Monday, November 7, 2011

Week 9: Ravens 23, Steelers 20

Substandard defense

I know Pittsburgh poet laureate Mike Tomlin says "The standard is the standard." 

But I'm a little worried that LaMarr Woodley might be the new "Steelers defense isn't the same without him" guy, inheriting that honor from Troy Polamalu.

Joe Flacco's 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left gave the Ravens a 23-20 win over the Steelers Sunday night. The pass completed a 92-yard drive that began with 2:24 left in the game.

The failure of the Steelers' defense was not limited to the last two minutes. All night, the unit was more accommodating than the staff at the Omni William Penn, particularly on third down, where the Steelers allowed the Ravens to keep drives alive 14 of 21 times.

Woodley's absence didn't help. He's out with a hamstring injury. Who knows when he'll be back? Those hamstrings can be tricky.

But, the standard is the standard, right?

Well, not really.

The Steelers showed that Tomlin's mantra is nothing more than hot air when they collapsed in 2009 when Polamalu went down.

Polamalu patrolled the gridiron Sunday night, but the hair didn't scare the Ravens. On their winning drive, an incompletion bounced off Ray Rice's hands, and Polamalu was so tantalizingly close to an interception, but just not where he needed to be. We seem to be seeing that a lot lately, going back to Super Bowl XLV. Could it be that at 30 Polamalu's no longer fast enough to get to a ball hanging in the air?

During the Steelers' four-game winning streak that was snapped Sunday night, Woodley was the transcendent player that Polamalu used to be. Of his nine sacks this year, seven-and-a-half came during that quarter-season stretch.

Sure, James Harrison came back with a vengeance, sacking Joe Flacco three times and forcing a fumble that William Gay recovered. But he couldn't do it by himself. No one else sacked Flacco, and that one turnover wasn't enough, especially when the Steelers committed two (technically, the second one came on a fumble by Mike Wallace on the final play of the game).

Woodley didn't get his ass in gear this season until after Harrison hurt his eye in Week 4 at Houston. So the outside linebacker tandem of Harrison and Woodley has yet to be on the field together at peak level this season.

Perhaps that's the reason the Steelers have forced just four turnovers in nine games. This year's Dolphins, who just got their first win Sunday, are the only other team in the history of the NFL with four takeaways through nine games.

We're past the point of this turnover drought being some statistical quirk. We're past the "Oh, the turnovers will come" stage. Something is missing from this Steelers defense.

Too good to be true

It's too bad Steelers defenders not named James Harrison let the team down, because Sunday night was the finest hour for some Steelers, and it was all in vain.

Jerricho Cotchery had his best game as a Steeler, catching three passes for 44 yards, including a third-down conversion with less than four minutes left when the Steelers were trying to protect a 20-16 lead.

Cotchery and his Jets teammates came damn close to dancing on the Heinz Field turf last January. The way he played Sunday, it sure was nice to see him wearing the mustard yellow of the Steelers retro uniforms and not green and white.

For that matter, the Ravens could have had him, too. Imagine how bad the Steelers' defense would have looked Sunday if Flacco had Cotchery as an option?

The Steelers were thin at receiver with Emmanuel Sanders out and Hines Ward hurt early in the game. The Steelers needed Cotchery to finally be a factor, and he answered the call.

Also rising to the occasion, and then some, of this crucial AFC North showdown was the Steelers' offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just once. He didn't even have to live up to his nickname, The Grimace, because he wasn't touched enough to show any pain on his face. When will we ever see that again?

Even Rashard Mendenhall averaged four yards a carry, rushing 13 times for 52 yards. He hasn't been used all that much over the past two weeks, but when called upon he's averaged 4.3 yards per carry.

No, Mendenhall wasn't the running back who made us reach for the Tums this week. Unfortunately, it was Mewelde Moore.

You always can count on Moore to come off the bench and make a big catch when the Steelers are trying to run out the clock with a lead.

