If I wrote Team A would finish the game leading in the following categories by the following totals:
Yards: 387 to 295
Plays: 72 to 55
Third downs: 5 of 16 to 4 of 11
Possession: 35 to 25
You'd probably expect to be reading about a Team A victory.
That was without pointing out Team B's massive advantage with three takeaways to one, along with two penalties for 14 yards compared to eight for 114 for Team A. Throw in Team B's five sacks compared to Team A's one, and you see why Splash Plays rule Possession in today's NFL. Team A of course being the Steelers, and Team B being the Baltimore Ravens - who, like in Week 2, did not rule statistically as much as the score indicates. The Steelers' run defense, in fact, shut the Ravens' down in the second half. Running back Justin Forsett had less yards at the end of the game (and a fumble lost) than he did starting the third quarter.
But with disadvantages in those key Ravens categories (sacks taken vs. sacks allowed, give/take, penalties), they weren't able to fend off the Ravens' second-half surge.
This 2014 season ended for the Pittsburgh Steelers in such a familiar fashion, it's sickening. I hate to use the cliche, and not as a means to discredit the crisp overall execution from the Ravens in their victory over Pittsburgh in the AFC Wild Card round, but the best Tomlin phrase to use here:
Steelers beating Steelers.
This was Week 2 all over again. Penalties, turnovers and sacks allowed. The Steelers just couldn't make enough big plays, and the Ravens could. The Steelers could not protect the passer (a key to this game, as we wrote this past week, if they could not do that, they would lose).
Give credit to Baltimore, they got a lot out of their secondary, counting on t hem to provide aggressive downfield coverage, as the Le'veon Bell-less Steelers could not counter that with enough firepower underneath. Call it whatever you want, the fact is this team could not generate big plays, and the defense - more through individual missed execution than a strategic failure - couldn't get stops.
The real turning point seemed to be a big third down reception by Ravens receiver Steve Smith. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu looked to jump on the crossing route, opening up the space behind him, giving Smith the kind of room he's exploited throughout an excellent 15-year career. The Steelers just couldn't come up with enough to keep the Ravens out of field goal range, and that put them up eight points.
They get that stop, force the punt and get the ball trailing five, maybe the result is different.
Take away three personal foul penalties - one on Mike Mitchell, who appears to really just not understand why you can't barrel head-first into the head of an opponent, one on Jason Worilds for pointlessly taking a swing at Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore, and one on Shamarko Thomas for blasting Jacoby Jones when he was a step out of bounds on a kick return - and maybe the Steelers put themselves into a better position.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and what we're left with is a Steelers team having played in such a fashion they were telling their opponents, "hey, here, you're our guests, we'll give you the benefit of the doubt here."
It's a disappointing game, to put it mildly. The Steelers did not compete in this, and they did not match the play of their opponents. The four weeks prior to it, the Steelers played with a certain fire we didn't see Saturday. Execution appeared more crisp as the game progressed. They got better throughout each quarter of the four-game winning streak. Saturday, they played like they were defeated play by play.
Steelers running back Ben Tate fumbled quickly in the game, and if not an excellent effort on the recovery from Antonio Brown, this game would have gone south in a hurry. But Tate also let a quick throw from Ben Roethlisberger slip through his hands, and right into the, um, groin area, of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. Not to suggest that play made or broke the game for either team, but if that doesn't deflect perfectly to an eager Suggs, or Tate makes the catch and moves forward for a yard, perhaps the air is still in the Steelers' sails.
But what I can't get past this morning, after a bleary-eyed re-watch, is what if Bell is in the game. He makes that catch because he's used to the quickness of the throw - Tate is not. Maybe he's able to shake free and get up field.
How many sacks are not taken because Bell can chip and release, turning a nine-yard loss into a three-yard gain? All told, on penalties and sacks, the Steelers gave Baltimore 151 yards. That's more than half of the total of the Ravens' offense (295).
Bell and the Steelers will be back next season. With a much more narrow focus in terms of their roster than last year, one can take a sense of optimism regarding the annual seasonal rebuilding project every team takes on by early February. This loss may stick in their minds, but not as much as the fear of playing another game like this one to anyone.