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Bleeding Black and Gold: HOW THE NORTH WAS LOST

November 19, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

The score: Baltimore 13, Pittsburgh 10

The headline: THE LITTLE THINGS: Ravens use field position, special teams to take command in AFC North

The bottom line: 20, 14, 20, 12, 12, 31, 21, 20, 15, 16, 30, 25, 16. Those numbers indicate where the Steelers’ 13 possessions began Sunday night and where the Ravens won the game. By methodically and meticulously forcing the injury-riddled Steelers offense to go the length of the field, Baltimore brought out all the warts Pittsburgh had to display – uncertainty about formations that caused them to call two costly third-quarter timeouts; a quarterback who was better but not good, too inaccurate and off on his timing (and apparently injured, as well); a running game without an identity, that consistently went away from what WAS working, the one-cut bashing of Jon Dwyer, to what clearly was NOT working, the dancing of Rashard Mendenhall; and a receiving corps that couldn’t (in the case of Heath Miller, who spent half the night helping rookie Mike Adams out in pass protection) or wouldn’t (in the case of Mike Wallace, who jogged through most of his routes, gave up the game’s biggest turnover and couldn’t get his feet down on what might have been a game-winning TD catch) help out.

It was over when: By using two timeouts in the third quarter, the Steelers virtually eliminated two full minutes of fourth-quarter action, making a critical two-play sequence with just under 5:00 left the biggest of the game. First, on 2nd-and-11 from the Ravens 43 with 4:47 remaining, Byron Leftwich had an open comeback route to his left with a nice pocket in front of him to step into, but for some reason threw the ball off his back foot and it was short of the intended receiver, Mike Wallace, who was wide open beyond the sticks and curiously decided to stay there as the ball bounced at his feet. Then, on 3rd-and-11 James Ihedigbo sacked Leftwich to ice it for all intent and purposes.

Plays of the day:

+ On a 3rd-and-10 play early in the first quarter, Leftwich hit Wallace (there’s that man again) on a pretty slant for a critical first down that appeared to get the Steelers out of trouble. However, Wallace carelessly (a receiver always knows there’s a DB trailing on a slant) allowed the ball to be stripped from behind, creating the game’s first turnover and field goal that turned out to be the difference.

Zebra hunting:

+ Almost equally painful as the Wallace fumble, was the very questionable hold Referee Walt Anderson called on Willie Colon two plays earlier that nullified a 10-yard Dwyer run.

+ The same side judge (if we’d have had our binoculars we’d have gotten his number and name) called two additional phantom penalties on the Steelers. The first was a completely bogus 10-yard illegal block call that short-circuited a promising second-quarter drive. The official was so far from the play (30 yards at least) that he had to throw it twice (we kid you not, we were there) to get it to the spot where no penalty occurred. A later defensive hold on Keenan Lewis was borderline and didn’t really matter because Anquan Boldin caught the pass.

Game mismanagement:

+ Mike Tomlin cemented his status as a gameday nightmare by committing THE cardinal sin of game mismanagement (kind of like how the Ten Commandments are all important but “Thou shalt not kill” is a whole other level of important) by CALLING A DEFENSIVE TIMEOUT WITHIN :07 OF THE TWO-MINUTE WARNING WHEN THE OPPONENT IS TRYING TO RUN CLOCK (not as compact as “Thou shalt not kill” but you get the point). First, the basic strategy: An opponent trying to run clock is already averse to throwing the ball because an incomplete pass stops the clock, making them one-dimensional and easier to stop. When you call a timeout within :07 of 2:00 you GIVE THEM BACK THE OPTION TO PASS AT NO RISK because the clock will stop after the play no matter what. Now, to review the specifics of Tomlin’s faux pas: By calling his final timeout with 2:04 left, he saved a measly four seconds and gave the Raven’s a free pass play (which was wiped out by a Brett Kiesel penalty) and allowed them to run 0:40 off the clock after Joe Flacco was sacked on the subsequent down. Had he just allowed the clock to run down to the two-minute warning, the Kiesel penalty would have stopped it and then he could have called the timeout after the Harrison sack at about 1:45 with the Ravens preparing to punt instead of at 1:12 when they actually punted. Tomlin is obviously a smart guy in a lot of ways but his game day dumbness is becoming infuriating.

+ We’ll give Tomlin a pass on his second, second-half timeout. It was a critical, third-down play inside the Ravens 10 and there was clearly a formation issue, understandable with a new QB. But that makes the use of the first timeout one play earlier when there was no clock or personnel problem that much more painful. Every one of those timeouts represents 40 seconds of precious game time and the Steelers top man continues to show that he doesn’t fully understand that.

Hot topics:

+ With Leftwich apparently suffering shoulder and rib injuries in the game, the Steelers might be in the market for a QB this week, with the most likely candidates being Jerrod Johnson, who was with the team in the preseason, and Tyler Palko, who is selling insurance in Pittsburgh right now, but started for Todd Haley in Kansas City as recently as 2010. Again, we’ll say it: Don’t ever ask again why franchise quarterbacks make $100 million in the NFL.

+ We’ve seen written a few places that hang time was an issue with Drew Butler’s punt that Jacoby Jones took to the house and that is absolute nonsense. We were there and it was probably Butler’s best hang-time kick of the night, easily over five seconds. The Steelers gunners got blocked on the play and weren’t within 20 yards of Jones when he caught it. Period.

+ There is obviously some kind of issue with Shaun Suisham’s kickoffs, though. Suisham showed up on the injury report a few weeks ago with “an ankle” as Coach Cowher would say and many of his kickoffs have been alarmingly short since then.

+ Wow, what a performance by the Steelers defense on so many levels. First, the defensive line played its best game of the year (after Ziggy Hood was injured, of course) and Cam Heyward showed some flashes of competitiveness for really the first time since he was drafted. And while the pass rush wasn’t fierce, it was the best the Steelers have shown this year. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s secondary is just lights out right now, with Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Clark playing at All Pro level and Will Allen is right there. Even Ryan Mundy, playing as a third safety in dime packages, was excellent Sunday.

+ We have no idea what to make (or who to blame) about the running back situation Sunday. Dwyer was so obviously better suited to the way the offensive line was blocking running plays that it made no sense (none, zero, zip, zilch) to see Mendenhall sent back into the huddle to spell him, often in the middle of promising drives. We assume that’s a Todd Haley call but think Tomlin could put an end to the nonsense with a few words, which he obviously didn’t do on Sunday.

In the booth:

+ We watched the game in person so we didn’t get to enjoy the NBC telecast, but we gather y’all enjoy Mr. Collinsworth’s insight, yes?

Sweet tweet: “@sportspickle: Maybe John Harbaugh will hire Andy Reid next year to be Baltimore’s bubble screen coach.” (Blogger’s note: It was not a good night for the bubble screen on either side, but it takes just one that goes to the house, like Allen Robinson’s did Saturday for Penn State, to convince an OC to run it another 99 times.)

Next week: The Steelers’ chances of winning the AFC North are all but gone, even if they win the rematch with the Ravens in two weeks. And we’re telling you right now that Pittsburgh’s playoff aspirations could die a painful death next week in Cleveland. The Browns have a young, hungry defense that could hold the Steelers to 10 points again and after losing a game to the Cowboys they should have won (if their soon-to-be-ex head coach knew how to use his timeouts) there’s nothing they’d like more than to ruin Pittsburgh’s season.

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