Playoff Loss Exposed Steelers' Roster Flaws

Marty Flaherty says the Steelers' loss to the Ravens was more about personnel issues than anything else.

Perennial contenders attain that status because of patience.

There are a lot of other ingredients, but that's the essential one.

The Steelers have the mindset of patience that avoids panic when things aren't working out. But on Saturday, they simply couldn't compete in terms of patience. They had too many personnel matchups working against them.

If you want to know how long the Ravens would've waited to bring help into the box if the Steelers had any success on the ground, the answer can be found in how long Dick LeBeau waited to change his approach to stopping the Broncos in the Steelers' last soul-crushing playoff loss. All 60 minutes, and then some.

After surrendering six passing TDs in their last game against the Steelers, the Ravens' game plan of dropping seven players into coverage as often as possible was going to be a wire-to-wire thing, because Josh Harris has about as much credibility running the football at this point in his career as Tim Tebow had throwing the football three seasons ago.

So while I respect the value of balance, I can't give much credence to the idea that there was some fundamental problem with the coaching in which the team made itself one-dimensional. The team was one-dimensional. The Ravens weren't going to be convinced otherwise by anything other than a loss.

The Steelers have a young offensive line that struggles with size against a five-man defensive-line rotation in which the smallest guy, DeAngelo Tyson is listed at 315, which is what he weighed coming out of Georgia three seasons ago. I'm much mistaken if he's still that small.

By my count, the Ravens had 356 defensive back snaps - a fifth DB on the field for almost 75 percent of the snaps. They had a fifth linebacker on the field for about 48 percent. Basically, the Steelers schemed to keep the beef on the bench as much as possible. The Ravens were happy to oblige.

The Steelers' running backs did nothing with the opportunity. Not enough even to get the Ravens even to leave a pass-rushing OLB on the bench in favor of a true defensive lineman half the time, let alone enough to open up play-action opportunities. The Ravens averaged 1.77 defensive linemen per snap. The Steelers averaged 2.75.

A big part of that disparity is the Ravens' amorphous approach to player roles. With 280-pound OLBs, like run-downs specialist Courtney Upshaw and pass-rushing sub Pernell McPhee, there's plenty of size to assign a "linebacker" to a lineman's role. And perhaps the Steelers' interest in May in Scott Crichton -- who fits the prototype of none of the roles in the Steelers' defense, but seems cut from the mold of Upshaw or McPhee -- indicates a desire to copy some of the Ravens' approach to sub packages.

But the disparity is also about respect. The Steelers had to respect Justin Forsett and the Ravens' run game. After all, the Ravens are a right-handed run team matched up against a defense that has been struggling to patch the soft spot runners have been exploiting outside right guard since week one, when the Browns gashed them repeatedly in a near-comeback. It's probably more accurate to say they've been spackling cracks in that hole since Aaron Smith's and LaMarr Woodley's injuries in 2011.

In any case, the Bengals put up 53 yards on seven carries outside right guard -- 7.6 yards per carry -- against the Steelers just a week earlier. Even with Stephon Tuitt's emergence, the same hole that a $61.5 million contract and a first-round pick on Ziggy Hood couldn't patch was still leaking.

And Forsett had 380 yards on 58 carries outside right guard in six weeks since the team's bye. That's 6.6 per carry.

So it's easy to see why the Steelers played their "bigs" as much as possible. They had a proven strength attacking a known liability. The Ravens had no such concerns.

Yes, the Steelers shut down Forsett, just as the Ravens halted the Steelers' rushing attack. But the Steelers opened themselves up on the back end to stop Forsett. The Ravens were able to accomplish the goal without sending passing-downs personnel to the bench.

Just as LeBeau and Mike Tomlin were perfectly happy to pack the box and be the first (and apparently last) coaching staff to lose to Tebow's arm, so Dean Pees and John Harbaugh would've been perfectly happy to sit back and get gashed by an undrafted rookie and a guy signed off the street the week before the game. Better to be the first guy beaten by those players than the next in a long line torched by a Hall of Fame quarterback.

I've been out of town since before the game, so I haven't been hearing the uproar about the loss, but I'm sure the fact that Dri Archer got more snaps by far than Harris or Ben Tate is a huge grievance against the coaching staff. Not in my book. Bell's rarest and perhaps best talent is his ability to run away from pretty much any linebacker in coverage. Archer gave them the best chance of replacing that ability.

