Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Lessons from Loss to Ravens
In a game that had all sorts of playoff implications, the Baltimore Ravens managed to squeak out a win in Pittsburgh Sunday night.
The win gives the Ravens a stranglehold on the AFC North, a two-game lead and a win over their closest pursuers, the Steelers.
The game was lacking any real offense on either side, and it was hard to tell if it was simply two defenses playing great, or if the offenses had genuine issues.
In Baltimore, they have been talking about the offensive struggles of the Ravens during away games for weeks.
For the Steelers, things are a little different. Missing their franchise quarterback, they seemed unable to find any rhythm, the play-calling seemed to be questionable at times, and their backup quarterback, Byron Leftwich, appeared injured and unable to make the throws he normally makes with ease.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
These two teams will meet again in two weeks, but we need to have a look at what we saw last night before we can look ahead.
Lesson 1: It Is a Quarterback Driven League
If you didn't already know that, you don't watch a lot of football.
The fact is, though, teams with a good quarterback win, and teams without a good quarterback don't. Teams like Arizona, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Kansas City, none of whom have a franchise quarterback, are the dregs of the league.
Teams that lose their franchise quarterback to injury do not do a whole lot better. The Philadelphia Eagles could manage only six points against a porous Washington Redskins on Sunday, while the Steelers never found any kind of rhythm on offense against the Ravens.
In the Eagles' defense, they didn't exactly look like an offensive juggernaut before Sunday, but they should have been able to put up more than six points against the 'Skins.
Steelers QB Byron Leftwich was once a starter in this league, but last night, he looked unable to keep up with the speed of the game, and seemed to not have the arm strength to make the throws needed to win.
I lost count of how many passes landed at receivers' feet, or were well short of doing even that.
There were several shots of Leftwich rubbing his side or his shoulder, grimacing in pain, but it was never reported he was hurt.
If Ben Roethlisberger is going to be sidelined for more than another week, the Steelers are going to have to find a way to get Leftwich to play better (or admit that he was hurt, which I believe he was). In this league, you must have a quarterback or you have no chance.
Since he has been the starter for the Steelers, the Steelers had never beaten the Ravens when Roethlisberger missed a start, 0-4. That trend continued on Sunday.
And there is another game against these same Ravens, this time in Baltimore, in two weeks.
Lesson 2: A Win Is a Win
The Ravens have figured this out, but it seems the Steelers haven't.
You have to win the game, even if you don't look pretty doing it. An ugly win is better than a pretty loss.
The Ravens have struggled on the road. This is a fact. Their offensive production is way down from what they do at home.
But, they win the games. The only game they have lost that they probably shouldn't have was that inexplicable loss against the Eagles.
That is simply not good enough.
Someone once said there are three kinds of games you have to win: You have to win at home; you have to win in your division; and you have to beat the teams you are supposed to beat (i.e. teams under .500). If you lose those kinds of games, you are not going to have a successful season.
The Steelers have the aforementioned losses to two teams with a combined record of 7-13, Sunday's loss, and the beating they took in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos.
They have made it very hard on themselves and will have to win a lot over the next six weeks to keep the dream of hosting a playoff game alive.
That brings me to...
Lesson 3: Winning on the Road Is Tough, but It Has to Be Done
The schedule makers did the Steelers a serious solid by giving them only two tough road games in the last six weeks of the season. One of them will be a Week 15 game in Dallas.
You never know which team you will play when you play Dallas. Will it be the guys who look like they can win the Super Bowl, or the guys who look like they couldn't beat a Pop Warner team in a game of two-hand touch?
The other difficult road game will be in Baltimore two weeks.
At some point, the Steelers are going to have to win an important road game. Three of their four losses have come on the road.
When they play again, the Steelers should be 7-4. (I don't mean to overlook the Browns in Cleveland, but I really think the Steelers can beat them.)
The Ravens will have gone to San Diego and could lose that game.
So, the best case scenario is that the Steelers are right back in the position they were in on Sunday: One game back of the Ravens and playing them, only this time it will be in Baltimore, where the Ravens are a much different, much better team.
If they cannot win in Baltimore in two weeks, they should prepare to play at least one road game in January.
As you know, that is not easy.
Lesson 3: I Don't Understand Todd Haley's Play-Calling Last Night
It was clear to me that Byron Leftwich was struggling to throw the ball. Be it injury, rust, or simply that he couldn't handle the game, he was not the player we needed at quarterback.
That makes it all the more confusing why OC Todd Haley and head coach Mike Tomlin kept putting the ball in his hands.
Case in point: 6:49 left in the third quarter, and the Steelers had driven from their own 16-yard line to get to 3rd-and-2 at the Ravens' four. Running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, and Baron Batch had run for 30 yards on that drive alone, and the play call was for a pass?
Why on earth would you not at least attempt to run the ball and get the first down? The Steelers didn't have to score on that play. If they get the first down, they have at least three more shots at the end zone.
Against the best red-zone defense in the league, you can't do anything fancy. You just line up and jam the ball down their throats.
Rushing yards were at a premium last night, but while the Ravens simply couldn't run the ball (Ray Rice had 40 yards on 20 carries), the Steelers seemed to not want to run the ball. Dwyer was very effective, when he had the opportunities. He only had 12 carries, but collected 55 yards. That's a 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
This goes back to a comment I made a couple weeks ago about Tomlin and the coaching staff being too smart for their own good sometimes.
Sometimes what you have to do is what is working. Don't over-think it. If the defense has shown they can't stop what you are doing, why would you do anything else?
Lesson 5: The Team That Makes the Fewer Mistakes, Wins
Any football coach or fan will tell you that in a game between two equally matched teams, one or two plays will make all the difference. Normally, those one or two plays are mistakes by one team or the other.
On their second possession, on 3rd-and-10, Mike Wallace caught a ball for a 15-yard gain. He promptly fumbled the ball and the Ravens scored a field goal on the ensuing possession.
On their first possession of the second half, the Steelers were driving, having taken the ball from their own 15 to the Ravens' 38, when Leftwich threw a pass right to the Ravens. The Ravens scored a field goal on the ensuing possession.
And the one that really hurt, with 3:33 left in the first quarter, the Steelers punted from their own 12-yard-line. Ravens punt returner Jacoby Jones returned it for a touchdown, while running through a couple of ineffective arm-tackles.
That's 13 Ravens points off turnovers and in special teams. The final score was 13-10.
No one plays a game without mistakes, but it is the team that has fewer that will win most of the time.
The Ravens committed no turnovers, didn't have an inordinate number of penalties, and played solid special teams.
Despite that, the Steelers still had a chance to win the game.
Just imagine if the Steelers could get out of their own way.