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Wild Card Recap: Dog Day Afternoon

Steeler Dog

Two important things were learned from the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs.

1 – The Steelers high-powered offense is a collection of burned out light bulbs without running back Le’Veon Bell.

2 – Whatever concussion protocols the Steelers have in place, they might want to look into changing them.

The second point became extremely apparent when Ben Roethlisberger‘s head bounced off the Heinz Field turf during the last of the Ratbirds five sacks. Ben went to the sideline while Bruce Gradkowski came in and calmly converted a 3rd and 21. After three plays from the Polish Rifle, Ben returned and promptly threw a game-ending interception into triple coverage in the end zone. I have to think he wasn’t playing with all his marbles when he made that pass because otherwise I have no idea why he’d throw that ball into a crowd of Ravens with literally nobody open.

Point number one is a little harder to quantify. The loss of Bell certainly hurt the offense in numerous ways. I’m not sure he would’ve ran the ball any better than Josh Harris and Ben Tate did but in pass protection and catching balls out of the backfield he undoubtedly would’ve made a huge difference. Although where he was most desperately missed was the red zone as without him the Steelers red zone offense all but disappeared.

Actually, the Steelers we saw the last month or so of the season disappeared yesterday, replaced by the sloppy undisciplined team we saw early in the season. The one that lost to the Bucs and Browns and got blown out by the Ravens. The Steelers were flagged eight times for 114 yards last night. ONE HUNDRED FOURTEEN YARDS IN PENALTIES?!?!?!

Baltimore’s first touchdown was aided by the Black and Gold’s stupidity when Mike Freakin’ Mitchell ruined a nice play by Brice McCain by flying in with a late hit on Jacoby Jones. Mitchell was later victimized on the Ravens’ second TD when Joe Flacco scrambled away from pressure while he lost track of Steve Smith in the end zone. I know they say it takes awhile to learn Dick LeBeau‘s complicated defense but, sheesh, Mitchell has been various shades of awful this year with last night being his crowning moment of suck. If he doesn’t figure it out soon, the Steelers are going to be stuck with another big money contract they regret.

Of course, the defense as a whole didn’t exactly do a great job last night. They played well against the run but too often gave up big plays in the passing game. Part of the problem was outside James Harrison and Cam Heyward, nobody put any kind of pressure on Flacco. Did anybody hear Jason Worilds name last night? The Steelers are stacked with at least three excellent inside linebackers – plus first round pick Ryan Shazier – but outside of Deebo have gotten next to nothing from their pass rushers. If you have a mediocre secondary – which the team surely does – the best way to cover for it is to get pressure on the quarterback.

I guess what I’m trying to say is with our first round pick this year, we desperately need to take another linebacker.

Just kidding. Or am I?

The Steelers aren’t going to win many tight low-scoring games with their defense so when they kicked three field goals in the first half, it was hard to optimistic about the outcome. The offense just never got into any kind of rhythm last night. Bad Ben showed up from the get-go, missing wide open receivers and constantly throwing balls high or behind guys instead of hitting them in stride. The offensive line didn’t do a good job protecting him although at least two of the sacks – including one on first and goal in the second quarter that basically ensured they were settling for yet another Stonecold Shaun Suisham FG – were due to Ben’s indecisiveness. They spent the first half trying to establish a running attack with Tate and Harris (?!!?!) for some odd reason while Antonio Brown was basically invisible until they started opening up in the second half. The game was very reminiscent of the New Orleans debacle where they’d show brief flashes of explosiveness then get bogged down with miscues and negative plays.

In his pre-game comments, Mike Tomlin said the difference in the game would come down to who made the most splash plays. In that area, the Ravens had all the luck. I don’t want to put too much on this because Baltimore was clearly the better team yesterday but turnovers often come down to just being in the right place at the right time to fall on the ball. Which is exactly what happened on the opening drive of the third quarter when Flacco fumbled and guard Jeremy Zuttah was able to fall on the ball with three Steelers around him. McCain almost made a crazy leaping interception that also would’ve flipped the momentum on the Ratbirds.

Yes, the Steelers did get one fumble recovery when Harrison threw a lineman into Justin Forsett, who dropped the ball then was dragged – literally, dragged like a drunk girl stumbling out of Moondog’s at closing time – away from the fumble by Shazier. They also blocked a punt late in the fourth quarter that momentarily gave the few diehards who didn’t head for an early exit a sliver of hope. But in both cases it was too little, too late. Plus, the luck didn’t even hold up there as on the blocked punt a recovery in the end zone for a TD would’ve been far far more valuable than a basically insignificant safety. 

The touchdown after the fumble recovery cut the deficit to five, 20-15. Maybe I’m just a pessimistic yinzer but I never really felt as if the game were that close. When one of Tomlin’s super-secret special two point conversion plays failed, I had a hard time imagining the offense scoring another touchdown. The one they did score was set up by a deep bomb to AB where he fell just a foot short of the end zone. It was a brilliant play but not the kind of thing you expect to hit with consistency. In terms of long sustained drives, the offense couldn’t stay on the field while the defense increasingly had trouble getting off it. At the end of the day, Todd Haley‘s second ranked offense scored one touchdown – ONE FREAKIN’ TOUCHDOWN – which pretty much spells doom for any team, even if we’re playing the Ravens in a classic AFC North slobberknocker.

I can’t really be too upset about this loss. I hate that we lost to Baltimore, especially when, mark my words, they appear poised to make yet another run through a weak AFC bracket. However, it’s hard to see this team as anything but overachievers. They have a lot of excellent talent, yes, but they also have a lot of really glaring weaknesses. While no team is perfect, the Steelers just aren’t built for consistency. When they light it up on offense and get some breaks on defense, they win. When they don’t, they lose. There simply is no Plan B. 

Anyway, I’d like to thank all my readers for coming in and checking out my crazy blog for yet another season. I will continue to update during the off-season as news dictates, cover free agent signings, recap the draft, and throw in the occasional opinion column here and there but there won’t be any set schedule like I’ve stuck to during the regular season. I hope everybody returns next year as I embark on my tenth(!!!) year of blogging about my favorite team. Until then, Go Stillers!