The Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens 16-14 on Sunday in a game they largely squandered. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how a porous run defense and three huge turnovers on offense turned a winnable game into a crushing defeat at Acrisure Stadium.
Heading into this contest, the match-up that had me most intrigued was Pittsburgh’s run defense against Baltimore’s rushing attack. With Lamar Jackson sidelined, it seemed logical the Ravens would lean heavily on their potent run game to move the football. Backup Tyler Huntley was not much of a passing threat, but with Huntley in the lineup for the season finale against Pittsburgh last year, the Ravens ran for 242 yards. Jackson or no Jackson, Baltimore was dangerous on the ground. A Pittsburgh defense that surrendered 146 rushing yards to the Falcons last week needed to find a way to stop them.
In particular, Atlanta had great success attacking the edge against the Steelers. It was no surprise, then, that the Ravens tested those waters on the game’s first play. Baltimore put a bunch set into the boundary and ran a wide zone play. But the Steelers walked safety Terrell Edmunds down to line of scrimmage, where he occupied receiver Devin Duvernay (13). This allowed corner Cam Sutton to come clean and cut down running back J.K. Dobbins for no gain:
It was an encouraging start. The Steelers were effective early on, holding Baltimore to 17 rushing yards on their first seven carries. But on Baltimore’s third possession, after a 17-yard punt from Pressley Harvin III gave them great field position, Dobbins did this:
A trio of problems doomed the Steelers on this play. First, Cam Heyward and Chris Wormley both bumped a gap just before the snap. This was likely a designed stem to mess with Baltimore’s blocking assignments. But Heyward never appeared to get set, and it affected him at the snap. He was slow off the ball, which allowed center Tyler Linderbaum to make first contact before handing him over to massive right guard Ben Cleveland (6’6-370). Cleveland drove Heyward back then spun him like a top. Linderbaum, meanwhile, came off onto linebacker Devin Bush and turned him out, creating a huge hole in the A-gap.
On the other side of Heyward, linebacker Myles Jack took on the block of fullback Patrick Ricard with the wrong shoulder. Jack should have used his left shoulder to attack the block, which would have allowed him to play off into the hole. Instead, he used his right shoulder, which spun him away from Dobbins. The combination of Heyward getting knocked off the ball, Bush getting sealed and Jack being fundamentally unsound created a big play for Baltimore.
That drive ended with a Dobbins touchdown run. More importantly, it opened the flood gates. The Ravens took control of the line of scrimmage and began to assert their will. The Steelers limited Baltimore’s chunk runs, but they had no answer for the five, six and seven-yard plays the Ravens seemed to author at will. Even with Pittsburgh in a 3-5-3 package that put eight linemen and linebackers on the field, Baltimore won up front. Dobbins ran low and hard, usually falling forward for extra yards, while Pittsburgh’s defenders could not find clean paths to the football. Rugby scrums like this one nearly all went Baltimore’s way:
Occasionally, the Steelers struggled to align properly to Baltimore’s heavy sets. Take this play from the 3rd quarter. With the Ravens pinned deep in their own territory, they aligned in 22-personnel with Ricard (42) offset to the right and tight end Mark Andrews flexed outside of him. Pittsburgh walked T.J. Watt out with Andrews, which left them with no force player in the box. This meant, in order to cage a run to that side of the field, Jack would have to set the edge from linebacker depth:
You can see from the photo how hard the Steelers kicked to Baltimore’s left on this play. This makes little sense, since Baltimore was in a balanced set. If anything, their strength was to the other side, where Andrews was set up in the slot. With Pittsburgh misaligned, it’s no surprise the Ravens were able to run a counter play at Jack that hit clean:
Ultimately, the game’s most important play came just before the two-minute warning. The Steelers trailed 16-14 and had Baltimore in a 3rd-and-3 from their own 28-yard line. A stop would force a punt that would give them an opportunity to drive down and win the game. With third-stringer Anthony Brown at quarterback after Huntley exited with a concussion, there was little chance the Ravens would throw the ball. A run play was coming. There was no question about it.
Prior to the snap, I recalled a discussion I’d had with Bryan Anthony Davis on last week’s “Here We Go, the Steelers Show” podcast. I told Bryan about the time I coached against Ravens’ offensive coordinator Greg Roman when he was calling plays at Holy Spirit high school in New Jersey back in 2008. Holy Spirit was a big, physical football team — a high school version of the Ravens, for the most part — and Roman’s goal was to run the ball down the throat of his opponent. His favorite run concept was Power, a no-frills play where the offense blocks down, kicks out and sorts through the bodies. Holy Spirit must have run Power 25 times that afternoon. They lined up in heavy personnel and practically announced it was coming. We loaded the box with as many bodies as we could afford and run-blitzed on every down. It made little difference. We couldn’t stop them.
As Baltimore lined up for that crucial 3rd-and-3 snap, I flashed back to 2008. Here comes Power, I said, to no one in particular. Sure enough, there it was. Roman dressed it up with jet motion to give the Steelers some eye candy to consider. But it was still Power, with the front side blocking down, the tight end turning out and the back-side guard pulling around to lead the way. The back was Gus Edwards instead of Dobbins but the result was the same. The Ravens knocked Pittsburgh off the ball and made it look easy:
While it could be argued the defense held their own by yielding just 16 points, that’s a bit like celebrating the fact you didn’t get knocked out by a fighter who had one hand tied behind his back. Baltimore rushed for 215 yards despite having little ability to throw the ball. There are few things more demoralizing than when another team runs at will, yet that’s what the Ravens did on a day where they presented little threat of anything else.
