BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: Head coaches John Harbaugh (R) of the Baltimore Ravens talks with Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers (R) following the Ravens 35-7 win during the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
There wasn't much to like from Pittsburgh's blowout loss to the Ravens, but there was plenty to be concerned about.
Sometimes your favorite team loses, but you still have a few nice individual performances to hang your hat on. Even when a team plays about as poorly as they're capable of, they'll show flashes of what they might be on a better day. At the very least, you might be able to delude yourself into blaming the loss on a questionable call by the officials or a dubious draw call on 3rd down & 7. Maybe you can imagine some scenario where the game's outcome shifts in your team's favor.
Sunday was not one of those kind of losses for the Pittsburgh Steelers. There was no silver lining in the 35-7 spanking they received courtesy of the division rival Baltimore Ravens. And I don't think it's a sign of pessimism on my part that I can't find a single good thing to say about Pittsburgh's performance. Let's take a look at where things went wrong.
Where's the pass rush?
I was concerned going into the game about the health of outside linebacker James Harrison, who is still recovering from offseason back surgery and looked sluggish in exhibition play. On Sunday, he lined up against newly acquired Bryant McKinnie, the offensive tackle cut by the Minnesota Vikings for showing up at almost 400 lbs after the NFL lockout. Frankly, McKinnie owned Harrison most of the day, as the former Defensive Player of the Year and the rest of the Steelers pass rush was barely a rumor. Pittsburgh had one meaningless sack on the day, and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco consistently enjoyed crisp pockets from which to assess the field and maintain sound footwork through his throws.
Joe Flacco outplayed Ben Roethlisberger.
At the time, I didn't understand all the offseason criticism aimed at the Ravens' fourth-year signal caller by media types and a few select Steelers players. While other Flacco apologists pointed to his playoff victories, I was far more interested in the fact that over the first three years of his career, he consistently improved his yards per attempt (YPA) statistic and quarterback rating. He also completed approximately 63 percent of his passes and posted a 2.5:1 touchdown to interception ratio in 2010. What was not to like? He was a young quarterback whose stock was rising. While Flacco has hardly performed well against the Steelers in the past, his solid performance on Sunday (7.7 YPA, no turnovers) shouldn't come as a total shocker given the above trends.
What might surprise you, however, is just how terrible Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played. He threw three interceptions—and nearly threw a fourth—lost two fumbles, and was sacked four times. What's worse, when Roethlisberger wasn't gift-wrapping fly balls across his body to free safety Ed Reed, he was misfiring on his passes, completing just 53.7 percent of his attempts. When the smoke had cleared, Roethlisberger's poor decision-making was an enormous contributing factor to the unfortunate fact that Pittsburgh had as many turnovers (seven) as they did points.
I actually expected Roethlisberger to have a very good game against Baltimore. The Ravens were lining up three new starters in their secondary, and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith was helped off the field early in the contest. I thought that with their tremendous depth at wideout, the Steelers would utilize numerous four- and five-receiver sets and throw quick slants and outs all day. I thought Roethlisberger would top 250 yards en route to a convincing Steelers win ... but of course, that didn't happen.
Do defenders watch the play clock?
I'm honestly not sure. But I think that if I were an NFL pass rusher lining up against the Steelers I might. On a handful of obvious passing situations on Sunday, Roethlisberger let the play clock run down to the point where you have to think that if defenders are aware, they can get a ridiculous jump on the snap. During Terrell Suggs' strip-sack, Roethlisberger let the play clock run to just one second, at which point Baltimore executed a perfect stunt on the defensive line. In the second quarter, the Steelers were penalized for delay of game in the red zone, nearly costing them points.
The offensive line was overmatched.
This last point shouldn't surprise anyone, as the offensive line is widely regarded as the Steelers' weakest unit and had to line up against monsters like Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Nonetheless, it deserves to be mentioned. Roethlisberger was harassed all day, which was as much a product of his holding onto the ball too long as it was the performance of the big guys up front. However, the real indicator of failure up front was just how many balls Baltimore defenders batted down at the line. This typically can't happen unless defenders are owning their men at the point of attack and forcing them backwards. One tipped pass even landed right in the hands of Ray Lewis. A second turnover—a fumble that will show up on the box score as Rashard Mendenhall's—transpired because of miscommunications along the offensive front.
So if you're looking for some comfort after having to sit through the ugliness of Sunday's brutal loss, well, I don't know what to tell you. Just thank your lucky stars that the Steelers get to play the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 and hope that your team can pull it together.