The Steelers took on the Ravens at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon in a game that was about as exciting and emotional as it usually is when these two AFC North rivals get together.
Despite Pittsburgh’s 1-3 record, the home crowd was vocal and supportive the entire day. In fact, after rallying back from first-half deficits of 10-0 and 17-7, the fans couldn’t have been more behind the Steelers after second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph was knocked unconscious while scrambling to find an open receiver on a play in-which he couldn’t have looked more like vintage Ben Roethlisberger.
Chants of “Throw him out!” filled the air, and they were aimed at Ravens safety Earl Thomas, who was the one who laid the vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Rudolph, forcing him to the locker room with a concussion and, eventually, to an area hospital for further evaluation.
In came Samford’s Devlin Hodges, a rookie who looked about as poised as could be expected in such a spot. He stepped in and completed seven of nine passes for 68 yards and led the Steelers from a 17-13 deficit, to a 23-20 lead with just minutes to play.
As for the defense, it bent all afternoon, but it never truly broke. It was victimized early on by an interception deep in Pittsburgh territory thrown by Jaylen Samuels out of the wildcat formation. It yielded a touchdown after that, but only one more the rest of the afternoon.
Like it has been doing to quarterbacks since Week 2, the defense mostly made life miserable for Lamar Jackson, intercepting him three times and sacking him five times.
One might even say the defense was victimized by poor officiating on the Ravens game-tying drive at the end of regulation. Ola Adeniyi was called for roughing the passer on what looked like a textbook hit on Jackson just as he released a pass that fell incomplete and would have made it third and nine.
Instead, it paved the way for a Justin Tucker field goal to send the game into overtime.
In overtime, the Steelers won the coin toss, and Cam Heyward seemed to confuse the head referee by saying he wanted to defer. This led to a bunch of questions about head coach Mike Tomlin’s sanity.
But the strategy worked. The Steelers forced a punt and had the ball at their own 31 with a chance to win it.
To battle back from so much and defeat your most bitter rival? What a beautiful story to write.
But these Steelers don’t write beautiful stories. Instead, what you see from this team time and time again is a habit of making crucial mistakes at just the wrong time.
Two weeks ago, it was James Conner’s fumble in the waning moments that led to the game-winning touchdown by the 49ers. Three weeks ago, it was the defense allowing Russell Wilson to run free on a third and long play that eventually led to the Seahawks running out the rest of the game clock in a two-point loss.
You saw it a bunch of times last season, with Conner fumbling in crucial spots, and Chris Boswell missing field goals and extra points at critical times.
You saw it with JuJu Smith-Schuster against the Saints, when he fumbled away the Steelers last realistic chance at the postseason.
I guess it was Smith-Schuster’s turn, again, on Sunday. Two plays after forcing a punt, the defense was back on the field, following a Smith-Schuster fumble that was recovered at the Pittsburgh 35.
The catch would have gone for a first down, and who knows after that?
Instead, Tucker predictably came on and sent those frenzied fans home in silence with the game-winning field goal.
Broncos, Chargers, Raiders, Saints, Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers and Ravens.
That’s eight losses in the past 11 games, dating back to last season, with seven of them coming in heartbreaking fashion.
You don’t have that many close losses unless your players are continuously coming up small in big moments.
Smith-Schuster will wear the horns this week.
But who will it be next week? Who will step down and make a horrible mistake with everything on the line?
As enjoyable as Sunday’s game was (and it really was one of the more exciting games I’ve personally experienced in a while), there was that thought in the back of my mind that someone would make a mistake and blow it.
I wasn’t disappointed....so to speak.
The Steelers are now 1-4 and must come to terms with the possibility of a long, long season.
This is what happens when you come up small in big moments.