For the first time in their 2017 regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the look of a team on the rise. Despite some misfires and pre-snap penalties stemming from a nagging lack of offensive coordination, the Steelers turned in an inspired overall performance in their 26-9 victory at M&T Bank Stadium, a particularly tough place to capture a road win.
The Steelers had a productive first half, scoring two field goals and two TDs, while the defense blanked the Ravens’ offense and Pittsburgh built a 19-0 advantage at halftime. For all intents and purposes, the game appeared well in hand at that point. But for a time during the third quarter, Pittsburgh seemed to revert to the team that was whipped by the lowly Chicago Bears last Sunday. Implementing an overly conservative game plan after the intermission, the Steelers’ effort to milk the clock seemed to backfire. Following an odd 3rd-and-6 play from their own 20-yard line, when Antonio Brown bobbled a pass initially whistled dead by the officials, Eric Weddle and the Ravens wound up being awarded a red-zone interception.
But the Steelers’ defense came up big, forcing Baltimore to kick a field goal, after which Pittsburgh drove down the field—only to stall and watch Chris Boswell miss a 44-yard field-goal attempt. Then, on a 1st-and-10 from the Ravens’ 34-yard line, Baltimore running back Alex Collins sprinted off his right tackle for 50 yards, rambling all the way down to the Steelers’ 16-yard line. Two plays later, Joe Flacco found Mike Wallace in the end zone to make the score uncomfortably tight at 19-9 after the Ravens’ 2-point conversion attempt was ruled short of the goal line by the officials’ review.
But in the fourth quarter, the Steelers’ defense stifled the Ravens’ efforts to stage a rally, while the offense added a clinching TD for Pittsburgh’s only second-half score with 3:11 remaining on the clock. Flacco’s ineffectiveness (64.6 passer rating) and his two crucial interceptions in the final quarter made it impossible for Baltimore to seriously challenge the Steelers.
While it’s tempting to read too much into a convincing win against a team plagued by the level of problems currently hounding Baltimore, we definitely saw some very positive signs in the Steelers’ victory. In particular, the performance of the defense was outstanding in limiting the Ravens to only nine points, despite the odd turnover by Brown which handed three of those points to Baltimore. In addition to applying continual pressure throughout the game, the Black-and-gold defense also won the crucial turnover battle, grabbing two picks and recovering a fumble.
Offensively, a definite plus was the overall distribution of passes by Ben Roethlisberger, most of which were thrown during the first half. Four out of six Steelers’ receivers targeted during the game (including Le’Veon Bell) finished with receiving yardage in the 40s, with Martavis Bryant leading the pack with a modest 48 yards. This brings to mind the tantalizing possibility that, had the offense been able to maintain its first-half pace throughout the entire game, Pittsburgh might very well have finished with four receivers notching nearly 100 yards each. But the obvious switch in Pittsburgh’s approach at halftime made this scenario impossible, as they stuck almost entirely to the ground game in the second half.
This led to Bell’s first truly representative rushing effort of the young season (35 carries for 144 yards). In all, the Steelers rushed for a total of 173 yards. And even without all of its first-string players in uniform, the offensive line was firing off the ball, creating the kinds of creases that a runner like Bell exploits so well.
The only troubling element in this victory was the Steelers’ dismal offensive performance during the third quarter. While some of these difficulties obviously were due to the Ravens’ efforts to stage a comeback, this doesn’t tell the whole story. It was plainly evident that Pittsburgh went into a shell after halftime and was attempting to manage the game instead of continuing to play as they’d done so successfully in the first half. By taking their collective foot off of the gas pedal, Pittsburgh confounded many fans and nearly succeeded in breathing life back into the corpse of Baltimore’s offense.
As many astute members of the BTSC community have observed, this Jekyll-and-Hyde personality won’t always hurt the team when they face opponents like Baltimore or Minnesota, but it might be downright fatal when squaring off against contending opponents led by some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks (think Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers). So even as we revel in the win at Baltimore and the Steelers’ 3-1, division-leading record, it’s important to realize that some tougher challenges await in the weeks to come.
Arrow pointing up
Following a generally non-productive preseason which obviously left them poorly prepared for the start of the regular season, the Steelers ought to be well satisfied at 3-1 on the season and carrying a 2-0 division record into their home matchup on Sunday versus Blake Bortles and the up-and-down Jacksonville Jaguars. Finally, it looks like at least some of the kinks in Pittsburgh’s game during the first three weeks of the season are starting to be worked out.
At the same time, though, Big Ben still appears to be suffering the effects of some unfamiliarity with receivers not named “Brown.” Assuming this issue will continue to dissipate during the weeks to come—and also assuming the Steelers’ defense continues its progress as a unit—Pittsburgh appears well positioned for another run to the playoffs.