"Excuses are the tools of the incompetent."
-- Mike Tomlin, Nov. 13, 2012
For this particular installment of Ravens-Steelers, each team arrived at Heinz Field last Sunday night with a full toolbox thanks to a combined injury list that could make up a playoff contending team of its own.
Of course, the most significant medical development of the week was the injury to Ben Roethlisberger, which not only taught the media how to spell sternoclavicular but it also reminded everyone how important the aorta is.
In addition to being without a franchise quarterback who might have been on a path to the best season of his career, the Steelers also walked onto the grass without Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown, both of whom had been voted to the most recent Pro Bowl. The Ravens were without Ray Lewis, plus both of their starting cornerbacks – Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.
Despite all of the marquee names relegated to spectator status last Sunday night, the primary issue – at least for the Steelers – was whether they could win a game against a quality opponent with Byron Leftwich as their starting quarterback.
The scoreboard said they could not, by 13-10, and the loss dropped the Steelers two games behind the Ravens in the division, with a rematch in Baltimore in two weeks quite possibly turning into their last best chance at climbing back into the thick of this race for a playoff spot.
In going 3-1 without Roethlisberger over the first quarter of the 2010 regular season, the Steelers compensated for the absence of their franchise quarterback in different ways, but always by having different aspects of their game contribute in ways above and beyond the call.
That's what was going to be required against the Ravens, but the Steelers failed to deliver, and the failure was not limited to one player or one unit. The most dramatic was by a punt team that allowed Jacoby Jones to return one for a 63-yard touchdown, which would be the only time the Ravens got the ball into the end zone.
Yes, there were opportunities to negate that, and the Steelers failed to do so, but special teams disasters in a game like this usually end up happening to the team that ends up losing.
Where the Steelers suddenly were enjoying a bout of good health was in the offensive backfield, where for the first time this season Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer were all healthy and in uniform together for a game. This also coincided with a recent uptick in production for the Steelers rushing attack and a season-long inability by the Ravens defense to stop the run.
And there is nothing more helpful to a quarterback than an effective running attack, but Byron Leftwich got little help here, either from the play-calling or the execution of same.
Once Redman left with a concussion, and Mendenhall showed himself to be as rusty as could be expected from a guy who had played one full game all season, it was apparent the most productive Steelers back was going to be Dwyer. But Dwyer got only 12 carries, clearly not enough in a game that was so close on the scoreboard.
The Steelers defense had a fine night, and that was the case in how they dealt with all facets of the Ravens offense. Ray Rice averaged 2 yards a carry; Torrey Smith had one catch for 7 yards; the Baltimore offense finished with 200 net yards; and in 11 possessions that were not kneel-downs, the Ravens punted eight times and missed a field goal. Clearly, the defense deserved a better fate.
By losing to the Ravens for the third straight time, the Steelers have ceded the right to see themselves as the boss of their division, and based on the uncertainty regarding the return of Roethlisberger their playoff possibilities are in serious jeopardy because of a conference record sure to become a liability once it comes time to decipher tiebreakers.
And those are facts, not excuses.
Read the rest of this column in its entirety in the current issue of Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005, or visit: http://www.steelers.com/news/digest.html