Sunday’s loss to the lowly Browns marked the Pittsburgh Steelers' first two-game losing streak since 2009 and jeopardized the team’s postseason dreams. Though still in the hunt for a wild-card spot, the Steelers blew an opportunity to keep pace with other AFC playoff hopefuls. With the Cincinnati Bengals surging, Pittsburgh now faces added pressure to find answers going into Baltimore this week.
The easy solution is eliminating turnovers that plagued the team throughout the game in Cleveland. Pittsburgh handed the ball over to the Browns an astounding eight times. Even bad teams will take advantage of a gift like that. Not surprisingly, no modern NFL team has ever given the ball up that many times and still won the game.
The turnovers are not a long-term problem, though. Games like this happen from time to time, even to the best of teams. Sometimes, it’s just not your day. The Steelers backfield is not going to fumble five times every week.
More troubling going forward are the other weak spots that helped the Steelers blow the game. Even after giving away the ball eight times, the Black and Gold still had a chance to beat the Browns. Ultimately, though, the Steelers were undone and will continue to be undone by some serious weaknesses that keep showing up at the most inopportune moments.
Here are four things that should worry Pittsburgh fans going into Baltimore.
Batch struggled to generate offense against a subpar team.
Backup quarterback Charlie Batch proved surprisingly serviceable during Ben Roethlisberger’s “commissioner’s vacation” in 2010, guiding the team to a 2-1 record. As a result, Steelers fans can be forgiven for thinking the Pittsburgh native would be competent enough to get his hometown team past Cleveland.
Turns out he wasn’t even close to good enough. Batch was dreadful against Cleveland, most notably when throwing deep balls. He underthrew burner Mike Wallace twice when the receiver had gotten behind the Browns safeties. Batch’s first balloon pass hit the defender in the back of the head, and the second was intercepted.
With defenses adjusting for his deadly speed, Wallace only comes open on deep patterns once or twice a game. Hitting him in stride on one go or post route can mean the difference between winning and losing for the Steelers. At the very least, the threat of a bomb to Wallace opens up options underneath.
Unfortunately, Batch’s arm strength clearly wasn’t sufficient to take advantage of one of the offense’s key weapons. More importantly, the backup quarterback’s struggles to throw the ball down the field shook the confidence of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff and changed its game plan.
Despite the Steelers’ blue-collar image and history, the 2012 offense is built around Pittsburgh's talented receiving corps and Big Ben’s ability to prolong plays until his targets get open.
Pittsburgh moves the ball successfully when it attacks the heart of the opponent’s secondary. Wallace on those deep posts and go routes. Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders on intermediate crossing patterns. Heath Miller on seam routes. These are the new bread and butter of the Steelers offense.
On Sunday, the Steelers offense shifted away from this plan to account for Batch’s weaker arm. With the running backs coughing up the ball on seemingly every run, the Steelers were left throwing screen passes and dump-offs. This worked for a bit, but eventually, the Browns figured out the pattern and shut the short stuff down.
Such a tentative strategy is not going to work against the more competent Ravens defense this coming Sunday. Indications that Big Ben might return for the game give reason for optimism. If he doesn’t, the Steelers are in trouble. There is no easy fix for a weak-armed quarterback.
Ike Taylor's problem catching interceptions is well documented.
The eight giveaways obviously put Pittsburgh in a big hole, but the Steelers defense blew several opportunities to narrow the turnover differential and to potentially turn the game around.
Though Lawrence Timmons took an errant Brandon Weeden throw back for a touchdown in the first quarter, his teammates dropped three other potential interceptions. The first drop ended up being a stroke of good luck, as it came just before Timmons’s touchdown. But holding onto one of the other two might have made the difference in a six-point game.
Unfortunately, this has been a long-term problem.
Pittsburgh’s secondary has been great against the pass this year. According to Pro- Football-Reference.com, the Steelers have the stoutest pass defense in the game, giving up a mere 4.5 yards per passing attempt.
However, they have only intercepted six passes on the year—the fifth worst total in the league. Last year, the defense managed only 11 picks in 16 games. Some of this is luck, but there’s nothing unlucky about dropping catchable balls. And the Steelers have a history of doing just that.
It was fitting that Ike Taylor was one of the culprits on Sunday. Though an excellent cover corner, Taylor has notoriously bad hands. As Steelers fans know all too well.
With the offense hobbling coming into the rivalry game against the Ravens, the defense needs to pick up the slack. A game-changing turnover or two wouldn’t hurt, but that means hanging onto the ball when it hits you in the hands.
Browns RB Trent Richardson rumbles through the Steelers defense.
As in the Chiefs game a few weeks ago, the Steelers again failed to put sustained pressure on a mediocre quarterback. In what has become a disturbing trend, the run defense was largely to blame.
Obviously, rookie quarterback Weeden benefited from the good field position afforded by the turnovers. However, he also benefited from Pittsburgh’s inability to stop the run consistently on first and second downs.
Cleveland’s best two drives of the day were helped along by gashing runs that set up manageable third downs for Weeden. These drives ended in the two Phil Dawson field goals that were the difference on the scoreboard at the end of the day.
The Steelers bottled up the Ravens’ ground game very well in their last meeting, holding Ray Rice to 40 yards and a long run of eight.
However, Pittsburgh’s defensive line has not shown an ability to push opposing offensive lines off the ball on a sustained basis. If the Steelers play as badly against the run in Baltimore as they did last Sunday, Rice is likely to have a big game.
Tomlin needs to focus the team on cutting out stupid mistakes.
The turnovers weren’t the only errors that should have Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff steaming. The Steelers also committed 10 penalties, costing them 90 yards in field position and killing several potential scoring drives.
It wasn’t just the quantity of penalties on Sunday. It was the Steelers’ knack for committing them at the worst possible times and in the worst possible places. Flags routinely put the Steelers in terrible field position, wiped out long gains or forced the struggling Batch to throw the ball down the field.
In the first quarter, a boneheaded false start by Sanders—a receiver who could see when the ball was snapped—turned 3rd-and-10 into 3rd-and-15 from the Steelers’ 15-yard line. Sanders’s subsequent 11-yard catch left Pittsburgh punting the ball away.
A holding penalty at the beginning of the second quarter nullified a run that would have given the Steelers a manageable third down. Instead, they ended up facing 3rd-and-19 from their own eight-yard line. Running back Isaac Redman then fumbled, setting up Cleveland’s first touchdown.
Another holding call wiped out a 31-yard kickoff return by Chris Rainey and backed the Steelers up to their own nine.
Holding and delay of game penalties on the first drive in the third quarter left Pittsburgh facing 3rd-and-19 from their own 12. The Steelers failed to convert.
Two more holding penalties in another third-quarter drive wiped out gains of eight and 33 yards and left the Steelers trying to convert on 3rd-and-32 from their own seven. A 15-yard completion to Redman fell way short of the first down.
A team battling to stay in the playoff picture despite bad luck with injuries and some chronic flaws needs to play mistake-free, intelligent football. If the Steelers hope to keep hold of their wild-card spot, they need to eliminate the mental errors. That will be the challenge for Tomlin and the coaching staff heading into Baltimore.