PREGAME STRETCH: Pittsburgh at Baltimore

History isn't on the side of the suddenly struggling Steelers

The game: Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) vs. Baltimore Ravens (2-1), CBS, Sunday, 1 p.m., M&T Bank Stadium, 71,008.

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts. Forget these schmucks (OK, Eagle can be decent at times), we had a chance to listen to Tony Romo do last Sunday’s Bengals at Broncos game and all we can say is “believe the hype.” The guy basically tells you what’s going to happen and why BEFORE half the plays in the game. He predicts and explains (in relatable language) protection schemes, coverages and QB decision making. It is literally unbelievable how good he is (and also how terrible all those other former QBs are who became announcers, including Fouts) at explaining football. We said last week the media was “slobbering” over Romo. This week, count us in.

Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Mostly sunny, 73. Finally, a break from the heat for both teams. See, how short this item is? So here’s my question? When the weather is nice like this, why does the weather still take up three segments and 11 minutes of my local news? That’s time that could be used informing people about important issue in their communities.

Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Walt Anderson. This Walt is the dentist from Texas who was the white hat in the Steelers last Super Bowl, the loss to Green Bay. You’ll be thrilled to know that this crew is averaging 18 penalties assessed and 147 penalty yards per game so far this season. Also, you’ll be glad to know the Chiefs have passed the Steelers are the most penalized team in football. Baby steps.

Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: It was a simpler time, Christmas Day 2016. The Steelers wore those money black Color Rush uniforms and everyone went home happy when Antonio Brown somehow powered through two defenders to extend the ball over the goal line with :09 left and give the Steelers a 31-27 win, clinching a playoff spot for Pittsburgh and eliminating the Ravens in the same thrust. Glorious.

The line: Pittsburgh -3/42

Smarts say: About 70 percent of bettors were on the Steelers as of midweek. All three Pittsburgh games so far this season have hit on the under and we’re looking at a miniscule 42 this week, which would mean something like Steelers 23-20.

Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 15th passing, 29th rushing, 16th scoring (21.3 ppg), 11th sacks allowed (6)

BAL defense, 17th passing, 14th rushing, 5th scoring (18.0 ppg), 11th sacks (8)

When the Ravens have the ball:

BAL offense, 17th passing, 4th rushing, 23rd scoring (17.0 ppg), 9th sacks allowed (5)

PIT defense, 2nd passing, 11th rushing, 3rd scoring (16.7 ppg), 2nd sacks (11)

So…: First, despite being gashed last week in Chicago, Pittsburgh’s run defense fell only from 8th to 11th in the league. Folks, there are some terrible teams in the NFL. Second, looking at these stats, it would seem the problem with Pittsburgh’s supposedly high-octane offense is the lack of a rushing game, but we’re here to tell you that statistics lie. The problem with Pittsburgh’s supposedly high-octane offense is that their quarterback has been terrible inaccurate in the passing game.

Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups: Ravens running game vs. Steelers edge defense

Why: This is a broad matchup but if you watched the Steelers run defense get gouged last week in Chicago, you know it was a broad problem for Pittsburgh with multiple players failing to do their jobs at various times. Cam Heyward played decently but was trapped inside to many times on misdirection runs. Anthony Chickillo was good a lot of the time, but on several huge runs he got pushed too far to the sideline (outside the numbers). Bud Dupree doesn’t have a ton of edge responsibility but the few times Sunday he did he wasn’t up to the task. Will Stephon Tuitt’s return (assuming it happens) help? It has to. So would tackling better (or perhaps just tackling at all and, yes, we’re looking at you, Artie Burns).

Player on the spot: Ben Roethlisberger

Why: Reportedly, the Steelers quarterback is making a pronounced effort not to avoid interceptions this season. And it’s working, he’s only thrown one. What’s not working is just about everything else. Take away a couple of long pass interference penalties in the Vikings game and you would have not just an underperforming offense, but an anemic one. And while Roethlisberger’s INTs are down, his quarterback rating is a very mundane 93.8, 15th in the league. To be clear, the Steelers are going nowhere this year with a guy playing in the middle of the pack quarterback-wise. All that said, Baltimore is not the best place in the world to turn your game around, so it will be interesting to see what kind of risks #7 takes to do that Sunday.

