Week 12 Recap: Heartbreaker

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers play professional football. So while their 20-17 loss in overtime to the hated Baltimore Ravens may have been closer than many of us had hoped, it still doesn’t matter. If, as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, a win is a win then losing is losing. And a loss in this game at this point in the year has put the Steelers entire season in critical condition.

Dennis Dixon, making his first career start, went three and out in his first series.  The Ratbirds took the ball and proceeded to drive 73 yards down the field for a TD.  In the Broken Record Department, they repeatedly picked on Will.i.am Gay, who was beaten for 15, 20, and 12 yard passes on three consecutive plays.  I don’t know what more to say about Gay.  He’ll make some good plays on occasion (he partially caused a fumble later in the game) but as a coverage guy, he’s terrible.

Which isn’t to excuse the rest of our secondary.  Without Troy Polamalu, they had another atrocious game.  The only way the Steelers were able to stop the Ravens passing game was to put heat on Joe Flacco.  Luckily, they were able to do that very effectively, sacking him 5 times.   Mister Woodley and Lawrence Timmons both had monster games in terms of pressuring the quarterback.  But when Flacco had time to throw, it was a horror show in terms of poor coverage and missed tackles.

The Ravens scored a second TD in the first half because of these breakdowns in the secondary.  First, Gay and Ryan Clark (who also played terrible) got their signals mixed up, which allowed WR Mark Clayton to get open for a 54 yard bomb.  A few plays later, the normally solid Ike Taylor was way out of position on a jump ball in the end zone which went for a touchdown.

The Steelers managed to sandwich a TD of their own in between those two Baltimore scores.  As painful as this is to admit, Bruce Arians came in with a great game plan.  Well, for the first half.  They went back to classic Stiller Football, running Rashard Mendenhall (24 carries 95 yards) and Willie Parker time and time again.  They also sprinkled in some short dumpoff passes to get Dixon comfortable.  Once the running game and screen passes sucked the Ravens in, they turned Dixon loose on some longer throws.  He dropped a beautiful 19 yard pass in to Hines Ward and then threw a laser over the middle to Santonio Holmes for the TD.

Then came the second half.  For some reason I am totally unable to grasp, Arians started dialing up long bombs deep down the field.  Dixon clearly has a strong arm but that’s not what you want to be doing with a first time starter.  Although by no means was the playcalling the main problem.  Dix was missing wide open receivers left and right and showed no ability to check down to second or third options if his primary target was covered.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to bash Dixon.  He’s a second year pro making his first start who practiced all of ONE DAY with the first team.  He was put in a terrible position and played as well as you could realistically hope.  In the end, Dix showed a full range of Kordellian tendencies, both good and bad.  He truly is Slash 2.0 in you saw the same groan-worthy throws that hit receivers in the ankles but also saw his exciting playmaking speed, such as on the 24 yard end around where he scored a TD to put the Steelers up 17-14.

Yes, playing with a third string QB and a badly depleted defense, the Steelers managed to pull ahead 17-14 early in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, once again the Origami Curtain folded at crunch time.   With a little over two minutes left in regulation, the Ravens faced a 3rd and 22 from deep in their own territory.  Flacco completed a 17 yarder to set up a 4th and 5 for the game.  The Steelers responded with a comedy of errors where Flacco completed a short 6-7 yard slant to Ray Rice and then half the defense missed tackles before bringing him down 44 yards later.

Read that again.  On 4th and 5, the Steelers gave up a FORTY-FOUR YARD PASS PLAY.

They did manage to hold the Ravens to a FG which sent it to overtime.  Although OT almost didn’t come because after a three and out by the Steelers, the Ravens returned the ensuing punt 43 yards back into FG range.  Luckily, that return was called back on an illegal block but it illustrates a point.  Which is, our kick coverage was abysmal as usual.  No, we didn’t give up any TDs this week.  But every kickoff was an adventure with huge gaping holes and guys way out of position.  It’s so pitiful that James Harrison, the freaking Defensive Player of the Year, is now on the kick coverage unit.

Anyway, the Steelers won the coin toss and actually moved the ball decently on the ground until moron Arians decided to dial up more deep bombs.  An exchange of punts gave the Steelers awesome field position starting their second OT drive at the 45 yard line.  Sadly, on the third play of that drive, Dix would make his one only truly boneheaded play of the game when he threw late over the middle into a crowd of purple jerseys for an INT.  The Ravens were in FG range following the return but they ran a couple plays against a clearly disheartened Steeler D before kicking it through for the victory.

I call this game a heartbreaker because I don’t think anybody could rationally argue the Ravens outplayed us.  As badly depleted as we were, we still managed to battle them to a virtual standstill.  And it’s not really like you can lay blame for the loss on one single thing.   Maybe our secondary, which definitely blows without Troy.

Besides that, Dixon made mistakes but he also accounted for two TDs and got us the lead with 6 minutes left in the game.  What else can you expect from a third string QB making his first career start?  The defense couldn’t hold the lead although they also had 5 sacks, forced three fumbles, and basically held the Ravens to 17 points.  I’d like them to be as clutch as they were last year but they’re only giving up one or two TDs per game which should be good enough to win.  This was definitely a game we could have easily pulled out when we really had no right even being in it.