Kenny Pickett’s day was a short one, thanks to a blown pass protection that led to a sack and subsequent concussion on Pittsburgh’s opening possession.
The culprit was a miscommunication up front. With Baltimore showing a five-man pressure, and no edge rusher to the left of tackle Dan Moore Jr. (65), the line should have checked to a full slide to their right:
They didn’t, and linebacker Patrick Queen (6) came unblocked. Pickett escaped his grasp, but was then thrown to the ground by Roquan Smith, slamming his head on the turf in the process:
I’m not sure what protection was called, or why left guard Kevin Dotson blocked out and allowed Queen to come free. Perhaps he was expecting running back Jaylen Warren to account for Queen. Whatever the case, Pickett, after returning for one more series, was done.
Mitchell Trubisky entered and promptly moved the Steelers downfield for a touchdown. Trubisky was cool on the drive, calmly sliding away from pressure to convert a 3rd-and-8 play to Pat Freiermuth, then throwing a great deep ball to George Pickens to get the Steelers into the red zone:
Najee Harris finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and the Steelers, despite starting in a 10-0 hole, had life.
Unfortunately, the rest of Trubisky’s day was defined more by the throws he made to Baltimore defenders than to his own receivers. He killed three promising drives — two deep in Baltimore territory, and a third where the Steelers had crossed midfield — with terrible interceptions.
The first came on a 2nd-and-8 play from the Baltimore 17 with the Steelers down 10-7 midway through the 2nd quarter. Trubisky targeted Freiermuth on a dig between the hashes, but Smith undercut the route and picked it off:
Trubisky never saw Smith, which is a failure on his part not to anticipate a backside defender on a route concept where two receivers — Freiermuth and Steven Sims — were crossing the middle of the field together. The spacing of the routes didn’t help. In the still frame below, you can see how compressed the receivers were, which allowed Smith to defend a throw intended for Freiermuth, whom he was not covering. Sims got jammed up on his release, which caused him to be late crossing the field. Sims should have already cleared Freiermuth, taking Smith with him. But he didn’t, and Smith picked it, and the Steelers squandered points.
Trubisky led the offense down the field again on Pittsburgh’s next possession, highlighted by another nice deep ball to Pickens, this one a back-shoulder throw:
But again, the drive ended with a bad interception inside the red zone. This one was also intended for Freiermuth and also the product of Trubisky failing to locate a linebacker in the middle of the field. This time it was Queen, who simply followed Trubisky’s eyes as he stared down his tight end:
The window to make this throw was incredibly small, with four Baltimore defenders converging on Freiermuth. On a 1st-and-10 play from the +23-yard line, in a one-score ballgame, it’s imperative that Trubisky take better care of the football. There’s a time to gamble and a time to use discretion. This situation demanded the latter.
Trubisky’s third interception came in the 3rd quarter after Pittsburgh had moved from their own 11-yard line to the Baltimore 46. On 1st-and-10, they took a deep shot off of play-action against single-high coverage. Again, though, Trubisky stared down his target, which gave safety Marcus Williams plenty of time to track the throw and pick it off:
In last week’s “3 & Out” column, I wrote the following about the errors that often plague Pittsburgh’s offense:
Baltimore was that better competition, and Trubisky’s mistakes caught up with them.
Odds and Ends
- Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee, Pittsburgh’s three safeties, combined for 24 tackles on Sunday. That’s nine more than the total accumulated by Bush, Jack and Robert Spillane, their three inside linebackers. That tells you a lot about how aggressively Pittsburgh was playing on the back end, and also how little production they got from their backers.
- Speaking of the backers, the quality of play for the two units was telling. For Baltimore, Queen and Smith were difference-makers, impacting the game constantly with their speed, athleticism and aggressiveness. Conversely, Bush and Jack were block-magnets, never seeming to free themselves to make plays or stand out in a positive manner. With three high draft picks and a stack of cap money to spend in free agency this off-season, the Steelers must land an impact linebacker who can transform the defense, especially against the run.
- The game’s other great disparity involved the offensive line play, where Baltimore started three 1st Round picks and two 3rd Rounders. The Steelers, meanwhile, started a 2nd, two 3rds and two 4ths. The difference in pedigree, and in performance, was significant. The line is another area where Pittsburgh must sink their resources this off-season. The Steelers are better up front than they were last year, but by no means good enough to compete with the NFL’s best.
- George Pickens was targeted three times on Sunday. Those targets produced three catches for 78 yards plus a defensive pass interference penalty. I know Pickens isn’t an accomplished route runner yet, and the holes in his game limit his usage. But he is Pittsburgh’s most dynamic player on offense. They have to find a way to get him more involved.
- This loss hit me particularly hard. I never like losing to the Ravens but losing a game that felt so winnable is especially galling.
The last five games between the Steelers and Ravens have been decided by 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 points. All signs seem to indicate we’re headed for a tie in the Week 17 rematch.