It was the perfect opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers to confound their critics and claim the first of four wins they would need in their five remaining games to finish the regular season with a winning record. The setting couldn’t have been better on a cool, dry Pittsburgh afternoon at Acrisure Stadium with an energized crowd and a backup QB taking snaps for the visiting Baltimore Ravens. If the Steelers ever had a better shot at beating the hated Ravens, this one appeared difficult to top.
But after the opening kickoff, things began to deteriorate for the Black-and-gold almost immediately, suggesting that this simply wouldn’t be their day. At 11:00 of the first quarter, the Ravens’ blitzing inside LB Patrick Queen stormed unimpeded through a turnstile in the center of the Steelers OL and nearly sacked Pickett. But a second or two after eluding his grasp, Pickett was violently flung to the turf by linebacker Roquan Smith on a play which was textbook roughing but wasn’t flagged by the officials. Following his subsequent offensive series, Kenny was out of the game due to concussion symptoms.
With less than half of the opening quarter elapsed, Mitch Trubisky came in cold from the bench and was able to lead the offense on a TD drive at the end of the first quarter, narrowing the Ravens’ early 10-0 advantage to 10-7. But then, at 5:35 of the second quarter, after moving the offense into the Red Zone, Trubisky threw the first of three crucial interceptions when Roquan Smith picked off his pass over the middle, denying Pittsburgh the chance to score at least three points.
After the Ravens added a Justin Tucker FG to make the score 13-7, Trubisky drove the offense to Baltimore’s 23-yard line shortly before halftime, but he forced another throw over the middle intended for Pat Freiermuth which was intercepted by Patrick Queen. At halftime and despite his success in moving the offense, Trubisky’s interceptions already had cost the Steelers a minimum of six points.
In the second half at 3:10 of the third quarter, on a 1st-and-10 play after moving the offense to Baltimore’s 46-yard line, Trubisky inexplicably threw a deep ball intended for a double-covered Diontae Johnson which was easily intercepted by safety Marcus Williams playing centerfield in the end zone.
Trubisky continued moving the offense in the fourth quarter but, after stalling at Baltimore’s 22-yard line, Chris Boswell’s FG attempt at 11:17 was blocked, thus costing the Steelers another three points. Just as it had done earlier in the game, the Steelers defense failed to stop the Ravens’ running game and Baltimore was able to run precious minutes off of the clock on their way to setting up Tucker’s game-clinching FG.
With about three minutes remaining in the game, Trubisky again moved the offense down the field via a key pass to Diontae Johnson to set up the Steelers’ second TD of the game on a pass to Pat Freiermuth. But on the Ravens’ ensuing series — on a key 3rd-and-3 play right before the 2-minute warning — the Steelers couldn’t stop an off-tackle dive play and the Ravens kept the clock turning to claim their 16-14 victory.
So on this ideal day for football, in plain view of their home crowd, the Steelers stumbled miserably at every important juncture, leaving more than enough points on the field to erase the Ravens’ winning margin. Still worse, the Steelers lost the services of their rookie QB for an indefinite period at the same time when backup Mitch Trubisky was playing his worst game in a Steelers uniform and casting serious doubts about his capabilities as a reliable backup.
Despite the hopes spurred by recent wins over the Colts and Falcons, it was never any secret that the Steelers are heading nowhere this season, even if somehow they had been able to qualify for a Wild Card spot. But this dismal defeat in a game that seemed to be theirs for the taking sealed their fate once and for all. Given the utter futility we witnessed on Sunday in a must-win game, it’s difficult to imagine how these Steelers rebound physically or psychologically during their final four games.
Some critics have suggested the Steelers lost because Baltimore was the first quality team they’ve faced in recent weeks. But this rationale doesn’t fly because, for the most part, the Ravens played as poorly or perhaps even worse than Atlanta or Indianapolis had done in the previous two games. And when the playoffs roll around, Baltimore isn’t likely to be one of the teams advancing — even with Lamar Jackson at QB — against the likes of the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs or Cincinnati Bengals.
As depressing as Trubisky’s interceptions might have been, the Steelers lost this game — and their season — mainly because of an early, inexcusable blunder by the OL leading to Pickett’s concussion and forcing the QB change. This single change proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back because it replaced a QB who generally takes care of the football with a rusty backup who couldn’t resist throwing into coverage. Trubisky’s trio of interceptions at crucial points in the game was more than any NFL team could survive.
This isn’t to imply that the Steelers, even with Pickett on the field, don’t have plenty of serious issues to deal with during the upcoming offseason. But it wasn’t the Ravens’ superior talent or poor coaching by Tomlin and his staff that led to this defeat. Along with Trubisky’s awful performance, we also saw a shanked punt by Pressley Harvin III that set up the Ravens’ sole TD — plus a blocked FG, an issue which hasn’t exactly plagued the Steelers this season.
In a nutshell, every one of the numerous opportunities the Steelers had to win this game was squandered by poor individual play. That’s not denying the obvious fact that this year’s edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is anything but a good football team. There’s no reason for fans to overreact in the wake of this pivotal collapse because nearly everyone who follows the Steelers already is well aware that, regardless of their opponent, this team isn’t capable of overcoming significant injuries to key players or multiple turnovers by their QB.
The 2022 Steelers are a mediocre team with a thin roster and a paper-thin margin for error. So the only way they have managed to win this season is when they establish the run, possess the ball and avoid turnovers. When the angry mob goes searching for scapegoats, they need look no further than the Steelers’ current roster. It’s a group populated by too many players who likely wouldn’t be starting for other NFL teams. To use Coach Tomlin’s well-worn phrase, this is essentially a JV roster, glaringly short of talent at key positions and without adequate depth to compete consistently with most of the teams in the NFL — never mind the stronger ones.
While it’s difficult to find any silver lining in the wake of this debacle, at least it invites the Steelers coaching staff and front office to conduct a solemn post-mortem to assess exactly how far this team still needs to go to return to the winner’s circle. As things stand today, that picture reveals a much longer road ahead than Steelers Nation wants to imagine.