Thank god that’s over. Before turning the corner for the Steelers’ 2020 stretch run, let’s take one more look at the longest week in NFL history—as told by the players (and some commentators).
“NFL suspends Steelers roster for breaking coronavirus protocol by playing Ravens”
— The Onion
Admit it, you wondered for a second if this headline was legit.
“The better team didn’t win today”
— James Jones (NFL Network)
Far too much of the post-game chatter Wednesday night lionized Baltimore for their “heroic” performance in the loss. And I’m calling B.S. on that.
Maybe some can forget that the Ravens’ organization is at fault for their own roster-purge, that the endless postponements allowed Baltimore to reactivate players who shouldn’t have been available, and that the league appeased the Ravens with an extra day of practice so they wouldn’t hurt themselves. I can’t, but if you can convince yourself those things don’t matter, you might be struck by the Ravens’ huge number of COVID reserves (14!). That is, until you realize most of those were backups.
Of their regulars, the Ravens were missing six, while the Steelers were short by three—and even that is a little misleading. Both teams played without their starting center and a star defensive lineman. Pittsburgh was also down by their leading rusher, James Conner, while Baltimore had their top two runners (Dobbins and Ingram) back by gametime, but chose not to start them because they never lost Gus Edwards—their top rusher vs. the Steelers over the last two years.
You could claim (and many did) that Lamar Jackson’s absence was a huge loss for the Ravens—but have you seen Jackson play the Steelers? His two worst career games are his only two starts against Pittsburgh. If anything, the Ravens were lucky he didn’t sustain the emotional trauma of getting blown up by the Steelers again.
That left Baltimore without WR Willie Snead, TE Mark Andrews, and LB Pernell McPhee (Matthew Judon was also on the COVID list, but he was already on the injury report for his ankle). A net of three meaningful absences over the opponent is hardly a devastating blow during a season like this.
So what part of Baltimore’s effort was heroic? Was it their offense, which managed only 219 yards all game—a full third of which came on one blown coverage? Those guys were worse than advertised (see below). How about their defense? It’s true, that unit didn’t roll over, but why would they? They were only short a couple of pieces, and none from the secondary (lucky break against a passing team like Pittsburgh). Instead, Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphry, and Marcus Peters got burned for 266 passing yards on a day that Steelers receivers dropped at least a half-dozen catchable balls, including two touchdowns.
Willie McGinist responded to Jones by saying, “I’ll take an ugly win over a beautiful loss any day.” But I don’t understand what made this a beautiful loss in the first place.
“We make no excuses, we seek no comfort.”
— Mike Tomlin
I’ve never seen Mike Tomlin as hacked-off as he was at the end of this game. Asked what he attributed the team’s red zone failures and dropped passes to, he replied tersely, “us sucking.”
I love it. The Steelers did not play well. They had to deal with a lot of nonsense leading up to the ballgame (none of it their fault), and they played without several important pieces themselves—but Tomlin was having no part of any excuses.
If you’ve ever wondered whether his aphorisms are just coach-speak or whether he means them, here’s your answer. “The standard is the standard” or “we do not care” are not posturing. After this past week, he’d have every right to celebrate a rivalry victory (as Joe Haden put it, “we didn’t lose!”). But Tomlin wasn’t even relieved to have won; he was furious.
“Steelers’ biggest problem today has been missing easy third downs.”
— Chris Collinsworth
This seemed spot-on to me. The Steelers weren’t just struggling on third down; they were botching makeable, “easy” ones.
In the fourth quarter, with a 19-7 lead, Pittsburgh embarked on TWO clock-eating drives that ended with 3rd down drops—first by Eric Ebron, then Diontae Johnson. We can fault Terrell Edmunds for blowing coverage on that heart-sinking 70 yarder (and we should—it was unacceptable), but the Ravens shouldn’t have even had the ball. They should have been suffering a long, slow, death-by-a-thousand-cuts. Except the Steelers couldn’t stay on the field.
