The morning after a highly anticipated contest with the Baltimore Ravens, many Steeler fans are still shaking their heads, wondering what went wrong. The finger of blame cannot be pointed at any one player or incdent in particular, as the loss was a collective team effort.
Last night's game could best be summed up by saying the Ravens did not make mistakes, and capitalized on those made by the Steelers.
I ran into a Ravens fan grocery shopping earlier in the day and we had an honest discussion: I had said this would come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. Unfortunately, the Steelers made many.
Before I get into those, going into this game I had a gut feeling it was going to be ugly. Aside from a 2nd half implosion against the Browns days earlier, this feeling came about earlier in the year when the NFL schedule was released. This isn't the first time Mike Tomlin's team looked off on a road trip.
Taking a peek back into 2013, during the Steelers 0-4 start, they faced division rival Cincinnati on the road in a prime time match up. Last season, the Steelers also faced the Cleveland Browns in a division game before turning into a short week traveling to Baltimore, where the Ravens had the luxury of playing at home in their previous game.
It was the same setup this year, playing a division opponent and then a short week traveling to Baltimore.
Did this help the Ravens?
That's debatable, but you could say it didn't hurt them. They had to deal with their own housekeeping issues, such as the media frenzy over Ray Rice, whom at this time last week, they were expecting to rejoin their team today.
Own Worst Enemy
Putting that situation to the side, I feel the Steelers did more to lose this game than Baltimore did to win it. One bright spot to a highly criticized Steelers defense was their ability to hold Baltimore to field goals on the Ravens 3 best starting positions of the game, and all in the second half. The Ravens twice started near their own 45 yard line, only to march 50 some yards with no touchdown. A Heath Miller fumble coughed up on the 20 resulted in a goal line stand with the Ravens unable to get in.
Of the 2 long Ravens TD drives, the first one stands out as a team shooting themselves in their own foot. A collective groan could be heard when Justin Brown fumbled on the Steelers first drive, relinquishing the ball, and an opportunity to get on the board first. In all fairness, Brown attempted to do as he was taught, and protect the football with both hands, but found himself on the wrong side of that try.
The Ravens would get the ball on their own 15, and immediately chew up yards with a 15 yard pass to Steve Smith, and a 15 yard facemask penalty - all in one play.A Baltimore gamble on 4th down kept this opening drive alive, leading to another chance for the Steelers D to shutdown the Ravens on the next 3rd down. Instead, Cortez Allen was flagged for a 23 yard pass interference call on Torrey Smith. The play better resembled a textbook soccer dive; where a player drags their back foot hoping they get contact by a defender following too close from behind. Because Allen never looked back to the ball, the referees bought Smith's flop - hook, line and sinker.
This would be one of many head-scratching penalties in what felt like an inconsistently called game. As a referee myself (in another sport) I know the thankless job of being the 3rd team on the field and enforcers for a fairly played game. However, this appeared so lopsided, that even the Steelers radio broadcast team was crying foul.
As soon as I saw who the officials were, and this is a biased opinion, I felt the writing was on the wall. Ed Hocculi's crew officiated last night's game and continued their trend of penalizing the Steelers more than their opponents. The inconsistent calls made the players look helpless out there. They had no idea what they could or could not do when defending opponents, and thus the end of the game looked more like the Steelers defenders playing "safe" rather than making any type of jarring hits to force turnovers or taking a dive at their opponents. (Note: I had the same feeling in the Browns game as well.)
Aside from the PI call on Allen earlier in the game, two calls that were especially mind-numbing were the flags thrown on the Ravens 2nd touchdown drive. While the game was still within Pittsburgh's reach at 10-6, Troy Polamalu drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for his hit on Owen Daniels, despite it looking clean on the replay. If the officials are going to plant their flag on these type of hits, then how could they penalize the hit that sent Antonio Brown to the sidelines in the first quarter?
The 2nd head-scratcher came 2 plays later, when Mike Mitchell was flagged for throwing an elbow. It's beyond my comprehension how a player can throw an elbow at a player facing him. Anyone who's played sports, or watched mixed martial arts, knows the point of your elbow is the primary point of contact. This wasn't the case here, and the worst case scenario, appeared no worse than a forearm coming in to try and jar the football free from Steve Smith.
This is not meant to be a "refs are against us" rant, but there is a pattern with this referee crew that cannot be ignored. Last night, the Steelers were called for 9 penalties totaling 75 yards. In last year's Bengals blowout, Hocculi's crew found a way to flag the Steelers 6 times for 50 yards (2 more than Cincy.) I imagine they also had a heads up to not miss any "helmet shots" as the league claims they did in that same game, when Terence Garvin lit up Bengals punter Kevin Huber. This was clearly a precursor to the late flag thrown on Polamalu's hit on Daniels.
Prior to those games, Hocculi's crew was responsible for the Thursday night flag fest against Cleveland in on December 8th, 2012. This was the game where James Harrison "helmet hit" Browns QB Colt McCoy, who left the pocket as a runner and was on the receiving end of a concussion when Harrison's facemask collided with McCoy's. That game ended with an astonishing 12 penalties called against Pittsburgh. But that's not all: a year earlier in another early season match up with the Ravens, Hocculi called 11 fouls on the Steelers. The numbers seem disproportionate because they are.
A Few Bright Spots
As mentioned earlier, the defense was able to hold the Ravens to 3 points in each of their short field positions.
The Steelers passing game was out of sync, but not entirely off. Antonio Brown fell just shy of 100 yards receiving, while Markus Wheaton and Le'Veon Bell are both proving to be valuable hands.
The offensive line only surrendered 2 sacks, though an additional one was negated by a dirty hit to Ben Roethlisberger on the game's opening drive.
I know that blaming the referees is a popular scapegoat when it comes to an underwhelming performance; there was plenty to say of that too. The Steelers were unable to sack Joe Flacco once, nor force a turnover; while themselves giving the ball away 3 times, twice within 20 or so yards of the end zone.
On this night the Steelers were their own worst enemy. It's because of these self-inflicted wounds I feel they will be able to adjust accordingly as the season goes forward.