BALTIMORE – They arrived here as winners of three in a row, and five of their last six, and in complete control of their playoff fate. There had developed a line of thinking that they were going to be the team nobody would want to face in the playoffs, and then in the game they had to win to preserve the fruits of all that, what had gotten them to this point failed them.
The Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens yesterday, 20-17, because their offense wasn't good enough. Other elements of the team could be cited, other individuals can share in the blame, but the 2015 Steelers are a team built to win with offense, specifically their pass offense. And it wasn't what it needed to be against the Ravens.
It's fair to say that a real contender, a team genuinely deserving of its status as one that nobody would want to face in the playoffs, couldn't and shouldn't be derailed by a single aspect of their game turning in a sub-standard performance. While that may be fair to say, and while football being the ultimate team sport should offer sufficient opportunity for other individuals or phases to pick up the slack, that it didn't happen against the Ravens doesn't mitigate the fact the offense wasn't what the team needed it to be.
The Ravens came into this game with as many wins to this point in the 2015 regular season as quarterbacks who have started for them. Ryan Mallett, signed a couple of weeks ago as a possible long-term backup to Joe Flacco, who's currently on the injured reserve list, would be the fourth, with Matt Schaub being No. 2 and Jimmy Clausen checking in at No. 3. Even though these Ravens were playing themselves into the top 10 in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, a visit from the Steelers figured to bring about one final NFL-caliber effort, because, well, these teams hate each other.
That meant the Steelers had to be prepared to weather an initial wave from the Ravens, who then would either gain confidence or fall into the here-we-go-again funk that had swallowed them whole in their previous two outings – a 35-6 loss to Seattle and a 34-14 beating administered by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Taking the opening kickoff after the Ravens won the coin toss and deferred, Ben Roethlisberger handed the ball three straight times to DeAngelo Williams, who gained 46 yards with it and set up the Steelers with a first-and-10 at the Baltimore 34-yard line. Three plays later, it was fourth-and-1 from the 25-yard line, and with its first chance to send the Ravens careening down here-we-go-again boulevard, the interior of the Steelers offensive line got stuffed, which led to Williams being stopped for no gain and the ball being turned over on downs to the Ravens.
The Ravens offense seized that momentum and drove 75 yards for the game's first touchdown, but eight plays later – on the first snap of the second quarter – the Steelers seemingly had tied the game on a Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown touchdown pass. But with all scoring plays subject to review, the play was re-examined and the touchdown subsequently overturned, and with the NFL rules governing a catch having become so convoluted it's impossible to know whether Brown in fact didn't possess the ball when his feet came down inbounds or whether referee Craig Wrolstad erred in reversing the call on the field and taking the touchdown off the scoreboard.
Either way, it represented a second time in the game's opening 16 minutes where the Steelers offense had a chance to land a punch and whiffed.
And so it went from there. Roethlisberger threw two interceptions, and had a third, a pick-six at that, negated by an offside penalty. Brown finished with seven catches for 61 yards, but six of those accounted for only 34 yards and there was the touchdown that wasn't after further review. And with Brown drawing extra attention now on a weekly basis, the other guys haven't stepped up and made those defenses pay a price for the strategy.
Against the Ravens, Martavis Bryant had one catch for 6 yards. One catch for 6 yards, and Roethlisberger was the quarterback. Bryant's last touchdown catch came on Dec. 6, and in the last three games he hasn't had a single reception for even 20 yards. Markus Wheaton caught three passes for 41 yards, which is a pedestrian total, and he and Bryant each failed to make plays on balls down the field inside the two-minute warning with the Steelers staring at a three-point deficit.
On a day when DeAngelo Williams rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns, and the Steelers averaged 5.5 yards per rush, the failure of the passing attack to deliver in situations where it previously had delivered this season against better defenses was costly. Sure, the defense had no takeaways, mounted little pressure on Mallett, and allowed 386 total net yards and a 50 percent conversion rate on third downs, but the Ravens finished with just 20 points. Twenty-one points should never be too much to ask of this Steelers offense, but yesterday it was.
It was too much to ask because yesterday Roethlisberger wasn't even the best No. 7 on the field. He forced some throws, was a little bit off on some others, and he didn't protect the ball above all else, which is Rule No. 1 in games like this. And when his receivers had some chances to bail him out, they didn't make plays.
Over the first 15 weeks of this regular season, we had seen the Steelers overcome their share of adversity and grow into the kind of team that can beat anybody on any given day. That's what makes them the kind of team nobody would want to face in the playoffs.
But this also is not a team without flaws, it's not a team that has completed the maturation process as it transitions to a different generation of players. Because of that, these Steelers also are a team that can lose to anybody on any given day, especially when that day carries with it a minus-2 in turnover ratio.
And that's what makes the Steelers a team now needing help even to get into the playoffs.