1. Before I get started, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am absolutely thrilled with the Steelers through the first month of the season. Everything said to the contrary in this article is simply in terms of the Baltimore game and goes under the category of me being a nitpicky Steeler fan.
I don’t think there’s a person out there that believed this team could be 32 seconds away from starting out 4-0 against four opponents with a combined mark of 10-5. I think the Steelers players and coaches have done a tremendous job overall and I believe Mike Tomlin deserves to be in the Coach of the Year conversation. It’s been a fantastic quarter of the regular season.
Now on to the nitpicking…
2. Steeler Nation seems determined to put a face on the loss. But I always quote the timeless “You win as a team, you lose as a team” cliche at a time like this.
The offense looked out of sync for most of the day outside of the two touchdown drives. Twice when given a short field after a turnover, they went three-and-out. On the afternoon, six of their 10 drives lasted three plays or less, creating a time of possession issue for most of the game that they eventually ironed out. They averaged 3.1 yards rushing as a team and had no player with more than two receptions. To boot, they couldn’t convert a first down at the game’s most crucial point in the fourth quarter, handing the ball over to the Ravens on a silver platter for the eventual winning touchdown.
So who’s to blame? Blame Ben Roethlisberger for his suspension and absence, blame the coaches for their play calls, blame the players themselves for not getting the job done, or blame the Baltimore defense just for being that good. As you can see, there’s ample blame to be handed out.
For all the praise heaped in their direction, this was not the greatest performance we’ve seen out of the Steeler defense, either. From the start of the game, Baltimore had a field goal attempt, a touchdown, and a converted field goal among their first four drives. Throughout the contest, the Steelers allowed the Ravens to convert a number of crucial 3rd-and-longs, including a 3rd-and-8 (Boldin 18 yards), 3rd-and-7 (Heap 8 yards), and 3rd-and-8 (Heap 16 yards), as well as a failed 3rd-and-4 given new life thanks to an Ike Taylor penalty. And let’s not mention the el foldo in the fourth quarter as the defense got abused by the Ravens in only four plays for the game-winning touchdown scored by notorious Steeler antagonist TJ Houshmandzadeh. That was tough to watch.
But like I said, it’s hard to be critical of the defense when you consider how they’ve saved the team to this point in the season. They can only bail out the offense so many times, and after stopping Baltimore at the Steeler two-yard-line late in the fourth, they had to come right back onto the field after the offense unsuccessfully rubbed two wet sticks together in hopes of a spark. That has to take some sort of mental toll on the guys, even by the fourth week. And I think it did.
Finally, one has to give some share of the blame to the Steeler special teams, which were anything but special on Sunday. Jeff Reed missed two field goals that, had they been made, would have given the Steelers a win. He’s already missed as many (4) this year as he did in all of 2009. Keyaron Fox got called for holding on the final Daniel Sepulveda punt in the fourth quarter and gave the Ravens 10 more yards of killer field position. And Antonio Brown made a very poor decision bringing the ball out of the end zone on the Steelers’ final kick return, taking the ball to the 15 yard line and wasting a few precious seconds of clock.
Yes, this was a team loss, from the coaches to the players to the quarterback watching from home. But the sad part is, it very easily could have been a win. That’s what really stings.
3. You’ve gotta love the Charlie Batch story, but I think the clock just struck midnight on his Cinderella career-rebirth. The Ravens had him looking very uncomfortable for much of the game, as they’re known to do. He looked immobile in the pocket, he couldn’t extend plays a la Roethlisberger, he completed only 12 passes, and he threw the game-ending interception right into the hands of Ray Lewis, of all people.
But hats off to Chas for winning in Tampa and not single-handedly taking the team out of the game against a tough Ravens opponent on Sunday. He’s a 35-year-old, fourth-string quarterback who hasn’t had back-to-back starts in five years. It’s about time that he looked like one.
4.Speaking of Steeler elder statesmen, Sunday was one of Hines Ward’s worst all-time games against the Ravens. With just 14 yards on two catches, it was his least-productive game versus the division rival since 2003, when Ward had 11 yards on two catches in a Week 17 loss against the Birds.
Ward has had very little chemistry with Batch, which is somewhat surprising considering the fact that they’ve been teammates for nine seasons. #86 has a total of six catches over the last three weeks since grabbing six in the season opener against Atlanta, giving him season totals of 12 receptions for 165 yards and one score. It took him a little more than one game and part of a second to catch 12 passes in 2009.
5. It’s pretty clear that Mike Wallace became Batch’s go-to man, leading the team with six targets on Sunday and four last week against Tampa Bay.
Wallace capped the Batch Era with five catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns, with three receptions of 20 yards or more.