Asked about the drops post-game, Ben Roethlisberger said, “I need to be more accurate.” That’s admirable, but it’s also false. Sure, he could always be more accurate, but Ben did his job. The deepest receiving corps in team history needs to play like a stable of starters.
“We had too many people at the point of attack. (The late-game rushing success) was more reflective of the individual efforts of Benny Snell.”
— Mike Tomlin
Speaking of the end game: a shout-out to Benny Snell Jr.
If you’ve been reading these columns, you know I believe Snell is the closer the Steelers need. He’s an average runner early in ballgames—competent, but not exceptional—but in the end-game, he becomes Barry Foster. Snell finished the Baltimore game with a respectable 60 yards on 16 carries (3.8ypc), but most came in the 4th quarter. Through three quarters, he’d recorded 8 carries, for 19 yards (2.4ypc, no first downs); in the 4th: 8 for 41 (5.1ypc, three first downs). I know that not everyone agrees, but to me, both the stats and the eyeball test are pretty clear.
I can’t explain why this happens. One might assume the running game opens up late because teams are too worried about Big Ben, but you’d think that would be true earlier too. Also, remember that Snell killed it in late games last year too, and no one was sweating about Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. I’ve also wondered if the O-Line might struggle to get into a run-blocking rhythm without trying to bleed the clock. That’s not Tomlin’s take though. Coach T rarely credits one person’s individual efforts above their teammates—but he did here.
And that’s probably it. Most of Snell’s strong rushes on Wednesday came after he’d bounced outside, hit a hole for the second time, or thrown Marcus Peters into the dirt. That is, they weren’t clean holes opened by the line; they were Benny Snell making something out of nothing.
As I’ve said more than once, this guy needs to be a bigger part of the offense. James Conner is probably a better all-around back, but if the Steelers make Snell a glorified Gary Russell (short-yardage guy, three carries per game), they’ll be making a real mistake.
“I think we’re a good team because all three phases are really really good… It’s not just offense, it’s not just defense. Everybody works together and we figure out a way to win.”
— Joe Haden
This might look like manufactured sunshine after such an ugly win, but Haden might be onto something. We’ve been grinding our teeth about the Steelers’ inability to play 60 minutes (*still a problem), but they keep winning because when one element falters, another steps up.
Against Baltimore, the offense turned the ball over, so the defense returned a pick to the house. Offense couldn’t sustain drives, so the defense held Baltimore to five(!) net passing yards by halftime. Defensive backs blew a late coverage on a long touchdown, so Bennie Snell bled out the clock.
This was an U-G-L-Y game, but they kept finding ways to hang on. As Roethlisberger put it: “we’re disappointed after winning a football game; that’s a problem not many people have.”
“[If I hadn’t injured my hamstring,] we’d have won this game.”
— Robert Griffin III
This is a bold claim, coming from a guy who’s stat line was: 7 – 12, 33 yards (2.8ypa), 0 TDs, 1 INT, 28.5 quarterback rating. (Note: if every pass falls incomplete, the passer’s rating is 39.6.) The NFL also deducts sacked yards when it calculates net passing yards. Given the 20 yards Griffin lost on three sacks, he netted a whopping 13 yards in 15 drop-backs (0.87ypa). Factoring in Joe Haden’s first quarter pick-six, this was hardly a banner day for the former Rookie of the Year.
But, sure. More of this would have probably beaten the Steelers in the end...
“The Steelers’ defense is sending a message: you’re not going to run on us anymore.”
— Chris Collinsworth
Perhaps Griffin’s posturing above is in reference to his rushing line: 7 carries, 68 yards. Of course, 39 of that came on one 2nd quarter run. Excluding that sprint, the entire Ravens team amassed 90 yards on 27 carries for the game (3.3ypc). This is a far cry from the 219 rushing yards (5.6ypc) that Wednesday’s starters—Griffin, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill—combined for eleven months ago, when all three started against the Steelers in the 2019 season finale.
Here’s a little breakdown of how the Steelers controlled the Ravens’ offense Wednesday:
Ravens running backs rushed for 37 yards in the first half (3.1ypc); they rushed for 8 in the second half (1.3ypc).
