By Christina Rivers
In a game of some magnitude and one in which football analyst Al Michaels said was the hottest rivalry currently in the National Football League, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked primed against the Baltimore Ravens. It took the Steelers three plays to find the end zone in the opening minutes of the game. Quarterback Byron Leftwich scampered in on foot with some fancy moves along the right sideline and the Shaun Suisham kick was good. The quick start had fans in a frenzy of excitement. That excitement shifted over the course of the next three quarters of play as it appeared that Leftwich was injured and the Steelers were hitting the brakes. Without the Steelers' defense, it might have been Pittsburgh's night. Then again, because of the Steelers' defense, a costly penalty forced them out of a chance to score or tie the game in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. The Ravens walked out of Heinz Field with a victory, 13-10.
All week long, Steeler Nation has been in a big debate over whether Leftwich or Charlie Batch should have gotten the start. In the last two minutes of the game, more of them were wishing it was Batch finalizing it all. Leftwich may have scored the Steelers' only touchdown on the night, but when he fell into the end zone, he appeared to have injured his left shoulder. As the game progressed, it was clear that offensive coordinator Todd Haley made some changes to the offensive play calling in the locker room at halftime. The plays looked to be catered to Leftwich's abilities. Unfortunately, Leftwich continued to suffer, often grabbing his right side. He was evaluated after one sack, but instead of putting Batch in, Leftwich kept playing. To his credit, he gave everything he had. It wasn't enough.
Leftwich completed just 18 of 39 attempts for 201 yards and threw one interception. He was also sacked three times, which apparently affected his ability to throw downfield during the last two minutes of the game.
Quarterback Rating: C
As Leftwich struggled, so too did the offense. Running back Isaac Redman was forced to leave the game due to a concussion, which left the running duties to Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer. Mendenhall looked like his Achilles injury had never happened, making some great cuts. Dwyer had some fantastic runs where he looked down only to squirt out of the pile for extra yardage. Baron Batch and Redman each had a single carry. Out of 27 carries, the Steelers were only able to gain 134 net yards rushing against a Ravens team that has been outshone this season in run defense. Dwyer had the most carries: 12 for 55 yards. The only rushing play that was able to score was Leftwich's scramble into the end zone.
The receiving game wasn't much better. The Steelers' net yards passing was 177 with a yards-per-pass percentage of 4.2. Emmanuel Sanders made two big catches and caught three tosses for a total of 82 yards. His longest went for 37. With a mix of passes to six others, the Steelers tried to keep the offense balanced, but it didn't go in their favor this week. Dwyer had three receptions for 26 yards. Jerricho Cotchery went down late in the game with an undisclosed injury and Mike Wallace had another tough night of not catching balls when he was open. On one play, Leftwich threw the ball low, but Wallace could have caught it if he'd moved back towards his quarterback. On another, Wallace caught the ball only to fumble it away to Ed Reed who returned the ball into the red zone. Tight end Heath Miller was limited to two catches for 22 yards. There were no scores by any Steelers receivers.
Whether credit should be given to the Ravens for excellent defensive play or a lack of execution by Pittsburgh, it's a difficult call. Leftwich did pick up two big plays where the Ravens were caught sleeping in the zone, but he wasn't active enough to capitalize for all four quarters. Maurkice Pouncey snapped two low balls that caused panic, but Leftwich did at least get the ball off.
Offense Rating: C
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had to have felt breath on the back of his neck all night long as he was hurried, pressured and then sacked. Defensive end Brett Keisel put a hard hit on Flacco in the first quarter that forced Baltimore to go three-and-out. Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley both were able to get to Flacco for sacks. Keenan Lewis was an active guy during the game, recording eight tackles, leading the defense. Casey Hampton deserves some credit for not getting into a brawl after he was chopped by Baltimore's offensive line time and time again. The NFL should definitely revisit whether that should be legal or not as Hampton could have easily gone lame after being hit in the knees so many times. Lawrence Timmons was able to force the Ravens to attempt a long field goal which sailed wide.
The defensive backfield worked especially well together Sunday night. Ike Taylor, Lewis, Will Allen and Ryan Clark limited the Ravens to just 20 catches for 153 net yards. Flacco completed 20 of 32 passes and averaged only 4.5 yards per pass. Smothering Torrey Smith, who had one reception, then double-teaming Anquan Boldin, the Steelers held both men to just nine receptions for 86 yards.
What the Steelers needed and didn't get were turnovers. And when Keisel was flagged for encroachment in the last two minutes of the game, it cost the Steelers the time they needed to be able to get the offense back on the field and get within field goal range to tie the game and send it into overtime. Despite his error, it's still unclear at that point if Leftwich would have been able to execute or not.
Defense Rating: A-
The Steelers' special teams unit was less than special on Sunday night. Jacoby Jones was able to grab a Drew Butler punt and return it 63 yards for a touchdown. Suisham was 1/1 on field goals and 1/1 on extra points, it would have been a great opportunity for him late in the fourth quarter to show how capable he would have been at hitting the game-tying field goal. It was a missed opportunity. Butler had eight punts and averaged 44.6 yards-per-punt. While the Ravens logged three punt returns for 74 yards and three kickoff returns for 76 yards, the Steelers were only able to get a total of 48 return yards on 5 kicks (three punts, two kickoffs).
Special Teams grade: C+
Pluses and Minuses
The Steelers played as one team, and with that – they lost as one team. There were flaws and cracks in different places that allowed Baltimore to hang onto their lead far into the game. Too far, in fact. The Steelers were only able to convert five of 17 third-downs and zero of one fourth down conversion. When your punter is getting the most action on your team, it's time to have a serious talk come Tuesday at practice. On a positive note, the Steelers' defense only allowed Baltimore to convert three-of-14 third-downs and no fourth downs. The Ravens' punter was just as active as Butler.
Penalties hurt the Steelers. They received six flags against them for 43 yards. The Steelers also lost 3 fumbles, only one of which they recovered.
Should Mike Tomlin have let Leftwich keep playing? Did Todd Haley do enough to tailor the offensive scheme around the personnel they had to work with? Were Steelers fans putting too much pressure on Leftwich to win this game? The questions may never be completely answered. The only thing you can say about the game is this; disappointing.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.
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