It was ironic that both Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis were at the game Thursday night. Cowher and Bettis against sub .500 talent-depleted teams were nearly automatic, especially at home. The coach that lost one career game with an 11-point lead and his Hall of Fame closer of a running back were on hand to watch the Steelers squander their largest home lead in defeat since 1964.
Can't blame Le'Veon Bell for that. Twice in overtime, the Steelers had opportunities to convert third-and-2 at or near field-goal range. Somehow, Bell didn't get a handoff on any of the four chances the Steelers had in short-yardage situations.
"Watch this play get blown up" were the words I expressed before and during the play after I saw the empty backfield and silly bootleg action on what seemed to be an obvious fourth-down Michael Vick keeper.
Failing to covert on fourth down the next series, a friend who isn't as emotionally vested in the Steelers, said "You're not going to trust your kicker, but you think that pass play with Michael Vick is more likely to be converted?"
Ryan Clark on ESPN provided some interesting post-game analysis. He described the playcalling late in the fourth quarter and in overtime as coaches trying to "trick" or "outsmart" the other team. I've used those words repeatedly in describing this offense over the last two years. The bubble screen to Antonio Brown at the two-yard line against the Rams, Brown's attempted gadget pass against the Patriots, and goal-line handoffs to the H-Back in that same game are just the recent examples. When it looks like a duck, it most often quacks like one.
The first scoring drives by each team were telling. The Steelers were developing a steady pull-them-in and push-them-back rhythm with their running came. But they abandoned that rhythm with a cute screen to Bell in the flat on a play in which DeAngelo Williams was in the backfield. One play later they settled for a field goal.
The Ravens developed a rhythm and stuck with it to score a touchdown.
It's a problem when offensive coordinator and head coach can't identify when they are in a rhythm. It's another problem when they don't know how to put it in their star players' hands in crunch time. Handing the ball to Bell or maybe a quick reverse to Brown (or fake the reverse to the crossing Brown and hand it to Bell) would be a couple smart ways to get the ball to your playmakers. Easy-to-diagnose misdirection screens in the flat and out routes thrown by Vick that require a lot of timing and repetition are bad ways.
Most drives stalled or went three-and-out when the staff inexplicably ran spread formation calls with Vick as the quarterback. But you watch Williams' wonderfully patient yet explosive eight-yard run and see why he should be getting at least 10 carries a game. And the Brown touchdown drop and the near catch on the sidelines in which Brown's toe was out of bounds are examples of why they should be a heavy run/play-action team with Ben Roethlisberger out. I'd have Vick go through two progressions and then run if those reads aren't there.
Clark offered up the reality that the coaching staff had a short week to prepare with a new quarterback. Hopefully he is correct and they run plays next Monday night that better fit Vick's skillset.
As for the decision not to kick in overtime, I just believe it goes a long way toward a kicker's confidence if he's given the opportunity to win it. Mike Tomlin's decision not to use Josh Scobee made me think Lawrence Tynes. The New York Giants might not even have made the Super Bowl in 2007 if Tom Coughlin had lost trust in Tynes after a couple earlier and shorter misses in the NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers. Coughlin still sent Tynes out for the game-winner from 47 yards in near sub-zero temperatures, and the rest is history.
As Tomlin likes to say, this wasn't Scobee's first rodeo. It likely wouldn't take a lot for the 12th-year veteran to get back on track. The kicker tryouts that are currently being held by Tomlin give me the sense of emotional finger-pointing by the head coach. Maybe Tomlin should turn over his own stones first. As I pointed out before the season, when you make bad decisions, bad things happen. When you're identity isn't physical, when iron doesn't sharpen iron, you tend to fall short inside the red zone, goal line, short yardage, and the end of games.
I like a lot of what I'm seeing out of the defense. As as been pointed out elsewhere, the aggressive approach Keith Butler is using in blitzing defensive backs has helped with the primary off-season goal of applying more pressure.
Still, they cant allow the opposing running back to go off for 150 yards, even if much of that yardage is gained with the Steelers safeties deep. It made the Ravens' two touchdown drives too easy.
The defense has looked impressive in spots the last three weeks. The run defense seems at its best when Daniel McCullers is on the field. I can only imagine how impressive the defense will be with a consistently healthy Ryan Shazier. Hopefully over time, that won't be asking for too much.
I was a fan of Jarvis Jones' play over the first few weeks. He was a little more than solid. But I was a little frustrated this week. It's time for him to make a big play. A sack. A turnover. That's what first-round picks are supposed to do. It's time.
Ross Cockrell has instincts and smarts to make plays. I want to see what he does more in coverage before I get too excited about his ability to be a waiver-wire gem. The thought crossed my mind the other night Cockrell could be the updated version of Yancey Thigpen, perhaps the waiver-wire find of the 90s. With Senquez Golson's return next season, the hope here is that, along with Antwon Blake, the Steelers are developing quality young players who can turn cornerback into a plus position for the team. In the meantime, the ups and downs are frustrating.
If you isolate on Bud Dupree enough during a game, you can see why the coaches like him. He's has great size and rare burst. Mix in Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Shazier, this front seven can be special. If McCullers is up to the challenge that Mean Joe Greene has been laying down, the sky is the limit for this young but talented defense.
And finally, if we're going to turn over stones, let's not forget the rest of the special teams. The kick and punt coverage teams have been solid. No one can keep Brown from doing something special for long. But the kickers -- new punter Jordan Berry included -- can't continue with their inconsistency. This time it bit the entire team in the rear end. I want to remain patient, but it's obviously being tested.