Unfortunately for the Steelers it was not to be.  They caught a bit of a break this week in that almost all of the teams in the Wild Card race also lost.  Still, they now find themselves in a threesome with the Jacksonville Jaguars (Wha?!?)  and the Ravens for the final WC spot.  One game behind them are four other teams, including the Titans (who the Steelers beat head-to-head) and the Dolphins (who the Steelers play in a couple weeks).  The problem is when more than two teams are tied, head-to-head is thrown out and they go to AFC record, where the Steelers are very poor.  Since four of their final five games are against AFC teams, I’d say the Steelers must win out to have any hope of making the playoffs.  The margin for error is officially zero.

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  • JLAW

    I agree. Dix played well in the first half but the play calling and his accuracy went out the window in the second half. That goofy looking bootleg play that he scored on was great. He has some wheels that’s for sure. I’d give his overall performance a B.
    The D played well but again you said it they are not clutch like last year. Ike was good but he got away with a few, especially that one in the endzone. Not sure what’s going on back there, grant it Troy is a stud but he is only one of 4-6 guys back there. Perhaps they are playing with more caution since they know he’s not around to save them if they make a mistake.
    It was a great game with a crappy ending.

  • JD

    Just saw Tomlin’s conference on ESPN after the game…”Unleash hell in December…because that’s what we have to do”… Wish they weren’t in this position.

    Sucks that the Steelers have lost 4 of 5 game on the last play of the game? Need to finish!

    On another note. Wondering if secondary shouldn’t sign over half of their paychecks to Polamalu if he makes that much of a difference? Secondary was weak last night.

  • “O”

    I put zero of this on Dixon. We had the ball three times were a sestained drive wins the game. Mendenhall owned the Ravens last night. But true to Bruce why stick with what is working. Lets air it out! 3rd and 6 The play i would have called, naked bootleg to the right. There is no way Dixon does not get that six. But no lets put our third stringer whom has never played a NFL game in a position to fail. Troy gone does hurt, but that is when the offence has to step up and control the clock. Bruce needs to go and today would not be soon enough for me. We had that game in the bag if we kept running, but you can’t tell that to the ring leader of the flying circus. Bruce must go!!!!!!!

  • http://nicepickcowher.com chris

    Jlaw and JD, I share both of your sentiments about our secondary. I knew Troy was an amazing, once-in-a-decade player but I never thought he was THAT much of a difference maker. Clearly, he covers for all the mistakes they make a lot more than we realized.

    Law, I don’t think we play more conservatively without him. I think other teams just play more aggressive because they have no fear of the other guys.

    JD, the crazy thing about losing 4 of 5 late is that Troy was on the field for NONE of those collapses. I can’t believe they’re so helpless without him.

  • http://nicepickcowher.com chris

    O, I’m by no means an Arians fan and I’d be the first to celebrate if he was canned but I really don’t think you can lay this one all on him. Mendenhall had 24 rushes and Dixon threw 26 passes. That’s about as balanced as you can get. And, yes, Rashard was running well but I don’t think he “owned” them or you could say he was running right through them.

    I have no problem with Arians mixing in a pass play or two. My issue was with the plays he picked. Dix’s best pass was the rollout where the Ravens thought he was going to run so they froze which left Holmes wide open for the TD. They never called that again! And Dixon did okay with dumpoffs and screens. Why were they dialing up 40 yard bombs to Wallace? Especially in OT!!

    I do agree with you about the offense controlling clock and taking pressure off our D but that applies when Ben is in there, too. Too bad BA doesn’t seem to get that idea.

  • JLAW

    Chris I think you’re correct about the aggressive play calling against the secondary and lack of clock control late in the game with a lead. Watching Sportscenter while the boy naps. They are talking about Ben’s concussion. It’s an argument I can see both sides. I miss a lot of press conferences and news updates because of my job. So Im sure it’s old news to ya but they did say Hines and Ben have made ammends over the comments made. So hopefully everyone clears Ben and he hits Hines for about 300 yards over the next two games to prove it is officially behind them.

  • “O”

    Probably more mad than anything else. To be that close to winning without Troy and Ben. You are right it was balanced but the play calls were less than creative. I also would have liked to see him move the pocket or even more of the option. Dixon is at home using the option. But we can say this, Baltimore had a hard time hanging with us without Troy or Ben. We still have a shot at a wild card. Who knows we still could win it all.

  • andrew

    Good game, shame we screwed the pooch…

    Clearly without Troy Polamalu this team cannot win. That is, essentially, the only difference between this year and last.

    Arians butchered this gameplan like he always does. Only one designed rollout, and it got a TD. Only one QB run, and it got a TD. Yet despite those two big plays, not a single one of Dixon’s best skills were put to use.

    Not a single shenanigan in sight aside from Dixon’s run. No Mike Wallace run, no reverses, no nothing.

    Lot of people get the blame, but to me Arians has to go after this year.

  • http://nicepickcowher.com chris

    Andrew, with all due respect, I think there are more differences on our defense than just Troy being injured. Last year we had McFadden, who is a good solid corner. This year we have Gay, who completely sucks. Last year we had Aaron Smith, this year we don’t. Last year Deshea Townshend and James Farrior were one year younger. This year, they both look like they’ve lost a step or two(Deshea has totally deteriorated)

    Add it up and you have a defense that had an all-time great season last year falling to good to pretty good this year.

    With the defense down a notch or two, you need the offense to step it up. Instead, they’re as bad as (or worse) than they were last year. And you’re absolutely right, it’s all on Arians.

    His stupidity was tolerable last year because the D covered for him. Now it’s not. Dialing up 40 yard bombs to Wallace in OT or having only one designed QB run play for Slash 2.0 is totally INEXCUSABLE.

    I’d love to see him go but I have a bad feeling we’ll need to waste another year before the Steelers realize what we all can plainly see.