What a difference a week makes. Just this time last week, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers were licking their wounds following an abysmal, eight-turnover performance in Cleveland that placed the Steelers’ postseason hopes in some degree of jeopardy. The QB situation appeared hopeless until Ben Roethlisberger returns, the running game was in tatters, the almost inconceivable run of injuries to star players continued to grow, and a trip to Baltimore to face the 9-2 Ravens loomed. Very, very few people expected anything good to happen in Baltimore yesterday afternoon.
Despite 3 more turnovers, including an absolute backbreaker by Emmanuel Sanders when he fumbled away a sure touchdown while running alone in the open field, and despite losing CB Ike Taylor during the first series, the Steelers simply found a way to win yesterday. Charlie Batch threw for 276(!) yards, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman were effective enough in the running game, and the #1 defense in the NFL finally forced a couple of turnovers, including James Harrison’ strip sack of Joe Flacco in the 4th quarter that led to the tying touchdown. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Steelers are still very much alive in the AFC. Some takeaways from the game:
1. Baltimore’s secondary is really, really bad. Not to take anything away from Charlie Batch, who rebounded from a horrific performance in Cleveland to play very well most of the day yesterday, but the Ravens’ pass defense is simply awful. Not only did Batch throw for 276 yards, (a) he overthrew a wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open Mike Wallace in the end zone just before halftime, (b) Emmanuel Sanders fumbled away what was going to be a 72-yard touchdown pass in the 3rd quarter, and (c) Wallace and Sanders each had brutal drops of balls that should have moved chains and kept drives alive. The Ravens badly miss Ladarius Webb, and for all the hype that Ed Reed gets, he doesn’t provide much aid for the struggling CB’s. The Steelers had guys open all day and all night and, to his credit, Batch found them more often than not.
2. The Steelers may finally have depth on the OL. The Steelers entered Sunday’s game missing both their #1 and #2 RT’s (Marcus Gilbert was placed on IR last week and Mike Adams will be out awhile) and their starting RG (Willie Colon dressed but did not play). Moreover, #1 draft choice David DeCastro was dressed but played no meaningful snaps. Despite missing 4 guys who are part of the present and future of the OL, the Steelers’ line held up very, very well yesterday, albeit against a pretty meh Ravens’ defense. Batch was sacked twice, but both were coverage sacks, and the line got decent push in the running game when it mattered in the second half. Maurkice Pouncey may be a better G than he is a C, as the position allows him to use his athleticism to pull and get to the next level, and LT Max Starks continues to very quietly have a good year. Rookie RT Kelvin Beachum was barely noticeable, which is a very good thing. The Steelers have 9 legitimate offensive linemen, and this depth paid off yesterday.
3. The Steelers can cover people. The Steelers’ secondary has been the source of concern over the past few years, particularly when guys like Bryant McFadden and Willie Gay were getting lit up, usually at inopportune times. After a rough start to the season, particularly for Ike Taylor, the secondary has been the best in the NFL the last several weeks despite the absence of Troy Polamalu for most of the season. The numbers speak for themselves – #1 in yards allowed, #1 in yards allowed per attempt, and #4 in opposing QB rating, the latter of which is due to the lack of interceptions by the team (only two teams have fewer interceptions than the Steelers 7). Ryan Clark is having a Pro Bowl season at SS. Keenan Lewis has emerged as a legitimate starting CB in the league, and Cortez Allen has shown flashes of being able to do the same, something that will be called upon as Taylor appears likely to miss several weeks with an ankle/leg injury suffered yesterday. Lewis, not Mike Wallace, may end up being the Steelers’ top UFA priority this offseason.
4. Jason Worilds can play. A much-maligned 2nd round pick in 2010, Worilds has stepped in the last two weeks during LaMarr Woodley’s most recent injury and has played very, very well. Worilds has 8 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 pressures over the last 2 weeks, and the Steelers are going to need to find a way to get him on the field if and when Woodley’s
vaginitis ankle injury heals.
5. Good news and bad news on the injury front. The Steelers got a bit of a boost yesterday from the returns of WR Antonio Brown and S Troy Polamalu from injury, and G Willie Colon and Roethlisberger both appear likely to play by Sunday. On the flip side, the team lost starting RT Marcus Gilbert for the season when he was placed on IR and, more troubling, they lost Taylor for an undetermined period of time on the first series yesterday. Taylor had rebounded from a poor start to be an absolute shutdown corner over the past several weeks, and with Dez Bryant and AJ Green coming up over the next three weeks, his loss certainly creates concern.
6. What the win means. Even had the Steelers lost yesterday, they would have controlled their own
destiny opportunity to make the playoffs, but the win gives them a little bit of breathing room. The Steelers could lose to either San Diego or Dallas the next 2 weeks and still would be the 6th seed by beating Cincinnati on December 23 and Cleveland on December 30. The Colts and Bengals both keep winning, however, and yesterday’s W was huge in maintaining pace in the playoff race.
Next up are the free-falling Chargers in Pittsburgh. Lay the points and take the Steelers.