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Bleeding Black and Gold: BROWNOUT

December 16, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

The score: Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 24

The headline: SEEING STARS: Critical mistakes short circuit Steelers in Dallas

The bottom line: Pittsburgh’s “young money” offense, specifically its wide receivers, are the wildest of wild cards down the stretch of this bizarre season. They have the talent and track record to elevate the team to legitimate playoff contender, but on Sunday the cash register came up $0.00 again as Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown all dropped key receptions and Brown flamed out in the fourth quarter with three critical mistakes to send Pittsburgh to yet another puzzling gut-punch of a loss. Pittsburgh still controls its playoff destiny, but if certainly feels as if there’s another destiny in store for them.

It was over when: Ben Roethlisberger was inaccurate all day, bouncing several throws and missing his spot by a couple yards on probably a dozen others, including a supposed back shoulder throw to Mike Wallace on the second play of overtime that was too much to the inside and easily picked off by Brandon Carr and returned to the Steelers 1 to set up a game-winning field goal by Dan Bailey.

Play of the day: After taking a 24-17 lead, the Pittsburgh defense forced a quick three-and-out and the Steelers looked to be taking control of the game. That feeling swelled as Antonio Brown fielded a punt at his own 16 and made a couple nifty moves to find open field. But after gaining 22 yards, Brown made one nifty move too many, veering back to the middle of the field with the ball still in his outside hand, where the Cowboys Vernon Butler was able to punch it out from behind and tilt the game back to Dallas.

Zebra hunting:

+ Is there a more confusing rule than the “football move” corollary to completing a catch? After everyone in the world saw Emmanuel Sanders make a catch and fumble in the first quarter, Referee Clete Blakeman overturned the play. Rules guru Mike Pereira concurred, saying Sanders did not complete an “act common to the game,” which he defined as “being able to pitch the ball, pass the ball, advance the ball or ward off an opponent.” But isn’t taking steps with possession advancing the ball? Certainly it is. If you can’t explain a rule, it’s a pretty good indication it should be changed. Why not use a standard that everyone (officials, players, coaches, fans) can understand and administer? Three feet down!

+ We’re also not sure there was enough evidence to overturn a catch by Mike Wallace that was ruled good on the field. Wallace definitely bobbled the ball, but it looked to our black-and-gold skewed eyes like he secured it again with his left foot still on the ground then got his right foot down spinning to the sideline.

+ Beyond the two replays, though, this was the greatest officiated game in Steelers history with Pittsburgh being called for zero penalties. We wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to the last time that happened.

Game mismanagement:

+ We’re OK with Mike Tomlin’s first-down challenge of a 10-yard completion in the first quarter. Usually, we’d say don’t risk the timeout, but the Steelers hadn’t stopped the Cowboys at all up to that point and needed a momentum-breaker, which they got when the catch was overturned. Jason Garret’s challenge on the Wallace catch was on third down and a play that put the Steelers in field goal range so that was a proper situation to challenge in the first half.

+ It was Brown, of course, who made the biggest game management blunder of the game, stepping out of bounds on a futile third-and-forever pass late in the fourth quarter when everyone, including Jim Nantz again, knew he should stay inbounds and force the Cowboys to use one of their two remaining timeouts. As it turned out, it didn’t directly impact the game, but it contributed to the negative momentum that Pittsburgh carried right into a losing locker room.

Hot topics:

+ We can’t imagine you could have expected the Steelers secondary to play much better than that, given the daunting circumstances. There’s a reason Josh Victorian and Robert Golden weren’t on NFL rosters a few weeks ago. They’re not very good. Victorian, as you would expect, gave too much cushion all day to avoid being beat deep. And Golden bit on several critical fakes and was out of position for big Cowboys plays. Still, Pittsburgh got the stops it needed in the second half and was in position to win the football game in the fourth quarter. With Keenan Lewis now going down with an injury, it looks bleak for next week’s big game with the Bengals.

+ The secondary problem is exacerbated by the ongoing lack of pressure being generated by Pittsburgh’s linebackers. James Harrison looks to be back to about 90 percent of his former self, but the Steelers are getting nothing elsewhere. LaMarr Woodley was completely invisible Sunday and is obviously not health. Larry Foote has to lead the league in missed sacks and recorded a couple more against Dallas. And Lawrence Timmons remains an enigma, sandwiching eye-popping plays around long periods of zero productivity.

+ Were we wrong about Plaxico Burress being active this week or were we wrong? We were wrong. But, Emmanuel Sanders injury might open the door for meaningful football from the big guy next week.

In the booth:

+ Jim Nantz had a rare double fail in the second quarter, when he noted Robert Golden had just entered the game at safety for the Steelers and was beaten on his first play by Jason Witten for a touchdown. Two problems: It wasn’t Golden’s first play and he wasn’t playing safety. He was playing nickel (or slot) corner.

+ We’ve noted it in prior games, Simms just speaks gobbledygook now. We’re seriously concerned there might be a brain tumor involved.

And now, a word from our sponsors…: Hey Merck: Scare old people much? Seriously, those shingles commercials are the bottom of the barrel.

Sweet tweet: “@JoeStarkey1: Time for Mike T to bust out some of his secret plays.” (Blogger’s note: This is a hilarious reference to Tomlin’s contention last week that he didn’t want to go for two against the Chargers, because Pittsburgh has some special 2XP plays he didn’t want to put on film when facing such long odds of a comeback.)

Next week: When the NFL moved division games to the last two weeks of the season a few years ago, this is what they had in mind. Behind a fast and opportunistic defense, the Bengals have won five of their last six games to steamroll their way into the AFC playoff picture. QB Andy Dalton is still looking for his Kodak moment as a big-time quarterback and will get his next chance against an injury-riddled Steelers secondary.

Playoff picture: We believe the NFL will confirm this a bit later this week, but it looks to us like the Steelers are eliminated from playoff contention with a loss next week against Cincinnati. We are also fairly certain Pittsburgh can win the AFC North by winning out while the Ravens lose out (and the Bengals, ipso facto, split their final two since they’re playing PIT and BAL). That would result in three 9-7 teams and division tiebreaker #1 is head-to-head records where Pittsburgh would be 3-1 (sweep CIN, split BAL), Baltimore would be 2-2 (split both) and Cincinnati would be 1-3 (swept by PIT, split BAL). There are several scenarios where Pittsburgh could beat the Bengals, lose to the Browns in Week 17 and get in as an 8-8 team.

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