Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Ravens

It's the National Football League. It's December. You don't apologize for winning in the National Football League, and you especially don't apologize for winning a regular season game in December – even if it originally was scheduled to be played in November – against a rival fighting for its postseason life.

But apologizing for the performance that "resulted" in that victory not only can be acceptable and understandable. Sometimes it's required.

"To be bluntly honest, was really disappointed in our performance tonight," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We did enough to win, but that's all. It was really junior varsity, to be quite honest with you. It was (junior varsity) in all three phases. We couldn't run the ball effectively when we needed to. We dropped too many significant passes, very catchable, makeable (plays). We didn't make significant plays in the special teams game. Our kickoff coverage unit wasn't good enough. We turned the ball over. We gave up big plays in critical moments on defense. Can't have it. They converted a long run on a possession down before the half. Unacceptable. They had a 70-yard touchdown late in the game. Unacceptable. We were fortunate tonight. It's good to proceed with the victory, I acknowledge that. But not a lot happened tonight to be proud of or to be excited about other than that."

Under different circumstances, a 19-14 victory over the Ravens to seal a regular season series sweep definitely would be a source of pride, and when that sweep was part of an 11-0 record, would be cause to bask in the accomplishment.

But this game should not have been that close. The Ravens deserve credit for making it so and keeping it that way through the entire 60 minutes, but with their severely depleted roster they were going to need a lot of help to pull that off and the Steelers were far too accommodating.

I get that everyone running around on the Heinz Field grass is a professional and that NFL jobs are difficult to get and even harder to keep, but the collection wearing Ravens uniforms on Wednesday was depleted by COVID-19, hampered by lack of practice, and limited as a result of both. This isn't meant to excuse the Ravens for the situation in which they found themselves, because there were significant organizational failures that allowed the virus to be spread by a strength coach who decided not to wear a mask and then compounded his recklessness by also not wearing the tracker that allows for contact tracing in the event of a positive test.

But regardless of the level of blatant disregard or carelessness or arrogance or whatever it was that elevated the Ravens to super-spreader status, the roster they presented for kickoff vs. the Steelers wasn't one that should've been in any position to pull off what would have been the biggest upset of the NFL season. Here are two examples to support that point: Shortly before kickoff, the Ravens activated 10 players from their practice squad as COVID-19 replacements; and their roster still was so depleted they only had to make two players inactive to get down to the game day limit.

There are sure-fire ways to turn what should be a lopsided outcome into a nail-biter, and the Steelers did their best to employ as many of them as possible.

For example, after each team began with a three-and-out and the accompanying exchange of punts, the Steelers then put together three consecutive offensive possessions in which they ran 31 plays that covered 159 yards, and all they had to show for it was an interception in the end zone and a couple of red zone field goals after they penetrated the Ravens 10-yard line both times. Then you sprinkle in a muffed punt that all but hands your opponent a touchdown, and you blunt the impact of a pick-6 by following with a missed PAT.

The Steelers had to know the Ravens were going to do their best to make it as difficult as possible for them to get to 11-0, just as the Ravens had to know they weren't going to be able to line up and put themselves in a position to leave Pittsburgh with a victory unless they got some help from the Steelers.

"You know, we played down to their level," said JuJu Smith-Schuster. "They came out with a JV squad, and we were playing JV (level), and we didn't come out and execute and play the way we wanted to play. And as you could see, it was a close game, which shouldn't have happened."

It was a close game because the Steelers didn't finish offensively early in the game, which allowed the Ravens to stay close on the scoreboard while gaining confidence in themselves because they were staying close on the scoreboard. The Steelers came into the game with the No. 7 red zone offense in the NFL because they were converting possessions inside the opponents' 20-yard line into touchdowns 69.4 percent of the time. Against the Ravens, they were 1-for-4, which means they left 15 points on the field (the one interception in the end zone when they came away with nothing and twice settling for short field goals instead of touchdowns).

Convert those opportunities and figure out a way not to miss the PAT following Joe Haden's pick-6, and the scoreboard reads 28-7 at halftime instead of 12-7, and the Ravens outlook at the start of the third quarter is decidedly different. And what so often happens is that once things start going bad for a team in certain phases of the game, those bad things spread to other phases of the team's performance like, well, like a virus.

So it was that in the first half – a couple of turnovers and red zone failures – and then as the game entered its second half, it became dropped passes and defensive breakdowns. Robert Griffin III converted a third-and-long with a 39-yard designed run through the middle of the Steelers defense, and then with the Ravens No. 2 quarterback sitting on the bench with an ice bag taped to his injured hamstring, No. 3 quarterback Trace McSorley hooked up with Marquise Brown on a sinfully easy pitch-and-catch that became a 70-yard touchdown.

By Smith-Schuster's estimation, Steelers receivers dropped "six or eight" passes, and when the offense manages just 68 yards rushing and the quarterback attempts 51 passes, "six or eight" drops on possession downs and in the red zone is an unsustainable combination when the idea is to win the football game.

"Wide receivers not catching balls, not making plays when they're supposed to be made, going down into the red zone not putting points on the board, special teams committing turnovers, multiple reasons why we fell short today, and also giving up a big play like that at the end for them to score a touchdown put us in a close game like that," said Smith-Schuster.

That was a diplomatic, but accurate assessment of the afternoon's work, but Tomlin had no interest in that approach. When asked to what he would attribute the dropped balls and the red zone failures, Tomlin didn't hesitate.

"Us sucking," he said.

Indeed it was, and that description applied to the other phases of their performance, too.

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