It's impossible to talk about the PIttsburgh Steelers' heartbreaking 23-20 loss to their hated division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens without leading with rookie Torrey Smith's crazy, up-and-down evening. On the game's first play, the wideout negated a long touchdown run by Ray Rice with a holding call on the outside. Then he dropped two very catchable balls deep—one with 35 seconds remaining that could've been a game-winner—before inevitably coming out a hero. Smith made the third time he beat Pittsburgh's coverage count, finally hauling in a 26-yard score with just a few ticks left. (He probably got away with offensive pass interference on the play, but what are you gonna do?) If the youngster can establish some consistency and some confidence in his hands, he and quarterback Joe Flacco, who has a cannon for an arm, could be a truly pesky combination for the Steelers for many years to come.
The Steelers' last-second loss to Smith and the Ravens puts them in a tricky spot. The AFC North is Baltimore's division to lose now, and looming matchups against the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers, which once looked like easy wins, are no far from it. Still, if the Steelers can take care of business against the Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Rams, and emerge victorious twice against the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh will be in good shape to contend for a wildcard spot.
Let's take a look at some game notes from tonight's loss:
- I was surprised how much Pittsburgh blitzed on the game's final, 92-yard drive. The Steelers brought rushers, and Flacco kept finding the open man. Similarly, Baltimore was brilliant on third down all evening; the Steelers kept forcing them into difficult situations in the early downs, but the Ravens managed to convert 14 of their 21 third downs, which is just absurd.
- Still, Pittsburgh truly did dominate the early downs, for what it's worth. Safety Troy Polamalu played one of his best games of the year. Dick LeBeau had him lined up all over the field—in two-deep coverage, down in the box in run support, in tight man coverage against Baltimore's tight ends. Along with Polamalu, nose tackle Casey Hampton, who consistently blew up plays at the line of scrimmage, and inside linebacker Larry Foote, who led the team with six tackles, were instrumental in holding Ray Rice to 43 yards (2.4 ypc) after he lit them up in Week 1.
- You have to be encouraged by linebacker James Harrison's performance. Simply put, Harrison was an unstoppable monster. On his late-game strip-sack of Flacco, you could hear Baltimore right tackle Michael Oher call out his assignment in pass protection: "I got 92!" No, young man, you do not. No one has got 92. Harrison proceeded to power through Oher immediately off the snap and make the game-changing play. On another play, Harrison nearly hurdled Rice in pass protection (granted, a corgi could probably jump over Rice), nearly bringing Flacco down again. Harrison recorded three sacks on the evening, which is some consolation going forward after a bitter loss.
- Wide receiver Antonio Brown continued his breakout season, grabbing five balls for 109 yards. He's got great speed, hands, and moves in the open field—he's the total package. Funny to think that 32 teams passed on him four times in the draft before Pittsburgh made him a fifth-round selection. It's tough to imagine Brown not cracking the starting lineup next year, although Pittsburgh will likely make three-wide their base offense in the near future; it won't really matter who emerges on the depth chart between Brown and fellow second-year man Emmanuel Sanders. Jerricho Cotchery was also impressive in the game. Two of his receptions came off of deflections, which requires a lot of awareness. His third catch took place on a 3rd and 4 with about three minutes remaining, while his team tried to protect their four-point lead. It's a luxury, especially with no Emmanuel Sanders and no Hines Ward (injury), to have a player of Cotchery's caliber as Pittsburgh's fifth receiver. The same goes for having a tight end like Heath Miller, who had five catches for 73 yards, plenty of which came after the catch, as he dragged defenders for extra yardage.
- While Terrell Suggs was quiet in the pass-rushing department—hat tip to left tackle Max Starks, who played an unbelievable game—his interception proved to be a deadly play, as it lead to a four-yard Rice touchdown plunge. You have to give Suggs credit for this effort. In addition to being an athletic play for a defensive end, it was obviously the product of quality film study; Suggs knew that Pittsburgh likes to run the quick screen and anticipated the call, jumping the route before the ball was even out of Ben Roethlisberger's hands.
- Safety Ryan Clark nearly had an interception on Baltimore's first drive that would've kept the Ravens off the scoreboard. Clark was in coverage after a play fake, and I think he was too surprised at how poorly the ball was thrown to make the play; Flacco put it way behind his target, and Clark had to dive to knock it away. Still, would've been nice to take that field goal off the board.
- Steelers fans often gripe about their team's ineptitude in short-yardage situations, but Rashard Mendenhall's touchdown run was a thing of beauty. Pittsburgh lined offensive lineman Trai Essex up at tight end, then split Heath Miller out as a wide receiver. Tight end David Johnson sealed the edge, and Mendenhall went in the endzone standing up. Exquisitely executed.
There's no time to lick your wounds if you're the Pittsburgh Steelers. You've got a short week and a trip to Cincinnati, to square off against the very legit Bengals. Gotta keep trying to win, and hope the Ravens screw up.