at the end of the day, it was the Ravens special teams that put more pressure on Pittsburgh than vice versa. If there ever was a day when the Steelers could have used a big day from Stefan Logan, it was tonight. To his credit, Logan did have a nifty 14 yard punt return out to midfield that would help lead to 3 points, but he was largely rendered a non-factor once more. 

* Three plays that really hurt the Steelers chances - not the obvious critical plays like Dixon's INT or Ike Tay lor's pass inter ference call. The other plays that could have potentially turned the game in Pittsburgh's favor.

1) Dixon and Mike Wallace barely missing out on a TD connection in the 3rd quarter. In the o pen thread, fans were on Wallace for not bringing the TD in. Perhaps he should have made the grab, but it was definitely made harder than it needed to be by Dixon. I was impressed by Dixon's trajectory on his passes and the natural ability he seems to have in terms of knowing when to gun it and when to take something off it and add some trajectory to his throws. On the missed TD to Wallace though, Dixon put just a bit too much air under it and it cost Wallace valuable real estate in the back of the endzone. Not a bad play but definitely one of those 'game of inches' type misses that I imagine he'd convert in the future if given the opportunity  now that he knows just how fast paced the action is in live NFL games.

2) Ryan Clark and William Gay whiffing on Derrick Mason on a deep ball late in the 2nd quarter. William Gay let Mason run by him, only to discover that Clark had been sucked too far towards the middle of the field and was late getting over to Mason. Flacco's throw hung up in the air forever, but Clark still wasn't able to get over in time to track the ball in the air and make a play on it. He correctly didn't just level Mason - had he done so, it definitely would have resulted in a flag. Anyway, I love Ryan Clark but I'm starting to question his instincts in the passing game more and more. He's pretty darn good in the angles he takes in the running game, but he keeps missing plays in the passing game without Polamalu back there with him covering up for some of his mistakes.

3) The touchdown run by Willis McGahee on Baltimore's first drive on 3rd and goal from the 2. The Steelers could have really used a stop there to hold Baltimore to just 3 points. Pittsburgh simply doesn't give up rushing touchdowns in that situation very often. They did tonight and were forced to play catch up for almost the entire remainder of the game.

* Total Yards: Baltimore 393, Pittsburgh 298. This marks just the second time the Steelers have been outgained all season - the other coming against Minnesota when two late turnovers led to a Steelers important victory. 

* 3rd Down %: Baltimore 5 of 14 (36%), Pittsburgh 6 of 14 (43%). Four of Pittsburgh's first downs on 3rd down came via the run. That's definitely not something we've seen out of Bruce Arians and his offenses in recent years. Just another reason why immediately blaming him for all our problems is wrong. He adapted to the circumstances and by doing so helped the Steelers win the time of possession battle, the third down conversion % battle, and ultimately, put the team in position to win.

* Tip of the hat to LaMarr Woodley for eating Michael Oher's lunch all night long. Woodley had 1 sack and should have had another if not for Oher dragging him to the turf, which led to Travis Kirschke getting the easy sack. 

* After an awful first series, Lawrence Timmons played awesome as well. He had two sacks, one of which resulted in a huge forced fumble that the Steelers would take the other way for a touchdown on their ensuing offensive possesion. This 2009 Steelers team definitely is missing something but if the pass rush stays this intense moving forward and Troy Polamalu can return healthy and play the remainder of the schedule, then this defense has a very legitimate shot of getting on a nasty run and dominating. As is, they're still missing too many tackles and surrendering too many big plays late in the game with all the marbles at stake to be a championship caliber team. But, and it's a big but if you ask me, it's important to remember that all five losses have come with Polamalu on the sidelines. They're undefeated with him playing and all signs point to him returning next week for the home stretch. As I've mentioned before, there's a nice 10 day rest coming up after we play the Browns two Thursdays from now. Fingers crossed, but if he can play the rest of the season and do so behind a pass rush that's really starting to round in to form, then it's waaaaaaaaaaay too early to think that Pittsburgh is down for the count this year.

