The defense deserved better.
It hasn’t been realistic to make that statement about the Steelers defense for what seems like quite a while, and even on those occasions when it might’ve been true, it would come off as an excuse. But this time it not only feels right to say it, but it also seems OK to believe it.
Yesterday the Steelers fell to 1-4 as the result of a 26-23 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and that is and will remain the most important information to take from those nearly three-and-a-half hours spent on the Heinz Field grass because above all the National Football League is a bottom line business.
And the bottom line for these Steelers is that they’re now back in a hole after squandering an opportunity to thrust themselves into the thick of the AFC North Division race. And it feels as though they’re running out of the kind of tools they’re going to need to dig themselves out of it.
With Ben Roethlisberger already out for the season following elbow surgery, the Steelers lost his backup, Mason Rudolph, to a helmet-to-helmet hit from Earl Thomas that occurred midway through the third period. Rudolph sustained a concussion and was transported to a hospital for further evaluation. He was released from the hospital on Sunday evening and will be placed in the concussion protocol, which means for the immediate present the No. 1 quarterback for the Steelers is Devlin Hodges, a player who was waived on the cut-down from 90 to 53 players at the end of August.
But regardless of how checkered Hodges’ itinerary to the NFL might seem, he did a representative job after getting thrown onto the field even though his last “meaningful” playing time came in the second half of the preseason finale. Hodges was sufficiently decisive and got rid of the ball on time, he was accurate, and he avoided the kind of boneheaded plays that could get his team beat.
Unfortunately, the Hodges fairy tale turned into a sidebar to the main story. The game began with Baltimore presenting the Steelers with the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense both in terms of yards gained per game and yards gained per carry. The Ravens were capable of a power running game, capable of finesse plays off that with the best running quarterback in the NFL today, and they had three tight ends working the underneath areas who had combined for 40 catches and four touchdowns through the first quarter of the regular season.
The Steelers rotated their defensive linemen and sometimes lined up with Vince Williams, Devin Bush, and Mark Barron on the field at the same time, and whoever ended up on the field combined to hold the Ravens 67.8 yards under their per game rushing average and 2.4 yards under their per carry average.
Lamar Jackson made some plays, both with his legs and with his arm, but the Ravens longest pass play covered just 24 yards, and the Steelers sacked Jackson five times and intercepted him three times. For the game, Jackson’s passer rating was 54.9, and the Ravens offense that came into the game averaging 482.5 total net yards finished with 277 against the Steelers.
The statistics certainly tell a story, but not as emphatically as the tale told by Coach Mike Tomlin’s decision at the start of overtime.
The Ravens, as the visiting team, called the coin toss and when they lost, the choice went to the Steelers. Their choices were to receive, kick off, or choose to defend a goal. Conventional NFL wisdom says that if you win the toss in overtime you take the football, but Tomlin elected to defend the south end zone and the basis for his decision was his defense.
Overtime rules state that if the team receiving the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown the game is over, but if the team receiving the overtime kickoff doesn’t score a touchdown then the other team get its chance with the football. And if the team that receives the overtime kickoff has to punt, then the other team can win the game with a field goal.
Tomlin figured the Steelers had a better chance to win by playing defense first, then forcing the Ravens to punt, and then their depleted offense would need only a field goal to win. By electing to receive the overtime kickoff, if the Steelers offense didn’t drive down the field and score a touchdown, all the Ravens would need was a field goal to win, and their kicker had made over 90 percent of his attempts over the course of his decade in the league.
He was correct, and his plan worked perfectly. Well, it worked perfectly until JuJu Smith-Schuster committed the cardinal sin of not protecting the football after catching a 10-yard pass from Hodges, but more on that later.
Chris Boswell’s kickoff to start overtime went through the end zone for a touchback. On first down, Stephon Tuitt dumped Mark Ingram for a 1-yard loss. On second down, Bud Dupree sacked Lamar Jackson for a loss of 4 yards. A 1-yard completion on third down brought the Ravens punter onto the field.
After the punt, the Steelers started at their 32-yard line – much better field position than they would’ve had if they had elected to receive the overtime kickoff – and more significant was that since their defense already stopped the Ravens once in the extra period, their offense would need only a field goal to win the game.
What the offense absolutely could not afford to do was turn the ball over, which is what Smith-Schuster did when Marlon Humphrey popped the ball out from behind after that 10-yard catch. Even with the deflating nature of such a gaffe, the Ravens managed only 6 yards on three offensive plays before Justin Tucker ended it with a 46-yard field goal.
There are no moral victories in the NFL, and looking for bright spots on a team that’s 1-4 after the first weekend of October is something losers would do. Both of those things are true, but then so is this:
The defense deserved better.