Friday, September 12, 2014

Mistake City

Justin Brown's early fumble set the tone.
Three turnovers and nine penalties are no way to win a game.

Neither will scoring just two field goals. And neither will allowing 157 yards rushing, or allowing the other team a glaring time-of-possession advantage (35:08 to 24:52), which may explain in part why running back Le'Veon Bell got only 11 carries.

For the night, the Steelers tried just 18 runs vs. 36 by the Ravens. Guess who won? Ravens, 26-6.

A Costly Early Fumble
The first of the three turnovers, Justin Brown's early fumble at the Baltimore 15-yard line, killed any fledgling momentum the Steelers had on their opening possession and let the Ravens off the hook. Brown's fumble quashed a 14-play drive that felt a little off-kilter the whole way and was actually kept alive by a ticky-tacky roughing the passer call on the third play of the game, way back at the Steelers' 11.  David Decastro's subsequent penalty for being too far downfield nullified a 19-yard pass play to Heath Miller. Antonio Brown got racked hard on a 23-yard catch but held onto the ball.

Two plays later, however, Justin Brown's fumble ended the drive and galvanized the home crowd. Justin Brown wasn't hit particularly hard -- he just had the ball poked out while getting tackled. Breathing new life, the Ravens marched right down the field to take an early 7-0 lead, assisted greatly by cornerback Cortez Allen's 38 penalty yards.

Down goes Roethlisberger.
Worrisome Trends
The Steelers' nine penalties for 75 yards on the night came on the heels of last week's 11 penalties against Cleveland, and that's not a good trend. "Obviously."

Oh, and the Steelers allowed the Ravens 157 yards on the ground after giving up 183 yards rushing to Cleveland. That's as alarming as anything we've seen so far in 2014. If Dick LeBeau's defense is going to keep allowing teams to run the ball, it's going to be a long, torturous season.

A Soft Middle
On defense, too, the Steelers should have foreseen Joe Flacco would be going to his tight ends over the middle of the field. The Ravens love to do that, if they can, and against a Steelers defense starting a rookie inside linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and a new safety (Mike Mitchell), the Steelers should have seen it coming. And the Ravens took what the Steelers gave them. All night long. It was reminiscent of the 2011 season opener in Baltimore, when Joe Flacco went to Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson all day during a 35-7 beatdown of the Steelers.

In Thursday night's 26-6 loss, it was Pitta and Owen Daniels doing the damage, with Daniels scoring two touchdowns. Daniels used to play for Gary Kubiak, Baltimore's new offensive coordinator, and the Steelers did not account for him. Inexcusable.

The middle of the field was there for the taking. It makes you wonder why the Steelers' offense didn't try the same strategy against a Ravens defense also starting a rookie inside linebacker (C.J. Moseley) and a pair of young safeties. Then again, the Ravens have two legitimate receiving tight ends in Pitta and Daniels. The Steelers have only Heath Miller, who is great, but they simply do not have two legitimate receiving tight ends.

Getting Pushed 
Around Up Front
Pittsburgh's defensive line and offensive line got pushed around too much. On defense, once again, Cam Thomas did next to nothing, and an aging Brett Keisel seems to have the youngest legs on the line.

The entire offensive line failed to get much of a push vs. the Ravens in the running game, and we're still trying to figure out why the Steelers gave  contract extensions this year to Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert. Neither did much to provide a surge in the running game, and Gilbert got tossed around in pass protection. Again.

Gilbert also committed a costly false start on 3rd-and-four at the Baltimore 36 in the second quarter. That hurt. It put Roethlisberger in 3rd-and-nine, and the Steelers couldn't convert. Brad Wing punted to the Baltimore 11 and, on the next play, Joe Flacco kneeled on the ball to end the half.

Gilbert allowed two sacks and it sure looked like he was responsible for no help at all on the hit to the sternum Roethlisberger took on the third play of the first series. That hit was penalized unjustly; otherwise, Gilbert might have been "credited" with allowing another sack.

Steve Smith, running free through the secondary.
Major Questions 
About the Secondary
Speaking of mystifying contract extensions, Cortez Allen certainly hasn't looked like a shutdown corner the first two games, or even a competent one. He didn't even look good in the pre-season games, yet the Steelers awarded him with the questionable contract extension on the eve of the season opener.

Allen struggled again vs. the Ravens, committing a 15-yard face mask penalty on the first play after Justin Brown's fumble, committing pass interference on a deep pass, and failing to corral an interception early in the fourth quarter. Two plays after the bungled interception, Justin Tucker kicked a field goal to make the score 23-6, effectively putting the game out of reach.

Allen wasn't the only one to commit a facemask penalty. Safety Mike Mitchell also committed one, and he added an unnecessary roughness penalty later for good measure. He hasn't done anything in the first two games to justify being signed to big money. Based on what we've seen so far, he stinks.

All in all, it was a disjointed, sloppy and ugly effort by the Steelers. And a well-deserved loss. They went into Baltimore with a chance to send the Ravens reeling, and they blew it.

Not that it helps, but Mike Tomlin summed up the entire night pretty well during his opening statement of the post-game news conference:
"Obviously a disappointment for us, a lot of self-inflicted wounds are going to prevent you from being in football games. We turned the ball over too often, we were highly penalized, particularly, on the drives that they were able to manufacture and produce points. We were highly penalized defensively. Those two things are a lethal combination. When you turn the ball over, and you’re highly penalized, and you’re extending drives, you’re going to lose football games like that, and we did tonight."
Next up: At Charlotte, N.C., vs. the Carolina Panthers, at 8:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 21. As of this writing, more than 4,000 tickets remain available, starting at $100 a ticket. It should be exciting.

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