Ravens quarterbacks rushed for 56 yards in the first half (11.2ypc); they rushed for 28 yards in the second half (5.6ypc).
In the previous two Steelers/Ravens matchups, Gus Edwards averaged 19 carries for 109 yards; he rushed 9 times for 10 yards on Wednesday.
Baltimore netted 90 yards in the air, even including that 70 yard bomb.
En toto, Baltimore logged just 219 yards on 49 offensive plays (4.5 yards per play). A full 50% of that output was achieved on two plays: Griffin’s 39 yard draw, and the aforementioned 70 yarder. Minus those two plays, the Ravens entire offensive output dips to 110 yards on 47 plays (2.3 yards per play).
The Steelers defense demolished the Ravens on Wednesday.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel… We’ve gotta coach better and play better when we get inside a bowl”
— Mike Tomlin
Exactly. The Steelers won on Wednesday night because they were the better team, even on a bad day. They executed like the Three Stooges (53 Stooges?) but sloppy play is not endemic on this team, especially given the cirsumstances. Watching Tomlin’s intensity in his post-game talk, I have no doubt the Steelers will shape up quick.
(P.S. “when we get inside a bowl” is my new favorite aphorism for “when the game is on.”)
“I’m gonna go check on Bud right now”
— Joe Haden (at the end of his post-game sideline Q&A)
Bud Dupree appears lost for the season—which is tragic for the team, since he’s become a legitimate star, and tragic for him, since he’s playing on the franchise tag, and figures to lose millions of dollars. I wonder a tiny bit whether this increases the chances that he’ll return to Pittsburgh next year, but mostly I just feel bad for him. He’s always seemed like a nice guy, and it took him a few years to find his footing. What a crime to blow out his knee on a non-contact injury in a game that shouldn’t have even been played that day.
On a side note, Alex Highsmith may be no Bud Dupree, but he’s looked alright this year. I worry about his stamina (the rookie wall is real) but maybe 11 games as a rotational player will mitigate that. In any case, I feel better about him at ROLB than I would with Anthony Chickillo.
In a related story, I noticed Avery Williamson was on the field a little more on Wednesday. That’s good, especially with Robert Spillane still playing well. The Steelers ran with five linebackers for a while in the last Baltimore game. At the time, this meant three OLBs and two ILBs. If they keep rotating that package, they could easily run three ILBs instead. Fingers crossed.
“Ravens not happy with Steelers’ delay tactics before halftime”
— Michael David Smith headline on Pro Football Talk
You know, John, some of us weren’t happy with the Ravens delay tactics before kickoff, either. Like threatening to strike if you didn’t get more practice time, or taking no responsibility for the ways you all jeopardized the entire NFL season.
Complaining about how they got cheated (when the truth is they just lost) has become de rigueur for the Ravens lately. Harbaugh did it in the last game too—insisting Minkah Fitzpatrick interfered with the game’s final pass (he didn’t). To his credit, RGIII wouldn’t bite: “we had two plays called. We knew what we were going to do, and we got them both run. We just didn’t execute.” But Harbaugh couldn’t resist deflecting blame.
It’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from him. As he stamps his leadership more and more on the Ravens organization, Harbaugh’s definition of sportsmanship gets clearer: run up the score when the game is in hand; complain about fairness if you lose.
I used to roll my eyes at Ray Lewis’s messiah act, but I have to admit, I miss his integrity in Baltimore. Ray was too proud and took the game too seriously to have tolerated this kind of after-the-fact whining. (I also suspect he would have been furious that his team allowed a strength coach to nearly blow up their season, and mortified that his teammates demanded an extra prep day so they wouldn’t pull muscles.) Leadership matters, and I haven’t seen much of it in Baltimore since Lewis (and to a lesser degree, Terrell Suggs) left town.
