Stumbling Steelers rocked by Ravens for third straight loss

The score: Baltimore 21, Pittsburgh 14

The bottom line: Super Bowl contenders are born in the offseason, when the glitz and glamour of superior skill players shines brightest and the blood and guts of an NFL scrum is far from people’s minds. Super Bowl winners are born in the trenches of the regular season, when blocking and tackling take precedent over the glitz. The one-time Super Bowl contenders from Pittsburgh continued Sunday to be woefully lacking in the blocking and tackling department and were dominated and embarrassed from the first whistle to the final one by their hated rivals from Baltimore, who firmly established themselves atop the AFC North division, leaving the Steelers and their fans in a familiar position, trying to figure out how a team that can look so good at times can be so inept and overwhelmed at other times.

It was over when… Amid a sea of physical and mental mistakes in the first half, Pittsburgh somehow trailed only 10-0 at the break. With a new slate facing them in the second half, Sammie Coates promptly was offsides on the kickoff. And so it goes. Ballgame. Don’t be fooled by that late “charge,” if that’s what you want to call it. The game was over and that was sound and fury signifying nothing. If you want to show “character” in a game like this, do it in the first quarter, as well as the fourth.

Play of the day: An excellent special teams play trapped Baltimore inside their own 5 late in the first quarter when an innocuous crossing pattern to Mike Wallace turned into a game-changing, 95-yard touchdown after laughable, laughable tackling attempts by rookie CB Artie Burns and veteran safety Mike Mitchell, who somehow allowed himself to be stiff armed to the ground by one of the league’s least physical receivers. The play crystallized the physical battles on the afternoon with the Ravens tackling surely from the opening whistle while the sloppy Steelers grabbed at air (and facemasks) on many of their “efforts.”

Hot topics:

+ Are these all-too-frequent embarrassing performances an issue with Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff or an issue with the Steelers organization’s collective judgment in selecting players for its football team? None of us are close enough to the situation to know, but it’s a question that should be asked right now by people with the last name Rooney.

+ As has been the case so many times since 2008, John Harbaugh’s team was better prepared than Mike Tomlin’s, more disciplined and executed much better. As hard as he is to stomach, John Harbaugh is a better football coach than Mike Tomlin and it isn’t close.

+ We hope that botched onside kick, which will be replayed mercilessly this week on the internets, doesn’t end up affecting Chris Boswell’s confidence. We’re serious about that.

+ While the drama around Ben Roethlisberger’s run-of-the-mill injury certainly didn’t help Pittsburgh, it’s also a very small part of the reason they lost on Sunday. Roethlisberger was terrible Sunday when hurt, but he’s been alarmingly terrible this year when healthy. As we’re writing this, we’re sure he’s manning up in the locker room as he always does after a bad performance. “I didn’t get it done.” “I’ve got to be better.” He’s right. The only bright spot on all of this is that we can move forward without all the “will he or won’t he” injury malarkey.

+ Also, please cut the criticism of the play calling and Todd Haley. Roethlisberger runs the offense. On third down, he has multiple options when he gets to the line of scrimmage. If the Steelers are running on third down, it’s because the quarterback audibled into it. Pittsburgh really missed Martavis Bryant in this game as Sammie Coates seems to have wilted under the weekly pounding of big-time football. With an inaccurate and injured QB and no deep threat to speak of, defending the Steelers Sunday was like shooting fish in a barrel.

+ As noted prior, the conference loss at Miami really put Pittsburgh behind the playoff eight ball and made a win at Baltimore important. Now, that hasn’t happened, what’s next? It looks to us like Pittsburgh will need to win all its road games (at Cleveland, Indianapolis, Buffalo and Cincinnati) to qualify comfortably. A win next week over Dallas (which we’re calling right now in the ultimate week-to-week sport) will not change that picture much. Conference wins are precious in the playoff hunt and the Steelers have gone L, L, L against AFC opponents in the past three games.

Zebra hunting:

+ To match the teams’ general stinkiness, John Hussey and crew were equally terrible, missing a blatant (by rule) illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger early in the game and calling a very weak roughing-the-kicker penalty, among other offenses.

+ Is hitting the quarterback high (“head and neck area” is the wording of the rule)  a penalty in the NFL or not? Terrell Suggs went directly for the “head and neck” of Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sixth offensive play and…. nothing. Don’t get us wrong, we wish this were a league where a hit like that was still legal, but it hasn’t been for a long time. Also, that’s the second time in only two games he’s worked with Pittsburgh that Hussey has stood looking directly at a dangerous, illegal hit on Roethlisberger and done nothing.

+ Although the roughing the kicker call didn’t result in points, it was terrible nonetheless, with Shamarko Thomas hitting the ground well in front of Ravens punter Sam Koch and visibly trying to stop himself before Koch fell into and on top of Thomas. Hussey, the same guy who saw nothing when Suggs went high on Roethlisberger, was quick to throw his flag on a play where the punter initiated the contact.

Game mismanagement:

+ The Ravens hilariously botched a two-minute drill at the end of the first half and still managed a field goal against the Steelers shaky coverage. Baltimore misused, not one, but two timeouts on the drive and allowed :40 to tick off cluelessly, before Joe Flacco hit a few underneath clearouts to move into field goal range before taking a silly sack to push it back to 54 yards (a mid-ranger for Justin Tucker), before Shamarko Thomas cluelessly jumped offside to move it back to chip shot range for Tucker.

+ Mike Tomlin put himself under the microscope early by accepting a third-down penalty that gave the Ravens another shot at converting versus a 52 yard field goal attempt by Tucker. In most cases, decline the penalty, but in this case, with Tucker’s leg and history against the Steelers, we are on board with taking it.

In the booth:

+ Ian Eagle and Rich Gannon spent a good bit of time in the first half discussing the Steelers 3-4 defense, never once mentioning that they really don’t play much 3-4 any more.

+ Gannon showed how much he knows about defense in the third quarter when he asserted Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had a good first half for the Steelers. Wish that were true, but alas, as has been the case for much of the year, the pair were invisible. Heyward, of course, is battling injuries, but what has become of Tuitt, who looked like he was ascending toward All-Pro status as the end of the 2016 season?

And now a word from our sponsors: God bless you, Blaise Alexander, whoever you are.

Next week: The Steelers return to the friendly confines of Heinz Field to face an outfit from Dallas known as the Cowboys. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The Cowboys are riding high behind rookie QB Dak Prescott and the Steelers are scraping the bottom of the barrel after being thoroughly embarrassed by their arch-rival. In the NFL, that’s trouble for Dallas.


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