In week 14 the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Baltimore Ravens in a game that had major playoff implications for both teams. The Steelers won 39-38 and stretched their winning streak to eight games. This was the fourth game out of the Steelers last five that was decided by a Chris Boswell field goal with under two minutes left. Oh, and did I mention, the Steelers became the first team in the AFC to clinch their division. They successfully defended the AFC North division title. Even when the Steelers aren’t playing their best football they find ways to win. Here are my gut reactions.
Pittsburgh Steelers Week 14 Gut Reactions
The Ravens are rivals because they are always competitive when they play the Steelers. By the end of the third quarter the Ravens had opened up a 31-20 lead against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Keep in mind, the Ravens had the 30th ranked offense coming into the game. Yet, they were able to score with ease against a Steelers defense that was playing their first game of the year without star linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Shazier sustained a potentially career threatening injury in week 13 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and while he was missed, there were glaring problems with the defensive unit that was on the field against the Ravens. The tackling fell apart completely, allowing Ravens running back, Alex Collins to rack up 120 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 carries as well as 46 yards receiving on two receptions. Also evident throughout the game was Sean Spence not being the answer to replacing Shazier. He played 34 snaps against the Ravens and finished with one tackle.
Backing up Backers
To make matters worse, the Steelers defense was unable to keep their gap integrity. There are a few culprits that have suffered at this all year, but even some of the Steelers most reliable players fell victim to this poor play. Bud Dupree rushes up field on every play like he’s pass rushing, making his run defense responsibility essentially an afterthought. It got so bad that when James Harrison made an appearance he wasn’t manning his normal right outside linebacker position, rather he was playing left outside linebacker in replacement of Dupree.
The Other Corner
Joe Haden’s time frame to return is unknown. But he’s sorely missed. Right now, the Steelers are using a combination of Coty Sensabaugh and rookie Cameron Sutton as Haden’s replacement. So far, the combination hasn’t been very effective. After Sensabaugh was beaten by the Raven’s Chris Moore for a 30-yard touchdown reception his play became much more conservative. He began giving some cushion in man coverage so he wouldn’t get beat deep and making sure he tackled his man rather than make a play on the ball.
Sutton, a rookie who has only played 53 snaps due to injury, had a more aggressive, ball-hawking style of play, but struggled making tackles in the open field. It looked like he was still adjusting to the speed and strength of NFL football. The defense has a week to figure out how it’s going to play the other elite AFC team, the New England Patriots, in what most likely amounts to a playoff game for the number one seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Killer B’s
While the defense suffered until late in the game, the killer b’s put up absurd numbers against an elite Ravens defense. Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in NFL history to record three games of 500 plus passing yards. He finished with 506 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. Le’Veon Bell only had 13 carries for 48 yards but managed two rushing touchdowns. He added another nine receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in the passing game.
Then there was Antonio Brown. He was targeted 18 times, had 11 receptions for 213 yards and while he didn’t score a touchdown, he had the reception that put Boswell in range for his fourth, game-winning field goal. The trio led the Steelers to 545 yards of offense. Even more promising was that the offense was 12 for 18 on third down conversions and three for four in the red zone. They were extremely proficient against a playoff level defense.
While the defense has won a bunch of games while the Steelers offense was underachieving, week 14 was the opposite scenario. The offense had to mount a come from behind rally to bail out the defense’s abysmal play. In a weird way, this could be what the offense needed. With the defense sputtering the offense FINALLY kicked into high gear.
There was a lot to like about the Steelers scheme. While Eli Rogers didn’t exactly impress in Juju Smith-Schuster’s absence, the offense hit its stride in the fourth quarter. Martavis Bryant receiving ten targets was a great sign, with an emphasis on three in the end zone. If the Steelers offense is going to lead the team to the Super Bowl Bryant’s play-making ability will be necessary.
Also, even though he can’t seem to break a tackle, tight end Jesse James played well. He had 10 receptions for 97 yards on 12 targets. The Steelers other tight end, Vance McDonald also played well but re-injured his shoulder against the Ravens. He’s the more athletic of the two tight ends and an asset as a run blocker. Two versatile, healthy tight ends have given more talented Bill Belichick defenses trouble before. Hopefully McDonald can suite up against New England.