Finality has a way of bringing things into perspective. After Saturday's AFC Wildcard game at Heinz Field between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, it was quite clear how one player's absence can have a major impact on how they operate.
Much was made of the absence of Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers Pro-Bowl running back and team MVP missing the game due to the hyperextended knee he suffered just six days prior in the season ending win over Cincinnati. Bell accounted for combined 2,215 yards from scrimmage in 16 games. Only the Cowboys DeMarco Murray was better in 2014 with 2,261.
I read where Bell's absence wouldn't hurt the Steelers chances against Baltimore. That it was about the 'next man up' and being accountable for your place on a 53 man roster.
Spare me the hyperbole. Bell is the type of back that can make a defense nuts. He creates play action to defend against. But to attribute this loss to Bell not playing would be 100% incorrect.
No this loss falls on the team as a whole, starting with it's quarterback. As I've said time and again, this team lives and dies with the play of Ben Roethlisberger. When Ben is on, the Steelers are a force that rarely is stopped. Saturday night the Ravens got to Ben early and often, sacking him five times while forcing him to throw early on a few other occasions as they pressured him all night.
At one point of the 4th quarter, the Ravens even knocked Ben from the game for a few snaps, knocking him to the turf, head first. When you add the two interceptions thrown, Ben was a big factor in this result going the Ravens way.
But Ben isn't the only reason this team lost. No, there is plenty of blame to go around. The offensive line was bullied by the Ravens all night and really caused a great amount of pressure, drawing of a variety of blitz packages that took advantage of assignment mismatches. Baltimore also benefited from the return of nose guard Haloti Ngata from his 4 game substance abuse suspension.
The offensive line didn't open up any running lanes, but that was expected. In the end, they were a part of this overall problem. When you can't protect your QB, problems will occur on the offensive side of the ball. There were several drives in the 1st half that ended with Shaun Suisham kicking field goals due to sacks that either forced 2nd & long or just ended the series.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive front didn't have it's best effort. There was little pressure placed on Ravens QB Joe Flacco, who was sacked but one time Saturday. When the defense did apply pressure, he simply sipped past it and either ran for yardage or found an open target downfield for a 1st down. And that leads me to talking about the secondary.
Easily it's worst game in quite some time. Ravens wide receivers made too many plays and had too much room to operate. Steve Smith Sr has been a productive, consistent wide receiver for many years and had another big game, catching five balls for 101 yards. One play in particular in the 3rd stood out when Flacco went deep along the near sideline to Smith, who was covered well by Bryce McCain. Both players went up for the ball, with McCain having position, but Smith came down with the ball. That led to a Ravens touchdown and a 20-9 lead.
The final part of the toxic formula are the penalties committed throughout the game. From pass interference calls to defensive holding to retaliation hits, the Steelers gave up 114 yards on eight yellow hankies. In the end, this was the final straw in a very sour drink.
We will never know if Le'Veon Bell's presence would have made a difference in this game. What would have was a few less penalties, turnovers and some consistent play by a team that overachieved in 2014.