BALTIMORE – In return for CBS being willing to move "The Big Bang Theory" from its long-held Thursday night time slot, the NFL offered up Steelers-Ravens in return. Convincing the broadcast networks to pre-empt traditional prime-time programming for sports was a chore in the 1960s, but not anymore.
With 11 of the previous 14 games between these teams having been decided by four points or fewer, it figured to be the kind of nail-biter that networks love, and the "two trains, one track" mentality both teams always bring to this matchup guaranteed hard-hitting football.
That was the theory, anyway, but the actual presentation of the inaugural Thursday Night Football game on CBS was far from must-see TV. It wasn't well-played, it wasn't well-officiated. It wasn't evenly contested. There was no real drama, or suspense.
The Ravens won, or maybe the more accurate phrasing would be, the Steelers lost. Either way, the final score was 26-6, and it left both Baltimore and Pittsburgh with 1-1 records in the AFC North.
At various stages of this past offseason, the Steelers talked of the importance of a fast start to their 2014 season. A significant chunk of their current roster had been a part of last season's 0-4, and they had seen how those numbers alone were responsible for keeping them out of the postseason even though their play was playoff-caliber by the time they finished off what was an 8-8 record.
Because of the constraints placed on training camps and then practice time within those camps, September football has become a version of the sport where winning is defined as not screwing up as much as the other guy. Chuck Noll's first commandment was that before a team can win a game, it must not lose it. Winning in today's NFL during September is about waiting for the other team to lose it.
The Steelers were far too cooperative in that respect on this Thursday night. Three turnovers and 11 penalties. No takeaways and no sacks for the defense. No touchdowns for the offense. Such a combination is good enough to lose most NFL games, and when the opponent doesn't suffer the same self-inflicted wounds, well, the loss can be a decisive one, which turns out to be an apt description of the events at M&T Bank Stadium.
Two games into a season is hardly enough of a sampling to make any definitive conclusions, but the Steelers' run defense sure looks to be the exception. It looked bad in the preseason, and that was explained away as being only the preseason, but now that the games have started to count in the standings the run defense actually seems to be worse.
It was 183 yards, a 6.1 average per carry, and two touchdowns allowed against the Browns in the opener, which then became 157 yards and a 4.4 average per carry against the Ravens. And understand that the backs doing most of this damage weren't high picks even in fantasy league drafts.
Highlight photos from the last regular season match up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 26-6.
Because so many players on this defense are new to the NFL or new to the Steelers, or both, it figured to take some time for guys to learn to play with each other. Good run defense is the result of 11 players working in concert within the framework of the scheme, and with so many new components it was reasonable to expect some growing pains.
But the defense is compounding this issue by not making any splash plays to even things out occasionally. In the two games they've played so far, the Steelers have totaled no takeaways and three sacks. They haven't been able to stop the run, and the two quarterbacks they've faced – Brian Hoyer and Joe Flacco – completed a combined 67 percent of their passes. In the second half of the opener, and then through various periods in Baltimore, it looked easy. Too easy.
The antidote was supposed to be an offense seeming to have the personnel to take over games, to become the Steelers' dominant unit. But long stretches of offensive efficiency are difficult to achieve in the early stage of a season, and the Steelers have been living proof of that. Following that first-half clinic against the Browns, their next 15 offensive possessions produced only three field goals.
And like the defense, the Steelers offense hasn't been able to pick itself up with the kind of splash plays that can result in easy points. In fact, in three of the four halves of football so far this season, nothing has come easily for them. In that first half against the Browns, the offense had five plays of 30-plus yards, and in the other three halves of the season it has none.
Today they are 1-1 and fortunate not to be 0-2. And as for Thursday night, maybe an apology to Leonard, Sheldon, Penny, Howard, and Raj is in order.