Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Ravens

There are a lot of statistics and anecdotes and trends that can be used to characterize Steelers vs. Ravens, or used to characterize the sub-set of the overall rivalry by limiting it to Mike Tomlin vs. John Harbaugh. But there is one theme that overrides all others.

Despite the records of the teams, the significance to each team, the venue, the spot on the schedule, the weather, or some combination of those, the final score will be close.

During the Tomlin vs. Harbaugh era of Steelers-Ravens, 24 of the 31 meetings have ended with the margin of victory, or the margin of defeat, being eight points or fewer. In other words, a one-score game. The 32nd would be no different.

When games are consistently this close, turnovers play an outsized role in the outcome, and while "turnovers are bad" hardly qualifies as cutting-edge next-gen analysis, sometimes it's that simple. The Steelers lost to the Ravens, 16-14, on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, and the outcome was determined by four turnovers – three interceptions and a blocked field goal that earns a special designation as a turnover in this instance because it resulted from a mistake every bit as egregious as throwing late into coverage in the middle of the field. Which Mitch Trubisky did twice.

The loss dropped the Steelers to 5-8 and snapped their two-game winning streak, while the victory enabled the Ravens to keep pace with the Bengals atop the AFC North Division and also snapped their personal four-game losing streak in this series. The outcome also threw cold water on the issue of the Steelers working themselves back to relevance when it came to the seven-team playoff picture in the AFC.

There were many other components to this particular 60-minute installment of Steelers-Ravens, either statistical or anecdotal, that might take one's eye off the ball, so to speak, but all of those are rendered moot to the outcome by the turnovers.

Before the ball was put on the tee, it seemed natural to view what was about to happen through the prism of the respective team's starting quarterbacks. For the Steelers, it would be Kenny Pickett, a rookie making his first appearance vs. the Ravens, and Baltimore would counter with Tyler Huntley, a so-far career backup about to make his fifth regular season start, with one of the previous four being a 16-for-31 for 141 yards, with no touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a rating of 37.2 performance in a 16-13 loss to the Steelers in the 2021 season finale.

But that storyline didn't even make it out of the first quarter, because Pickett ended up in the concussion protocol following a scramble during which linebacker Roquan Smith spun him to the ground with the help of a hand in his facemask and ended with Pickett's head bouncing off the Acrisure Stadium sod. That the play went unflagged seemed curious initially and then became part of a confusing pattern, based on referee Adrian Hill's crew later awarding Baltimore possession of a fumble via the football version of baseball's ties-go-to-the-runner philosophy after it was decided that one player from each team had "two hands on the football;" which then was one-upped by a call of offsetting pass interference penalties on Marlon Humphrey and Diontae Johnson. How can pass interference be offsetting?

Anyway, not all that long after Pickett was out of the game because he was in the protocol, Huntley's ninth rushing attempt of the game ended with Minkah Fitzpatrick treating him like the runner he became when he pulled the ball from J.K. Dobbins' belly, tucked it under his arm and turned upfield. Huntley soon would join Pickett in the protocol after being checked in the visitor's locker room, which meant Anthony Brown became the Ravens quarterback.

Trubisky came off the sideline with a hot hand and moved the Steelers 64 yards in 5 plays for a touchdown by doing what he seemed reluctant to do when he opened the season as the starter – push the ball down the field to his playmaking receivers. On his third play – a third-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 37-yard line, Trubisky delivered a 14-yard completion to Pat Freiermuth, and followed that with a deep shot that George Pickens went up and caught for a 42-yard gain to the Ravens 7-yard line. On the very next play, Trubisky went right back to Pickens in the end zone, which drew a pass interference penalty on Humphrey. Najee Harris vaulted over the pile for the 1-yard touchdown, and the Steelers offense looked like it was poised to break out.

But that ended up being the highlight, and things descended into a parade of, as Vince Lombardi famously was caught by NFL Films yelling at his team from the sideline, "What the hell is going on out there?" Pickens caught two passes for 67 yards and drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone on one of the league's top cornerbacks in the first half, and then was targeted only once in the second. Harris had 11 touches for 39 yards and a touchdown in the first half, which is not great but not an atypical start against a Ravens' defense, but he disappeared in the second half with three touches for 11 yards, one of which was a quick pass he turned into a 10-yard gain. And the Ravens' 6-point halftime lead didn't even grow to 9 until midway through the fourth quarter and then quickly was shaved to 2.

There was a span between Harris' touchdown that made it Ravens 10, Steelers 7 and Chris Boswell's 40-yard field goal attempt that was blocked where the offense put together possessions of 47 yards in 9 plays, 52 yards in 5 plays, 27 yards in 6 plays, 43 yards in 7 plays, and 46 yards in 9 plays. Those possessions ended: red zone interception, red zone interception, punt, interception at the Ravens' 1-yard line, and a blocked kick because nobody on the field goal unit paid any special attention to Calais Campbell, who was the one guy in the purple pants on the field at the time who needed special attention.

During those 30-plus minutes of game time, the Steelers had done the Ravens' job for them. They possessed the ball and burned clock but failed to change their side of the scoreboard. That allowed Baltimore to get away with starting Huntley and then go to Brown to continue to hand the ball to J.K. Dobbins and burn more clock without having to worry about actually scoring any points.

"You just can't turn the ball over, particularly in the nature of this matchup," said Tomlin after a one-score outcome for the 25th time in the last 32 installments. "Usually, the team that turns the ball over in the red area is the team that loses. They've turned it over some in the red area in recent matchups and we've won those games. We turned it over in the red area in this one, so we lost this one."

There were contributing factors, such as Baltimore rushing for 215 yards with a 5.1 average even while employing personnel that was largely ineffective otherwise. But because the Ravens' grand total was one touchdown and three field goals, that "defense" was good enough to win with had the offense not turned it over three times and if the field goal unit had applied what it had been told all week.

"You know the turnovers in this series have kind of been the thing," said Harbaugh. "To get the three interceptions after they had driven down there speaks volumes … Those were great interceptions by (Patrick Queen) and Roquan [Smith]. Then, Marcus [Williams] going and covering the ground that he did to make that play (at the 1-yard line) shows you what he's capable of. Those were game-winning plays right there for sure."

Or from the opposite sideline, game-losing plays for sure.

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