Here's the reality: The overtime loss to Baltimore means the Steelers have now dropped three and a row and, at 6-5, are on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Sure, they "only" face Oakland and Cleveland next. They "only" had Kansas City last week. Vegas will likely favor Pittsburgh over Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami. Vegas also “favored” Pittsburgh over Cincinnati. Twice.
I hope my pessimism is misplaced, because I think one inescapable truth came to the surface against Baltimore.
One Inescapable Truth Emerges Against Baltimore
After 11 games there is perhaps one definitive conclusion we can reach about the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers:
- The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers are consistently inconsistent
Which is not comforting, because championship teams play consistent football.
Much of the press focused on the four quarters of surprisingly smart play by Dennis Dixon - right up until he did what rookies are prone to doing -- he threw an interception at a critical moment.
Ignore it. Dixon's pick did not turn the game.
Dennis Dixon, the "Should Be" Hero
Dennis Dixon, by all rights, should have been the night's hero. Facing a critical third down situation, he completely burned the Raven's blitz with the help of a key block from Mewelde Moore and the downfield efforts of Heath Miller, who sold a pass play all the way.
That gave the Steelers a 17-14 lead with 6 minutes left. All Pittsburgh needed to do was to hold, right?
A tall order, but certainly not too tall for the NFL's number one defense playing against a team that has had its own trouble closing close games, right?
It took Joe Flacco all of 6 passes to move his team 84 yards down the field, in just under two minutes. Baltimore tied it up with 1:51 left to go, and Pittsburgh put its quarterback, who was making his first start after all of one day's practice, in the spot where he needed to win the game.
Defense Was the Symptom, Not the Cause
Is Steel Curtain Rising coming down too harshly on a defense which several times reminded Flacco of why they call it "Blitzburgh?" If the criticism were aimed solely at the defense the answer would be "yes." But it is not at the defense, per se.
The defense's performance last night was a symptom of what ails the 2009 Steelers and not a cause.
At certain times in key situations the Steelers defense was poetry in motion.
They got pressure, the forced incompletion, got sacks, and caused turnovers. For much, if not most of the night they played dominating defense.
Except for when they didn't. On those drives the Ravens make it look easy, Steelers tackles missed, DB's blew coverages, and dropped interceptions.
A Constant No More
To add insult to injury, the football Gods chose last night to remind us of the uncanny nature of the inconsistency bug.
Through the last 11 games, through all of the returns for touchdowns and gzillion’s of yards on offense with few points to show for it, the Steelers always seemed to be able to count on one a stout run defense.
- Until last night.
The Ravens running backs Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LaRon McClain burned the Steelers for multiple double-digit runs. While none of them cracked the proverbial hundred yard barrier, Baltimore did rack up 132 total yards, more than double the season average for the Steelers.
That's not an insurmountable sum. No one should argue that's why Baltimore won the game.
But it nonetheless drives home the point:
- The 2009 Steelers are consistently inconsistent
And that's what's so frustrating about this team. They've flashed. They've teased. They've dominated.
Then they've turned around and been burned, been fooled, been bowled over.
While sensing that something "wasn't right," Steelers Nation has nonetheless waited for the "real Steelers" would emerge. Between handing Minnesota its only defeat, and beating Denver at home, it appeared that the “real” Steelers had emerged.
But the Steelers return to form was as fleeting as its fourth quarter lead against Baltimore.
Too Quick to Dismiss a Moral Victory?
Friends, including one Redskins fan, and yes, a Ravens fan, emailed to say, “Hey, that was a great game. Showed a lot of heart. Far, far better than expected. Excellent effort considering the odds.”
The urgency missing against Kansas City was back with a vengeance, and if only for the injuries to Polamalu, Roethlisberger, and Kemoeatu…
…And that’s the point. It is always something. An errant kick return that goes for a TD. In injury. That one deep pass.
Hard ass or not, Steel Curtain Rising is not ready to see the Steelers settle for moral victories.
Will They Refuse to Go Gently?
The Steelers played with a lot of heart. A lot of guys stepped up. Dixon showed a lot of guts, and courage under fire. It was a hearty performance.
After the game, Tomlin vowed, "We will not go gently." Perhaps Tomlin can make good on that it. It is certainly possible.
But time grows short, and the precedent set during the previous 11 games lends itself to pessimism.
Here's is to hoping Steel Curtain Rising is pleasantly surprised.