Since Lewis retired, Harbaugh’s Ravens have been remarkably mediocre. Their record in the last eight years seems respectable, if unremarkable (70-53, .569). But it’s padded by 2019’s 14-2 mark, which looks increasingly like a fluke—a season where no one expected Lamar Jackson, and where Baltimore’s chief rivals were handcuffed (the Steelers, with Ben’s injury; the Browns with an overwhelmed coach). None of that is true anymore. With the Ravens in a 1-4 free-fall, blaming the refs (twice!) is as transparent as it is low-quality. When Jackson said Tennessee “just wanted it more” the other week, we got a glimpse into the culture of that team. It was an indictment of Harbaugh at least as much as Jackson.
I know a lot of people claim Harbagh is a great coach, but I just don’t see it. Discounting last season, Harbaugh’s post-RayRay record is 56-51—just a shade over .500—and he hasn’t won a playoff game in six years. Maybe it’s time people started saying, “he only won with Brian Billick’s players.”
“Good luck to the boys today. Pad the stats—should be an easy one.”
— Stephon Tuitt
In the interest of fairness, I also want to send a nasty look in Stephon Tuitt’s direction. I like Tuitt, but this tweet was insanely stupid. Tuitt is probably really lucky that he’s still on COVID protocols and can’t enter the Steelers’ facility. I wouldn’t want to look Coach T in the face today, after handing Baltimore bulletin board material like this…
“I’m gonna be healthy by the time we play this game…”
— Zach Banner
I’m gonna be healthy by the time we play this game...— Zach Banner (@ZBNFL) November 30, 2020
And Zach Banner reminds us that not all Twitter complaints are toxic. This one was pretty good.
“Pittsburgh will not be charged a timeout…”
— Referee Ronald Torbert
In the weirdest (underreported) turn of events, this successful challenge kinda won the game for the Steelers. It was on a 2nd and 10 reception that JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled out of bounds, originally called an incomplete pass. Only a five yard gain, it set up a makeable 3rd down that the team converted—the drive eventually resulting in Pittsburgh’s only offensive touchdown all day. Lose this challenge and you’re facing much-more-difficult 3rd and 10 (the Steelers converted one 3rd down all day over six yards). If that drive had stalled, 19-14 may have started looking a little more like 12-14.
How about that for bizarro-world: Tomlin’s most famous coaching shortcoming—winning challenges—winds up being one of the crucial turning points in the game. Nothing makes sense this year…
“At least this week, anyway, it looks like Ravens coach John Harbaugh is more in charge than anyone at the league office.”
— Tim Benz, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The NFL postponed this game (for a third time) to get an extra day of COVID test results and allow #Ravens players time to train and avoid muscle strains, etc. -- not because of who wouldn't be available. But, Baltimore gets a big boost for a big game anyway. https://t.co/67iJixffJF— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) November 30, 2020
The NFL owes a lot of people explanations. Tom Pelissero’s tweet is representative of a league talking point I heard repeatedly this week: the NFL didn’t make this final switch (from Tuesday to Wednesday) to give Baltimore any competitive advantage; they did it so that the Ravens would get an extra day to train. Aggravatingly, this declaration is always delivered with a self-satisfied graveness that masks the fact that the logic doesn’t work.
Like many, I’m irritated with the first two postponements, but I won’t begrudge the league for rescheduling. I also await the NFL’s punishment (which damn well better be severe, since the Ravens are unequivocally guilty of flouting the rules), but you can’t pretend the virus doesn’t exist.
However, the last move—from Tuesday to Wednesday—has flimsy justification. The Ravens wanted to avoid muscle strains? Too bad. Stretch in your living room, do push-ups in your basement, run wind sprints in your backyard. And if that’s still not good enough, blame your own organization for allowing a strength coach to work without a mask (or a contact tracing device). That’s not the league’s problem any more than the Broncos’ maskless quarterback room last week.
The fact that the league capitulated to Baltimore’s strike threat gives away the game: there is no plan. They’re making this all up as they go. And they’re perfectly willing to be strong-armed by any team with the audacity to throw a fit.
“The Steelers (11-0) are still undefeated, and this contest shouldn’t serve as admissible evidence for anyone’s long-term analysis.”
—Nick Shook, nfl.com
In the end, this is the conclusion that makes the most sense to me. Ugly win. 11-0. On to Washington.