PITTSBURGH (AP)The Pittsburgh Steelers knew what was coming.
So did the 66,326 fans bundled in the mid-December chill.
And everyone watching at home. Probably the pigeons that have been known to lunch in various parts of the field during sunnier late fall days too.
It didn’t matter. The Baltimore Ravens ran the ball when they wanted to run it, where they wanted to run it, and as often as they wanted to run it during a 16-14 win on Sunday that all but ended any legitimate if remote shot the Steelers had at making the playoffs.
Injuries weren’t to blame. Or scheme. Or coaching. The front seven was well aware the Ravens would essentially be one-dimensional, especially in the second half when undrafted rookie free agent Anthony Brown – a third-stringer – came on for injured backup quarterback Tyler Huntley in the third quarter.
Yet the Steelers were largely powerless to stop them. A defense that was supposed to serve as a strength while the offense tried to find its footing yielded down the stretch yet again.
The Ravens snapped the ball 19 times in the fourth quarter. Three were kneel-downs. Three were passes. One was a Justin Tucker field goal. The other 12 were handoffs by Brown to J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards or Patrick Ricard that chewed up yardage, time and Pittsburgh’s hopes of being a factor over the final month of the season.
”I just thought we wore down,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ”The pile was falling forward.”
Again and again and again. Baltimore piled up 215 yards on the ground even though there was little to no secret about what was coming.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Steelers spent a portion of their offseason bolstering a front seven that played a major factor in a run defense that finished last in the NFL in 2021. They signed defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and inside linebacker Myles Jack. They hired former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores as a senior defensive assistant.
An injury to all-everything outside linebacker T.J. Watt in Week 1 blunted the early growth, but there had been signs of progress since his return.
Entering Sunday, the Steelers had allowed 86.7 yards per game on the ground since Watt re-entered the lineup on Nov. 13, a span in which they went 3-1 to briefly revive hope of making a run.
It’s all but gone now. And while there is plenty of blame to go around – particularly to backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky, whose three interceptions after coming in for concussed rookie starter Kenny Pickett likely took at least six points if not more off the board – Pittsburgh was manhandled in a way it hadn’t been since, well, the previous time it played the Ravens.
”To not get off the field and just give our offense one more chance (at the end), that stings the most,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.
A sting that is likely going to linger well into the offseason. In an AFC where there seems to be a significant gap between the top five teams and everyone else, even competent play on both sides of the ball would have the Steelers in the mix.
Instead, for the first time in nearly two decades, a losing season may be in the offing.
Two of Trubisky’s three picks highlighted the iffy decision-making that was part of his many problems earlier in his career in Chicago. When he wasn’t turning the ball over, he was dynamic.
Trubisky averaged a healthy 9.20 yards per attempt while going 22 of 30 for 276 yards, the best average by a Steelers QB in a game with at least 30 passes since Ben Roethlisberger did it in a Monday night victory over Tampa Bay in 2018.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The NFL’s concussion protocol. The optics around Kenny Pickett’s exit after becoming symptomatic of a concussion are less than ideal.
Pickett was evaluated and initially cleared to return after getting sacked by Roquan Smith in the first quarter, only to be pulled for a second time after going back for one series. Tomlin said afterward he ”didn’t know the sequence or the details regarding the sequence.”
George Pickens was right. Throw him the ball. The rookie wide receiver – who drew some unwanted attention after a couple of visible outbursts on the sideline in the second half of a win over Atlanta on Dec. 4 – caught all three passes thrown his way on Sunday and drew a pass interference call on another deep ball that set up a touchdown.
Inside linebackers Jack, Devin Bush and Rob Spillane didn’t make an impact at the second level in the run game, combining for a very quiet 15 tackles, only one behind the line of scrimmage.
Defensive end Chris Wormley is dealing with what looks to be a significant left knee injury.
2003 – the previous time the Steelers finished the season with a losing record. They need to sweep their final four games to avoid that fate in 2022.
Try to take advantage of a somewhat user-friendly run to end the regular season next Sunday when they visit Carolina. The Steelers have won their past six meetings with the Panthers.
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