Throughout the week in the lead-up to Sunday's meeting with the Ravens, the Steelers talked about how the more physical team would win this matchup.
After the Steelers' 16-14 loss here to the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium, there was no hiding from which team was more physical in this matchup.
The Ravens gashed the Steelers for 215 yards on 42 rushing attempts, essentially going to an NFL version of the old college basketball "four-corners offense," in the fourth quarter, when they played keep-away from the Steelers by running the ball, despite playing with third-string quarterback Anthony Brown.
The Steelers knew the Ravens were going to run the ball. Everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew the Ravens were going to run the ball.
The Steelers just couldn't stop it – at least not enough for it to matter.
"We understood what it was," said Steelers linebacker Myles Jack. "Everybody was in a three-point stance basically. It's just gut-check time and we did not answer at that time."
That the Ravens run the ball well is not anything new. It's what they're built to do. After all, they employ 300-pound fullback Patrick Ricard.
When he's in the game, the Ravens' intentions are about as subtle as a ball-peen hammer to the forehead.
The Steelers knew the Ravens were going to run. They were ready to stop the run. They just didn't do it.
"Who's to say we weren't selling out to stop the run at the end?" defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. "Everybody's got their job, and I don't know if we executed enough to do that. It's not just 'selling out.' It comes down to everybody staying in their gaps, getting off blocks. When they pull, guys have to get over the top. We weren't strong enough at the point of attack."
Down 16-14, with 2:24 remaining after the offense had just punched in a quick touchdown, the Steelers allowed Gus Edwards to run off left tackle for 6 yards before he was stopped by safety Terrell Edmunds and Heyward. On second down, Edwards gained just one yard up the middle before Heyward and nose tackle Montravius Adams.
The clincher became Edwards running for six yards off right tackle on third-and-3, allowing the Ravens to take a knee three-straight plays to run out the clock.
"And that's the head scratcher. Everything's downhill," Heyward said. "You should know where it's going at that point. To not get off the field and give our offense, that stings the most."
Football players can deal with a lot of things. Losing games comes with the profession. But losing because the other team is more physical, that's tough to swallow.
"It was devastating. It was heartbreaking," Jack said. "All we're on the field to do is give the ball back to our offense and give them another shot. The game was in reach, and they got the first down when they needed. We didn't get the stop. It definitely sucks for sure."
And it wasn't just that series. The Ravens ran the ball 12 times for 57 yards in the fourth quarter. They ran themselves down the field after Calais Campbell blocked a field goal attempt that would have cut their lead to 13-10. And the Steelers couldn't stop it.
"They just ran it, and we weren't able to stop it," said linebacker Alex Highsmith. "We didn't play physical enough. It's frustrating, because we knew what they were going to do."
• Give the Ravens credit. But the Steelers also blew a lot of opportunities on offense.
Three interceptions inside the Baltimore 20 along with a blocked field goal left a lot of points on the field.
And in a game like this when these two teams are involved, the team that makes those critical mistakes typically loses.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 14 game against the Baltimore Ravens at Acrisure Stadium
"I think it came down to key moments in the game. We were in the red zone four times and we didn't capitalize," said running back Najee Harris. "We lost by two points. A field goal was blocked, we could have won. We don't have interceptions in the red zone. We have to at least walk away with three points."
Mitch Trubisky hadn't played since Oct. 16 against Tampa Bay. You can forgive perhaps one interception to rust. But this wasn't that. Trubisky was threading the needle on a lot of passes.
These mistakes could be chalked up to being too aggressive.
"There's definitely a happy medium you need to find," said Trubisky. "I think when you have a great kicker like (Chris Boswell) and it's a low-scoring game, you've just got to be smarter with the football, and then a field goal keeps us in the game or helps us win it."
• The Steelers are now 5-0 this season when they score the game's first points. They're 0-8 when they do not.
That might be coincidental, but considering how deep we are into this season, it suggests that it is not.
• The Steelers weren't running the ball great in the first half of this game, but they were running it, gaining 52 yards on 14 carries.
Then, down just 13-7, they only ran the ball eight times for 13 yards in the second half. And Harris got just two carries.
Certainly Kenny Pickett was part of the rushing attack in the first half. He had two rushes for 16 yards before being placed in concussion protocol in the first quarter.