* I actually think that the experience William gay is gaining this year is extremely vital to the Steelers chances of competing for Super Bowl runs in the next couple of years. But man, for now, is he having to pay his dues this year or what. Teams continue to pick on him relentlessly. I actually would have said before this evening that at least he is a fairly sure tackler compared to his current ability to actually not allow his guy to run free and make the catch. To me, his tackling had been his saving grace for most of this season. He had an off night tackling though this evening. Cornerback is definitely the hardest position in all of sports - even more so than quarterback - so it's not unacceptable that he's going through some growing pains. But he's struggling quite a bit this year and it's cost this team to some extent. Again though, as hard as I've been on the guy, I wholeheartedly believe he and the team will be better because of it in years to come.

* I read a comment somewhere earlier on BTSC that the Steelers Super Bowl window may be coming to a close this year and in the next several years. Absolutely not true at all. I wrote this all last year but haven't gotten around to doing so this year yet - but this Steelers roster didn't peak last year; nor have they this year. They're set to be their most formidable in 2010-2012. Think about it - Big Ben will be in his absolute prime, Santonio too (even if he leaves via free agency, we still have him next year and I'd bet quite a bit we lock him up this summer). Mendenhall is coming in to his own. Heath Miller is locked up for quite some time. We've got a player in Mike Wallace. The offensive line is looking better and better, and Starks, Kemoeatu, Foster, Stapleton, and probably Colon soon enough, are all going to be around for the foreseeable future. The defense is going to get better - Woodley and Harrison will be at the same if not higher level for the next few years; Ziggy Hood will improve; Lawrence Timmons should be a dominant force in a few years time; Polamalu still has several great years left. Same with Ike Taylor, while his counterpart William Gay will be better with more experience. 

Anyway, this roster needs a bit of work moving forward, but to think that this team is missing out on its chance to win a 7th Lombardi is simply not true. Our franchise quarterback is not yet 27 years old and we've got plenty of complimentary pieces around him that are gaining invaluable experience as we speak. 

* Loved John Harbaugh's decision to go for it late in the game facing a 4th and 5 from their own 46 yard line down 3 with just 3:30 left in the game. Totally dumb to punt it there. At worst you risk the Steelers getting 3 points, but most likely not even that considering the circumstances. You just never know when you're going to get that kind of field position and opportunity again to go in for the tying score. By the way, comparing it to Bill Belichick's decision against Indianapolis is asinine. The Patriots were ahead when they went for it on 4th down late in the game; the Ravens were trailing, and near midfield, not deep in their own territory. 

* To conclude...again, I would never dare suggest that anybody watches or follows sports in any way except the way that comes naturally to them and brings them the most enjoyment. That said, I sure hope those who are struggling to feel anything but misery and disappointment from this year to step back and rethink how this season only enhances what football means to all of us who love the game. 16 games a year sandwiched by months of life without football. Some years things break our way; others, the opposite. As Steelers fans, we're treated to the psychological sanctification of being right there in the thick of things most years, which if nothing else, manages to at least capture our sense of hope, optimism and engagement for as much of those precious 5 months each calendar year. This is as frustrating as it gets; or at least as frustrating as it gets since the 2006 season....but even the bad years manage to keep us captivated and enthralled with the action each and every week. The Steelers seem to not be subject to the 50% rule in life - the simple truism that for every great break comes an equally unfortunate turn of events. Well, this may just be one of those years where the odds seem to be ridiculously stacked against us. That seems to be the case, but here the team is, still right there in position to accomplish all their goals if their fortunes change. We know the talent's there, so you never know. And that's what keeps us watching and interested...and that's what makes us blessed to love this franchise. Hope still glimmers in even the darkest of days.

I for one, felt content that so much of the energy and emotion that I put in to enjoying this team and league was well founded by last night's immensely entertaining and competitive game. And now, with the Steelers backs' squarely against the wall, we officially are the 'hunters' once more with nothing to lose. Let's get it on. This party's not over yet.