Labriola on loss to Ravens

BALTIMORE – In their biggest game of the season, the Steelers reverted to form. Unfortunately.

The outcome was 22-20 in the Ravens' favor, and the path to that mirrored the events contributing to the 5-6 situation in which the Steelers had found themselves in the first place.

A slow start. Some mistakes and some squandered opportunities sprinkled in. Fighting back. Competing. Gradually turning the tide. Not making enough of the necessary plays in the late-game moments that end up deciding the outcome.

That's a general outline of how the Steelers lost to the Ravens in a game that was the nightcap of the NFL's Thanksgiving tripleheader. That's also a general outline of how this season has unfolded for them.

In putting together the three-game winning streak they brought here, the Steelers had gone out in front. It was 10-3 over Buffalo, 14-0 over the Lions, 13-3 in Cleveland, but against the Ravens it was a 10-0 deficit principally because Baltimore converted 6-of-8 third down situations and hit on a 54-yard Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith bomb on the touchdown drive.

When the Ravens had Flacco go deep down the field on the team's opening offensive snap and then again four plays later, it became apparent they believed their receivers had the edge in speed over the Steelers defensive backs. Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith both got behind the coverage at times, and the ease with which they did it early contributed to a Ravens lead that grew to 13-0 midway through the third quarter before the Steelers began chipping away.

And chip away they did, but each phase would seem to take a turn with either the mistake or missed opportunity that prevented them from taking a lead.

For example, after the Ravens went 71 yards in eight plays for a touchdown on their first possession, they never crossed the goal line again. One-for-four in the red zone is a nice statistic for any NFL defense to throw up on the board, but when it comes along with zero takeaways and no sacks over the final three quarters it can end up not being good enough.

The Steelers offense ended up running the football half as well as it did when these teams first met back in early October. A hole was dug by punting three times and losing the ball on downs in their four first half possessions, a hole that ended up being too deep for three touchdowns in their four second half possessions to overcome.

And at the time in the game where the defense had stopped allowing the Ravens to score touchdowns and the offense was sustaining long drives and going three-for-three in the red zone, special teams made the mistakes.

There had been a botched field goal attempt in the first half when an attempt at using a cadence foiled Shaun Suisham's timing, but the big gaffe came in the second half right after the Steelers had made it a one-score game with the first of Ben Roethlisberger's two touchdown passes.

Jones took the ensuing kickoff back 73 yards, virtually guaranteeing the Ravens a three-point answer to the Steelers' seven.

On and on it went. Different things at different times. Some pure bad luck, but all of it turned out to be enough to spoil the outcome.

In the final two minutes, the Steelers had two touchdowns taken away from them by instant replay. The decision on the Heath Miller catch looked correct based on the video evidence, but the rules interpretation on the play where Le'Veon Bell had his helmet popped off his head from a wicked hit by Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw was brought to you by the same referee (Clete Blakeman) whose interpretation of pass interference hosed the Patriots in that recent Monday night game vs. Carolina.

As he's diving across the goal line, Bell has his helmet forcibly removed by a torpedoing Upshaw's helmet, and the touchdown is disallowed because the play is dead when Bell's helmet came off, even though the only thing Bell did after his helmet came off was fall to the ground. He gained no more yardage, nor attempted to do so. And remember, both plays were ruled touchdowns on the field.

The Steelers lost a game to the Ravens because they started slow, missed some chances offensively, didn't make enough splash plays defensively and had their special teams break down at inopportune times.

That loss to the Ravens puts them at 5-7 and could end up costing them a playoff spot, because their record to date has been fashioned with a slow start, some missed chances to defeat inferior opposition, and some untimely breakdowns late in games (see, Chicago and New England).

There is a symmetry there. Unfortunately.

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