6. Speaking of receivers, Antwaan Randle-El was one of the few bright spots for the offense on Sunday, with two long catches (16 and 34 yards) on third downs. It’s nice to know that he still has something left in the tank, because it sure wasn’t being illustrated otherwise to this point in the season (4 catches/22 yards coming into Sunday).
7. Other bright spots from Sunday: Ike Taylor finally holding onto an interception (I credited the pink gloves); the James Harrison forced fumble and Lawrence Timmons recovery; 15 tackles from Timmons; William Gay’s pass defense on that fourth-down, fourth-quarter touchdown pass attempt to Anquan Boldlin; Daniel Sepulveda, fourth in the league in punting, having another strong game; Maurkice Pouncey recovering a Batch fumble near the Steelers’ goal line that could’ve been an easy Baltimore touchdown; and finally, the mere presence of wildly entertaining referee Ed Hochuli, who gave us all free admittance to his personal gun show on Sunday.
8. As much as I hate doing so, I have to give credit where credit’s due, and that’s to the Ravens. They’re quite the adversary and they stared down the Steelers once again in this back-and-forth rivalry.
Joe Flacco stepped up and grabbed the victory away from the Steelers with the late touchdown pass to Houshmandzadeh and won for the first time in four career games in Pittsburgh. Haloti Ngata had a monster game, leading the Ravens with 11 tackles and adding a sack, two tackles for losses, and two hits on Batch. And team architect Ozzie Newsome has to get some credit for bringing in Anquan Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, who combined for 10 catches, 117 yards, and the game-winning touchdown against the league’s nastiest D.
9. Looking ahead on the Steeler calendar, the team gets Big Ben back on Monday at 12:01 a.m. Any chances of a Midnight Madness practice, Coach Tomlin? Probably not, I’m guessing.
After Ben’s inevitable and ill-conceived welcome back party at a Pittsburgh-area club to be announced (that I’m hoping doesn’t happen), the next major date in Steeler Land is Sunday, October 17, when the red-hot (so to speak) Cleveland Browns come to town.
The Brownies got their first win of the season on Sunday, beating the Bengals 23-20 in a clash of AFC North Teams That Never Venture Into the Second Round of the Playoffs. This Peyton Hillis character ran for 100 yards for the second week in a row, Seneca Wallace was behind center for the Browns, and Carson Palmer attempted 15 passes in the direction of Terrell Owens. As you can tell, it was sort of a weird game, but the Bengals never led. Don’t worry, their fans are very, very accustomed to disappointment.
The next two weeks will be spent with non-stop amateur psychoanalysis of Roethlisberger by every talking head on TV, radio, the internet, newspaper, or any other method of expressing opinion. For this talking head’s two cents, I think the guy should thank the high heavens that his team is handing him a 3-1 record and a share of the AFC North crown instead of a 1-3 record and a share of the AFC North cellar. That should make a huge difference in his reception from Steeler fans, who can’t blame him for any poor start.
Other than that, I think Ben comes in on an absolute mission, starting off by victimizing the Cleveland secondary at Heinz Field. His receivers, who nearly died of inactivity in the last month, will be thrilled to get him back. And Steeler fans who swore off all things Roethlisberger will have a real conundrum on their hands, pondering how they cheer against Ben while simultaneously rooting for the Steelers (as I’ve actually heard from some talk-show callers). That’s going to be a played-out storyline given two weeks to breathe. But prepare yourself for the onslaught.
10. Last but not least, it’s Sad Trombone time!
As you know, the Sad Trombone goes to someone who deserves no sympathy and in turn gets mocked by internet tough guys such as myself. Being that this is the first time I’ve handed one out in a Steeler loss, that will be kind of tricky. I was so ready to give it to Distraught Ray Lewis after a Ravens defeat.
But this week’s winner is not a person at all. The Sad Trombone goes to Jeff Reed’s Hopes for a Rich New Contract, which were severely injured after the controversial kicker missed two key field goals on Sunday.
“I’m not going to point anyone out or any statement out, but, yeah, I was told one thing and another thing happened,” Reed said Saturday after practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. “I understand business moves, but I’m not a big fan of lying.”
For a guy who missed several crucial kicks in 2009 while smashing a Sheetz towel dispenser and raising his dukes to Pittsburgh’s Finest, I thought that was sort of an undeserved cheap shot at the employer who was going to pay him $2.8 million to kick footballs in 2010. And since it hasn’t been forgotten by me, I can’t imagine it’s been forgotten by the person who signs Reed’s paychecks.
So for his lousy performance on Sunday, I present the Sad Trombone to Jeff Reed’s Hopes for a Rich New Contract. Enjoy kicking elsewhere in 2011, Skippy…if your league is playing, that is.
Don Spagnolo is the founder of the Pittsburgh sports and entertainment blog Mondesi’s House.
He can be reached via email at Don.Spagnolo@cbsradio.com and on Twitter @mondesishouse