Monday, December 31, 2007

Steelers @ Baltimore: The Good,
the Bad, & the Ugly

If you're a Pittsburgh Steelers player there isn't much to feel good about following the 27-21 loss to Baltimore. If you're a fan of the Steelers here's some information that will leave you shaking your head (at a minimum).

Over the last six seasons (i.e. 2002-2007, inclusive of their game this past Sunday) the Steelers and Ravens have met 12 times in the regular season. In those games:
  • Both teams have a 6-6 record
  • Both teams have averaged 20.08 points per game
  • In the six games played in Baltimore, the Steelers have a turnover differential of -7
  • In the six games played in Baltimore the Steelers have rushed for an average of 57.2 yards
With the tone properly set, here's a look at some of what went on this week.

The Good
Having warmed up for three quarters the Steelers came to life offensively, and were less putrid defensively, in the fourth quarter.

For example, in the first three quarters the Steelers' offense gained 104 net yards (47 yards of which was gained via a pass interference call against Corey Ivy). Conversely, in the fourth quarter alone the Steelers gained 197 net yards. Additionally, nearly half of all the Steelers' offensive plays for the game came in the frenetic fourth quarter (i.e. 21 of 50 -- 42%), and 25% of their non-penalty first downs (i.e. 3 of 12) occurred during that same fifteen minute period.

On the defensive side of the football, the Steelers "limited" Baltimore to 50 yards during the final quarter -- the lowest total of any of the quarters, and "only" three first downs -- also the lowest total of any quarter in the game. Finally, and most "impressive," is that the "vaunted" Steelers defense managed to keep the "explosive" Ravens offense off the scoreboard in the final period.

Also falling into the "Good" section is that nearly every single player active for the game, for the Steelers, played, indeed, the only player not to play was Brian St. Pierre. So when Mike Tomlin breaks out the "We win as a team, and lose as a team" you'll know he really means it this week.

Also, it's good that, once that Baltimore put their third-string players in the game, the Steelers kept working hard enough (with many of their starters still in the game) to put some points on the board.

No, I'm not really buying that either but it's something.

Finally, the one group amongst the Steelers that can stand proud is special teams. Ten days after the Steelers successfully executed a fake punt, they managed to pull-off a successful onside kick against the Ravens. It was, arguably, the best executed play by Pittsburgh all day long. And Daniel Sepulveda, after a very poor first effort (25 yards), delivered kicks of 48 (net of 51), 47 (net of 47), and 29 yards (net of 29, down at the Baltimore 13).

The Bad
When discussing football it is often said that the most popular person in any town is the backup quarterback; and amongst backups no one is more well-regarded than Charlie Batch. But when Mr. Batch stinks in his annual start he's got to take the criticism just like a starter.

In the first half Mr. Batch hard numbers that, quite honestly, most of us could have turned in: 5/11, 41 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a frightening 17.6 passer rating. That his numbers improved dramatically in the second half (and particularly in the fourth quarter, as previously discussed) was as more a function of Baltimore emptying their bench than it was a genuine improvement in the play of Mr. Batch.

Also disappointing was the performance of Willie Reid. The fumble at the beginning of the game, and the subsequent inability of the defense to stop Baltimore from getting into the end zone, ended up being the difference in the score (if not entirely the difference in the game). Then, to compound that error, he fumbled another return though, in fairness, the call was challenged and reversed. During his tenure with the Steelers Mr. Reid has been more potential than performance, and unless something positive happens during these playoffs he may be looking for a new NFL home.


The Ugly
The starting defensive front seven of the Steelers went against a youthful offensive line of the Baltimore Ravens (i.e. there are two rookies in that group) and head their figurative heads kicked in. As a result Musa Smith and Cory Ross -- who had exactly zero carries in his two year career prior to today -- looked like Pro Bowlers. Specifically, these two unknown and unheralded third stringers (in fact, Cory Ross isn't even listed on the Ravens' depth chart) combined for 155 yards on 34 carries (4.56 yards per carry), and two touchdowns.

Additionally, the defense failed to capitalize on opportunities that were all but handed to them: Ike Taylor dropped an interception; and though the Ravens fumbled the football four times, the Steelers could only come up with one of those. When an opponent wants to hand you a game you have to be ready to oblige them, and the Steelers were anything but.

And over on the other side of the football, the Steelers' offensive line turned in another horrific performance -- something that is becoming routine in Baltimore. Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell combined for 47 yards on 18 carries (2.61 yards per carry). Merriam Webster's has a perfect description of the offensive line's performance: "pa•thet•ic: pitifully inferior or inadequate."

Exactly.

Conclusion
As disappointing as the Steelers' performance was, on both sides of the football, the team has earned the opportunity to turn the page and try again. And before we decide to throw dirt on the Steelers' season just remember that the twelve playoff teams went 5-7 the final weekend. And though the Steelers struggled over the final ten games of the regular season here's a look at the records of the other playoff teams over that same period:

TeamWinsLossesPct.
New England1001.000
Dallas82.800
Green Bay82.800
San Diego82.800
Indianapolis73.700
Jacksonville73.700
N.Y. Giants64.600
Pittsburgh64.600
Seattle64.600
Tennessee55.500
Tampa Bay55.500
Washington55.500


So if the Steelers are entering the playoff tournament playing less than their best take solace in two indisputable facts:
  1. There are playoff teams playing worse than they are.

  2. Cleveland was 8-2 in their final ten games, and missed out on the playoffs by losing to Cincinnati, and then watching Kerry Collins lead Tennessee to a fourth quarter comeback on the road in Indianapolis.

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