Until Sunday.

On third-and-5 from the Ravens' 29, Moore didn't turn around in time to catch a pass from Roethlisberger. Had he caught the ball, the Steelers would have had a first down with 2:37 left. Instead, Shaun Suisham lined up for a 46-yard field goal attempt.

Does anyone really trust Suisham from 46 yards?

Well, apparently the Steelers don't either, because a delay of game penalty forced the Steelers to punt. I can't help but wonder if that penalty was on purpose. Perhaps they figured Suisham would miss, giving the Ravens the ball at about the 36-yard line. Better to give Jeremy Kapinos more room to punt and try to pin the Ravens deep.

Well, the Ravens had to start at their own 8 needing a touchdown. A championship-level defense doesn't allow a touchdown in that situation.

In fairness, the Steelers forced the Ravens' second three-and-out of the game on their previous possession, with less than five minutes left. They shouldn't have had to take the field again.

But like the honor society student who comes home with a big, red "F" on his paper, Moore disappointed us.

Let's complete the confluence of blame by giving Roethlisberger his share. What did he do to thank his offensive line for keeping him clean and pretty much taming Terrell Suggs? He threw a lollipop that Suggs picked off on the Steelers' first possession of the second half.

Trailing 9-6, the Steelers drove to the Ravens' 14 when Roethlisberger tried to find Wallace in the flat. The ball floated like a balloon and Suggs intercepted it, sparking a Ravens' touchdown drive and a 16-6 deficit the Steelers had to overcome.

Before the interception, neither team had scored a touchdown, which made that drive seem too good to be true.

You know what they say when something seems too good to be true.

Damage control

I'm wondering why the Ravens weren't sporting AFC North Champions caps with the tags still on them after the game. After all, Sunday's game was touted as the game that would decide the AFC North, right?

OK, it's not bloody likely the Steelers will win the division. That first-round bye the Steelers have had on their way to their last two Super Bowls? We probably can kiss that goodbye.

All that said, divisions aren't won in early November. Yes, the Ravens (6-2) own the tiebreaker over the Steelers (6-3). But it's not impossible for the Steelers to finish with a better record than the Ravens.

None of the Steelers' three losses this season have been what you would call "What the Fuck?" losses. They've lost to the Ravens and Texans, both teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

The Ravens, on the other hand, have lost to the Titans (4-4) and Jaguars (2-6), the latter being a true "WTF?" loss. The Steelers haven't lost to bad teams this year. Not yet, anyway. The Ravens have.

That loss at Tennessee came the week after the Ravens trampled the Steelers in the opener. They had that opener circled on their calender since the NFL Network's schedule show in April. That loss in Tennessee had letdown written all over it.

The Ravens are at Seattle Sunday. Do the Seahawks suck? Yes. But Seattle is a tough place to play, and the Ravens have proven this season to be more prone to upsets than the Steelers.

After that, the only really easy games left on the Ravens' schedule are at Indianapolis and home to Cleveland. They still have to play the Bengals (6-2) twice. They have to go to San Diego. And coach John Harbaugh's little brother Jim will bring his 49ers (6-1) to Baltimore.

Not that the Steelers have an easy schedule. They, too, have two games against the Bengals, who also might have something to say about who wins the AFC North. The Steelers have to go to Kansas City (not as scary considering the Dolphins won there Sunday) and San Francisco, where they will try to prevent the Harbaugh Hat Trick.

No matter what happens, though, the Steelers will need to do some scoreboard watching. Now, even if they win the rest of their games, it might not be enough to win the division. Imagine being 13-3 and having to go on the road for a wild card game?

This is the fourth straight season the Steelers have dropped to 6-3 after going 6-2 at the halfway point. They dusted themselves off and got to the Super Bowl in 2008 and 2010. But in 2009, it was the beginning of the end.

So now it's all about damage control. That starts Sunday in Cincinnati. If the Steelers lose there, mediocrity beckons.

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