The first time, back in September in Baltimore, was embarrassing. Getting exposed as overconfident and unprepared is no way to open a season, especially when it comes at the hands of a hated rival, but the timing of it was a mitigating factor. After all, they could tell themselves, it was just the first of 16 regular season games. There was a lot of football left to be played, and there would be another shot at their antagonists, to be played on their home grass in front of their fans.
This time, last Sunday night on their home grass in front of their fans, was worse than embarrassing. This loss to the Ravens hit the Steelers where it hurts most. In the standings, in the quest to win the AFC North Division championship.
It might be tempting to pooh-pooh the notion of the importance of winning the division for a franchise that measures success in Lombardi trophies. After all, it's not mandatory to win a division championship even to qualify for the playoffs let alone win the Super Bowl, as they had shown in 2005 and the Green Bay Packers showed just last season.
But this 23-20 loss to the Ravens was sufficiently far-reaching that it could turn out to be a difference-maker.
This loss doesn't eliminate the Steelers in the competition for the AFC North crown. With seven games still left, even the completely incompetent aren't eliminated from anything in today's NFL, but losing to the Ravens, getting swept in the home-and-home series by the Ravens, sends a message that the 2011 Steelers are not what they need to be.
Since their opener in Baltimore, the Steelers defense has learned how to deal with cut-blocking tactics and discovered that their secondary can play some man-to-man coverage. They got James Harrison back for this game but had to play it without LaMarr Woodley, but this had been a unit capable of overcoming whatever personnel issues were presented to it.
But it wasn't able to overcome Joe Flacco either time, and last Sunday's failure was completely unexpected coming as it did on the heels of that win over the New England Patriots. Against Tom Brady, the Steelers cornerbacks locked up in coverage and held the league's most prolific passing attack to 170 net yards and a 30 percent conversion rate on third downs.
The Steelers coverage wasn't even a speed-bump for Flacco and his receivers. The Ravens converted 14-of-21 third downs, finished with 289 net yards passing, and with the game on the line Flacco marched them 92 yards on 13 plays for a game-winning touchdown in which neither William Gay nor the official closest to the play ever saw the football.
Losing to the Ravens for a second time this season forces the Steelers to depend upon other teams to get done what they could not, and this one was especially disappointing because it seemed as though so many things had aligned in their favor.
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