But getting Harris just three touches in the second half of a one-score game doesn't seem like enough.
"I don't think it really comes down to how many times I carried the ball," Harris said. "It comes down to making plays and capitalizing on our possessions in the red zone."
Certainly. But using your 240-pound running back does lend itself to adding some physicality to a game.
The running game had been a focal point for the Steelers since the bye week. It wasn't in this game.
• Special teams matter, especially in a game such as this.
A blocked field goal. A 17-yard punt.
Those things are killers.
Many will point to punter Pressley Harvin for being at fault on the punt. And certainly he deserves a large part of that.
But the snap wasn't great on that punt – which came deep in his own end – forcing him to take a step to his right to field it.
That's not an excuse. The punt by a professional kicker has to be better than that – though it actually went about 25 yards before bounding backward. But it also wasn't solely on Harvin. The snap has to be better, as well, especially when you're backed up. In that situation, Harvin has to assume the Ravens might have a punt block on and get rid of the ball as quickly as possible.
• Tyler Huntley and Brown combined to throw for 104 yards and the Ravens had 94 total passing yards once sack adjustments are made.
The Ravens converted just 4 of 13 third-down attempts. They averaged 5.1 yards per play.
The Steelers were 4 of 8 on third downs and averaged 6.2 yards per play.
The one thing Huntley and Brown didn't do was make the big mistake. They didn't turn the ball over. And they won.
• You know your run defense was shoddy when your two leading tacklers in a game were both your safeties.
That was the case in this game for the Steelers, as Minkah Fitzpatrick had 11 tackles and Edmunds had nine.
You show me a game in which a team's two starting safeties combined to make 20 tackles, and I'll show you a team that probably lost.
• So, where do the Steelers go from here?
The modest two-game winning streak they were on might seem all for naught to some, but this is still a team that has won 3 of its past 5 games.
Finishing this season on a winning note would be good.
Hopefully, Pickett is OK. Getting him back and continuing his progression in this rookie season is a big part of this stretch run.
Getting a concussion in the first quarter on a sack by linebacker Roquan Smith was not the introduction to the Steelers-Ravens rivalry Pickett needed.
But if any of the team's other young players had any questions about how physical these games are, they were answered Sunday.
And there are things beyond just Pickett learning that happen in games like these. This isn't the first time this season the defense has failed to close a game out with the opportunity to do so.
"We've got to make those key plays in key moments. That's something we've got to keep working on," Edmunds said. "We have to stay together. It's tough having a losing record right now. We're going to keep on working and come back even harder."
• Rookie George Pickens was targeted with four passes in this game. He had three receptions for 78 yards and drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone on the fourth.
Diontae Johnson was effective in this game, as well, catching six passes for 82 yards.
Steven Sims also had four targets in this game, catching all four for 30 yards. No disrespect to Sims, but Pickens shouldn't be getting the same number of passes thrown his way as Sims.
"I was looking for George," Trubisky said. "(There were) certain things they were doing. I was just playing within each concept that was called, trying to find completions, trying to move the ball down the field. I thought we did a good job moving it. I've got to take care of the football. I'd love to continue to get George involved.
"He's a great talent. We've just got to continue to work on the details and see which ways we can get him the football for sure."
• Heyward was pretty ticked after this game – at himself.
On a 44-yard run by Dobbins – easily the biggest play of the game for the Ravens – Heyward was at nose tackle.
And instead of holding the point, he spun and tried to get into a gap, creating another gap, instead.
"We were expecting something and I did something uncharacteristic," Heyward said. "I just went to the gap instead of getting my hands to him, and it created a seam."
That's typically what happens when the Steelers run defense gets gashed in a game. Players try to do too much or don't get into their gap.
"It's not about how ticked I am. That's not going to solve the problem," Heyward said. "It comes down to what are we going to do to right it. I'm just ticked off at how I played, especially on that long run. It was all my fault."
That might not be entirely true, but point taken. If Heyward can't get mad at himself when he makes a mistake, he also can't get mad at anyone else when they do so.
"I screwed up on numerous plays trying to do too much," Hayward said. "That's what we all did. As a leader, I have to hold myself accountable."
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