Quick hits:

+ We’d be hard pressed to think of any plan in any endeavor that was more badly botched than the Steelers plan last week on how to deal with the National Anthem controversy in Chicago. And the blame for that lays squarely on Mike Tomlin, who made two fatal mistakes. First, he set an absolutely unachievable standard on his team’s players-only meeting: Whatever you decide, it has to be unified. (That’s impossible with such an emotional issue and it ended up dividing the players further.) Second, after the players obviously couldn’t come to a unified decision, he went on television and tried to spin it as if they had in terms of deciding to stay out of the controversy and just be football coaches and football players. Now, we believed then and we still firmly believe now that is the correct way to deal with the issue (where everyone is trying to interpret player actions to fit their own personal agenda), but that had to be a top-down decision, coming from Tomlin and the Rooney family. This was a situation that begged for a clear voice from leadership. Instead, we got a muddied decision from a bunch of guys who were clearly in over their heads in trying to make that decision.

+ Of course, it got worse when Army vet Allie Villanueva, who admittedly was torn between the team’s “decision” and his love of country, asked Ben Roethlisberger if it would be OK if he stood far enough out of the tunnel at Soldier Field to see the flag. Roethlisberger OK’d it, not realizing that position would be within the view of CBS cameras. And the rest, as they say, is history, as the insidious workings of social media groupthink and mob mentality took over. The Steelers decision to stay out of the controversy now was seen as a protest (the opposite of their intentions). Villanueva was seen as a patriot who defied that protest (not his intention at all). But the real losers were the Steelers players who wanted to stand for the Anthem but agreed to go along with the team decision to remain out of it. Villanueva’s actions now were spun to make them look like villains, something they and their families will have to live with (via social media again) for a long, long time. Villanueva was crushed. He loved his country. He loved his team. In trying to do right by one, he had torn apart the other.

+ But, it got worse. Again. A guilt-wracked Villanueva had to try to make things right with his teammates. Pittsburgh held an afternoon team meeting Monday where he likely apologized personally. Then Villanueva held a press conference where he apologized publicly. But again, the dark specter of social media took over, with many conservative-leaning accounts and several clueless national sports pundits (looking at you, Doug Gottlieb) spinning the situation as the Army vet apologizing for standing.

+ All that said, Tomlin was brutally honest and absolutely perfect at his press conference Tuesday in decrying the way our society right now is demanding football players be the arbiters of social justice and patriotism. (Yes, we realize one football player started this, but what’s happened in the last 10 days goes so far beyond that.)

+ All of which leaves us with the immense question of what the Steelers will do this week and in future weeks. In trying to remain out of the National Anthem controversy, their bumbling instead has made them THE FOCUS of it. All involved say the Steelers will be on the sidelines this week, but in what configuration? Will the social media and fan backlash lead to all standing? If some stand and some kneel or sit, as 29 other NFL teams have done, that will not now be interpreted as the “standard” response and allow Pittsburgh to be just another team and focus on football. We think PR pros could probably help the team through this disaster, but hiring PR pros is about as far away from focusing on winning football games as you can get.

+ There certainly is a chance the controversy will destroy the team’s chemistry for the foreseeable future, but we think there’s also a decent chance that an “us against the world” mentality sets in. Football teams and coaches often tap into this when there is question about their talent or skill level. Could the same thing happen when half the country is questioning their morality and patriotism?

+ Blogger’s note: We see there are still people who do not believe the narrative of events last Sunday as presented by various Steelers personnel (i.e. the Tomlin caveat, the team meeting, the intention to “stay out” of politics and the Villanueva apology) and instead believe they witnessed a National Anthem protest. That’s certainly your right, but we think if you remove the emotion and just look at the behaviors involved, the story as told passes the sniff test and, in fact, is the only narrative that makes sense. This is again (sadly) a case where social media perceptions are skewing our judgments about reality.

The pick: You know we’re a big believer in the credo that “past performance is the best indicator of future behavior” and, unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for Pittsburgh in this game. We’ve seen Bad Ben many times in the past and it almost always ends with “I’ve got to be better” as it did this week and he’s almost never better until he gets back to Heinz Field. That’s key here because with Bad Ben at quarterback these two teams are very evenly matched. And when that happens, history tells us that John Harbaugh (jerk that he may be) will outcoach Mike Tomlin nine times out of 10. Given the news that Tomlin had planned to give the Bears the ball first if he’d have won the overtime coin toss last week, we don’t see any reason to think things will be any different this Sunday…Ravens 21-16.

Last week: Welp, we pretty much predicted how the Steelers would play against the Bears, but couldn’t pull the trigger on calling the upset. That leaves us at 3-0 against the spread (cha-ching!) and 2-1 straight up.

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