By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers looked hot coming into the wild card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. Concerns all week about the status of the offense without running back Le’Veon Bell were expressed. The Steelers said they weren’t worried. Perhaps they should have been. The offense struggled all night against a superior Baltimore pass rush. Mistakes and penalties turned the first playoff game for the Steelers in three years into a 30-17 nightmare loss.READ MORE: Trump says he took the Fifth in questioning in New York Attorney General fraud investigation
There should be some questions aimed at the Steelers coaching staff for the performance this weekend. Regardless of going out to get Ben Tate to add at the running back position, it looked like the offense still wasn’t prepared for the game. On defense, it may have been a better decision to allow Will Allen to play opposite or in tandem (via substitution) Troy Polamalu. There were several poor plays called, including a quarterback sneak that went nowhere. The staff may hear pundits calling for heads once again after having so much success in the second half of the 2014 NFL regular season.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was off even before he was sacked and hit his head on the turf. With the Ravens throwing some exotic mixes of blitzing and pass rushes around the end, Roethlisberger was unsettled and had difficulty timing his passes to his receivers. Roethlisberger’s biggest mistake came when he found the pocket collapsing around him and half-tossed the ball to Tate. The ball tipped off of Tate’s hands and fell in between the knees of Terrell Suggs, resulting in an interception. Roethlisberger would throw two picks on the night and was held to 31 completions for 334 yards and a single touchdown.
Tate did very little to boost the Steelers offense. In fact, some would say that the interception by Suggs could have been prevented if Tate had gone for the ball. It’s ticky-tacky at best. The offense could not put a running game together. Combined, the three rushers for Pittsburgh – Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer – put together 43 yards on the ground. Will Johnson had a single carry for three yards but it resulted in a key first down.
Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton showed they have legitimately stepped up their play since the beginning of the season, but neither was able to help get Antonio Brown open. Overall, the receiving game was not spectacular and an unusual fumble by tight end Heath Miller was the final fatal blow.
The steady offensive line that started the game was over-matched and overpowered against the Ravens. Baltimore threw too much at the line, forcing the pocket to collapse on Roethlisberger and create little to no protection for the run game.
There is going to be a lot of talk around Pittsburgh and throughout ‘Steelers Nation’ about who should have played on Saturday night and who shouldn’t have. Polamalu very well may have played his last game with the Steelers and by the second half of the game, many fans on social media were questioning whether he should have been on the field at all. In my opinion, it was Mike Mitchell who should have been removed and Allen put in his place. Brice McCain had an opportunity to make an interception, but couldn’t hold on to the ball as he hit the ground. William Gay tipped a Joe Flacco pass that had the potential to be a touchdown, sending the ball out of bounds. McCain and Polamalu led the defense in tackles.
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Stephon Tuitt came up with a big fumble recovery caused by a hit on Flacco, but the Steelers defensive line and linebackers had trouble getting an effective push against a very physical Baltimore offensive line. Sean Spence was credited with the strip-sack. James Harrison resembled a younger self, getting after Flacco several times but unable to pull him to the ground.
With the offense struggling badly, the Steelers were forced to keep their defense on the field too long. It resulted in penalties and mistakes. The Steelers had trouble stopping the run of Forsett and Pierce.
Shamarko Thomas had a highlight moment Saturday night when he blocked a Sam Koch punt. The ball squirreled out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety. Had the Steelers been able to fall on the ball, it would have been six points and may have kept them in the game.
Once again Shaun Suisham scored the most points for the Steelers, kicking three field goals. Suisham has been solid all season. His compatriot, punter Brad Wing, had an average night.
This unit could have used a big return, but there was zero in the tank in that department.
Overall, the Steelers could not contain the rushing of Justin Forsett or the passes from Flacco to Owen Daniels and Steve Smith, Jr. On paper, the game could easily have gone Pittsburgh’s way. The Ravens had penalties, lost two fumbles and weren’t sharp. The Steelers simply could not catch a break and when they created an opportunity to spark something, they either shot themselves in the foot or settled for playing it safe. The Steelers didn’t go for the jugular and it resulted in a flat performance that was disappointing.
It’s never fun to see tears in the eyes of grown men. What is the most disturbing part of the loss is that the Steelers were the better team and just didn’t play like they believed that was true. There is a very real possibility that many guys – Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Harrison and Brett Keisel – may not be back in 2015. To go out in the first playoff game of the post-season after such a stand during the second half of the season is heartbreaking. Congratulations on making it back after back-to-back disappointing seasons, Pittsburgh. Let’s hope that what was shown down the stretch and missing on Saturday night returns next year.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on