Defense-less Steelers stage improbable comeback to capture division crown

The score: Pittsburgh 39, Baltimore 38

The bottom line: Step back for a second from the ugly closeup of Pittsburgh’s hapless defense and the indefensible officiating Sunday evening and marvel at the fact the entire football team worked around that mess to win a critical football game in a very unlikely (but somehow not surprising) way. What this team has done the last few weeks amid chaos and adversity has been spectacular, and even though they might get waxed by 50 next week, they are making a strong case to believe that somehow, some way they can lift Lombardi No. 7 in Minnesota in February.

It was over when…: The Steelers entered the game second in the league in sacks but barely got in the vicinity of Joe Flacco until T.J. Watt motored around the left end and chased him to the right sideline on the game’s final play, recording a strip sack at the Baltimore 31 that resulted in the clock running out before Baltimore could get one more shot at getting super toe Justin Tucker in FG range.

Play of the day: Facing 3rd-and-4 at their own 36 with 1:08 remaining, Ben Roethlisberger threw perhaps the second finest pass of his life, a high sideline fade to his money man Antonio Brown, who calmly collected the ball over his shoulder and stepper out of bounds at the Ravens 30, setting up Chris Boswell’s game-winning kick four plays later.

Player of the game: With the Steelers running game stuck in low gear, Ben Roethlisberger took the team on his shoulders, using his tight ends and Le’Veon Bell as a wideout more than ever, throwing for 506 yards of 44 completions in 66 attempts. Remember when he was “done” earlier this year? Yeah, us neither.

Playoff picture:

+ With the win, the Steelers claimed the AFC North championship again and maintained the No. 1 seed spot for the upcoming playoffs. Should they somehow beat the Patriots next week, that would afford them the chance to still lose a game down the stretch and retain the top spot.

+ Jacksonville’s referee-aided win over the Seahawks keeps them Jags close enough to preclude the Steelers from even considering coasting to the finish line. Pittsburgh’s clutch win keeps them two games up on Jacksonville in what could become a battle for a first-round bye. The Jags host the Texans next week, then travel to face Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers on Christmas Eve then finish on the road at Tennessee.

+ Even with the loss, the Ravens remain the #6 seed in the AFC and finish at Cleveland then home with Indy and Cincinnati. Keep in mind if the Steelers do somehow get the #1 seed and the Ravens get in as #6 and pull off a first-round upset, there would be a Round 3 in this classic rivalry.

Hot topics:

+ What we suspected before the game, we can say without question now: The Steelers have a huge problem at inside linebacker where Sean Spence and Arthur Moats were exposed again and again Sunday night as lacking the speed to go sideline-to-sideline at NFL speed. Spence was on his couch last week and Moats hasn’t played inside in years so there’s slim hope either or both can improve, but you can bet opponents like New England, Jacksonville and Kansas City were salivating over what they saw.

+ The Steelers tackling, overall, was terrible, with Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell both standing out for not wrapping up.

+ It was wonderful to see a Pittsburgh tight end catching the ball in stride again as Vance McDonald did in the first half Sunday. But alas, the fragile McDonald is hurt again, unable to take the field for the second half with a bum shoulder.

In the booth:

+ NBC definitely low-keyed the Ryan Shazier injury, speaking about it in only the most general of terms and failing to even mention when describing the play that he was injured when he hit with his head down

+ They also downplayed the horrendous officiating in the game. It was almost as if they were determined NOT to be part of a story Monday after ESPN’s Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough inserted themselves into the narrative of last Monday’s game.

+ Both NBC and Michele Tafoya doubled down on their claim that James Harrison told Tafoya directly he wouldn’t have signed with Pittsburgh if he knew how little he’d play. A Pittsburgh beat reporter claims that information actually came while Tafoya listened in on his interview with Harrison. It’s one of those things that’s only of interest to journalists, but we were wondering if it would come up.

Game mismanagement:

+ As noted here again, and again, and again, the Steelers still have a big problem understanding how to slow down at the end of a half or game and use game management tenets to ensure their opponent doesn’t get a late opportunity to score. That uncorrected weakness almost cost them this game when they inexplicably threw the ball twice (both incomplete) while facing a 2nd-and-8 from the Baltimore 28 with :56 left and the Ravens possessing one timeout. Running once would have ensured the Ravens didn’t have a timeout if they got the ball back. Running twice would have ensured that Chris Boswell’s kick had come with about :09 left in the game. Running once and passing once in that instance would have been understandably aggressive, given the field goal was still lengthy. Passing twice was unforgivable and based on the way some assistant coaches were treating Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline afterward, we’re wondering if he didn’t audible into both passes.

+ The Steelers couldn’t get lined up properly on a key 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter and wisely burned a timeout to preserve down and distance, leading to a touchdown. But they certainly could have used that timeout on their final drive of the first half when they had used two spikes to stop the clock. Ben Roethlisberger decided to go with a spike with :19 left when we would have preferred the final timeout. He lost seven seconds in the process (one play) and then threw the ball into the end zone anyway on the next play, never using his final timeout. Game management isn’t hard: As a rule of thumb, don’t use spikes until you absolutely have to.

Zebra hunting:

+ Wow, Walt Coleman came off as a confused, old man in this one. He’s had a great career, but this should probably be the end of it.

+ Coleman’s crew, of course, was just horrendous on the evening, blowing four critical calls in our eyes: 1) The PI on the Ravens when Martavis Bryant tripped over his own feet in the end zone. 2 and 3) Both PIs against Artie Burns while guarding Mike Wallace, the first was simple handfighting and the second was zero contact and a throw that was clearly uncatchable. 4) The laughable personal foul on Antonio Brown that involved no contact and a situation where an opponent charged him after the whistle.

Sweet tweets:

+ @Coach2425: If Walt Coleman was playing ILB for the Steelers, it would immediately improve at least 2 units on the field tonight. (Blogger’s note: That’s comedy gold right there.)

+ @Coach2425: Harbaugh crying about Pass Interference calls is like the Kardashians complaining about overzealous media coverage. (Blogger’s note: That’s more comedy gold right there. Perhaps Coach Drenning should give up his day job.)

Next week: The Steelers stay home to host a squad from New England you might have heard of in a game that should decide the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs, and most importantly, where the two teams will play if they meet in those playoffs. The strategic ramifications of this one are fascinating on the Pittsburgh side. Are the Steelers (finally) going to try and play the Patriots differently (read man coverage and A-gap blitzing) or keep expecting a different result from doing the same thing? If they are going to take a different approach, do they roll it out Sunday or save it for the playoffs or some combination thereof?


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