He's the only running back on the roster who created a mismatch in any way against the Ravens. In order to manipulate safeties out of position, you need to get a running back repeatedly past the second level. The Steelers have somewhat frequently found themselves unable to do that with handoffs, but almost always able to do that with passes to Le'Veon Bell.

I'm certainly in the minority for still liking Archer's game. He's raw, but I think he'll catch and pass De'Anthony Thomas, another shrimp speedster with better instincts but less talent, at some point next season. But even as an Archer advocate, I recognize that a game plan that leans on him to contribute in a big way is a weak game plan.

But a weak game plan isn't necessarily a dumb one. The Ravens had the personnel to be patient and resolute in devoting minimal resources to stopping the run. As such, they severely limited what game plans were available to the Steelers. The Steelers lost Bell, and the Ravens got Haloti Ngata back from suspension, and the capacity for playing with patience tipped strongly on the Ravens' favor.

On offense, it was all in Roethlisberger's hands the minute Bell was scratched. The offensive line made that job even harder, but it's not as though that was unexpected. Elvis Dumervil has caused the Steelers fits all season, and with Bell out, the Ravens' big defensive tackles were free to attack upfield against interior linemen who all share the weakness of struggling to anchor against power. Dumervil and 340-pounders Ngata and Brandon Williams combined for four sacks and four QB hits.

But it had less to do with the tough matchups all along the offensive line than when I told a friend the week before the game that I was "terrified of the Ravens game." I expected Ben Roethlisberger to handle his business on the offensive side.

The defense was another matter.

My comment was made during a conversation that began when he asked me whether I thought the Steelers secondary was playing better because Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu weren't on the field.

My response was that I didn't think the secondary was playing much better, if at all, and that the appearance of improvement had more to do with playing offenses that couldn't stretch the field. The three decent games the secondary strung together were against the Falcons without Julio Jones, against Alex Smith and his zero TD passes to wideouts, and the Bengals rematch.

Before the game, I went back and crunched the numbers on the 14 previous games Matt Ryan had played with Jones out of the lineup. He was 361-of-547 for 3,668 yards, 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Not bad, by any means.

But pretty timid. The 6.7 yards per attempt would rank No. 32 in the NFL, and the 10.2 yards per completion would rank No. 33. Simply put, Ryan without Jones in the lineup has been one of the dinkiest and dunkiest passers out there.

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green torched the Steelers in Week 14 for 11 catches, 224 yards and a touchdown. In week 17, with Taylor on the Steelers' bench, that was reduced to 8 catches for 84 yards.

But how much better was the coverage? Green suffered an arm injury the week before that kept him without a catch against the Broncos. And two interceptions on passes targeting Green were the result, not of good coverage, but of a miscommunication and an egregiously off-target throw.

In short, the secondary looked good against three quarterbacks whose ability to go deep is contingent upon elite receivers.

Joe Flacco is a different animal. In the regular season, he beat teams deep for 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions, on the strength of Steve and Torrey Smith, who had 17 TD catches between them. He's not tremendously efficient, at least if you don't factor in pass interference calls, but there's no doubt he can stretch the field.

And just as was the case with the Steelers' offense needing Roethlisberger to cover up weaknesses elsewhere, the defense needed James Harrison to protect the secondary. In the November matchup, he ended two drives with sacks and forced an interception, throwing in a number of pressures and hits on top of that.

That type of presence was largely absent on Saturday. No sacks, no QB hits, no flags drawn. I guess undrafted rookie left tackle James Hurst, who gave up 3.5 sacks and committed five holds in 323 offensive snaps during the regular season, must have gotten good in a hurry.

By whatever means, the Ravens were able to largely neutralize Harrison.

The end result was that the Steelers' offense spent the whole game fighting from a position of weakness, while the defense struggled to fill holes. And the Ravens played to their strengths all game.

But don't assume that it was the result of decisions made on the either sideline on Saturday. The game unfolded more or less exactly how I told my friend it would when I outlined the "nightmare" matchup the day after the season-ending win over the Bengals. The only difference was that I expected Papa Ben and Uncle Deebo to check the closet and under the bed and make all the nightmares go away.

That it didn't turn out that way isn't a black mark against either player. The Ravens were among the best in the league at keeping the QB clean, and Roethlisberger was under constant pressure against a packed secondary.

There were some miscues by the coaches as well as the players -- and hey, probably the refs, too -- but on the whole, they paled in comparison to the advantages in personnel on which the Ravens were able to capitalize. The frustrating part is not knowing which advantages were the product of Bell's absence.

But that's part of the offseason puzzle the Steelers now unfortunately have an extra month to figure out.


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