My thoughts, for what they're worth

Y'know, I don't really care that the game's outcome ultimately didn't make a lick of difference, or that arguably Pittsburgh's best player on each side of the ball sat the contest out ... I hate to watch a loss to Baltimore.

More than that, I hate watching the Steelers play their worst ball of the year just when they should be ramping up for a playoff run.

- Forgetting for a moment the gauntlet they now face in the post-season — Jacksonville, then likely the New England juggernaut and Indianapolis on the road — I don't doubt that they can pull out a game or two against those superior opponents. I wouldn't doubt their ability to win any given game with Ben Roethlisberger under center. But they've shown exactly the wrong kind of inconsistency to offer much hope of a real championship run; even a streaky team would be better-suited than the every-other-game and even every-other-quarter play we've seen for much of the year.

- I hope I didn't just see the end of Willie Reid's pro career. I fear that I did… but I hope not.

- When exactly did teams become able to run all over the Steelers, almost at will? Musa Smith and Cory Ross are not Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. I mean, they're not even Thomas Jones. I realize that they're without Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu didn't play, but that was a Ravens offense that hasn't blocked well all year and trotted out its backups for a jolly romp on the once-stoutest run defense in the league.

- It's a big problem with Aaron Smith's injury that no one else at DE can regularly stand up to (let alone beat) the extra attention now afforded them. Brett Keisel has his strong points, but holding his ground against double-teams is not among them.

- Any number of plays in the game illustrated that problem, but just by way of example, after a false start, Baltimore faced first-and-15 from their own 28 with 6:16 remaining in the opening frame. Against a shotgun formation, Pittsburgh showed six apparent rushers up on the line: Keisel, Travis Kirschke, James Harrison, Clark Haggans, James Farrior, and Deshea Townsend. At the snap, Haggans, Farrior, and Townsend all dropped into coverage, and Larry Foote blitzed from his linebacker position. The play turns out to be a draw handoff to Musa Smith. Harrison and Foote are out of the picture, by virtue of their outside rush; Jason Brown and Mike Flynn double up on Keisel, driving him quickly five yards backwards, and Ben Grubbs casually blows Kirschke seven light-years out of the play, opening a hole you could relocate a franchise through. Keisel did come off the double-team to make the tackle, but not until the Ravens had turned first-and-15 into second-and-5.

- Yeah, when did the draw become the silver bullet against Dick LeBeau's defense?

- Between plays like that, getting blown off the line by Brown on Baltimore's first touchdown, and a personal foul for a meaningless roughing the passer, Calamity James played probably the worst quarter of football I can remember from him this season. Of course, so did the rest of the team.

- Pittsburgh's fourth-down attempt that preceded that Baltimore drive turned out to be more important that it felt at the time. Corey Ivy made a nice play to disrupt Charlie Batch's short pass to Cedrick Wilson, and the subsequent drive turned what could have been a 7-3 or even a tied ballgame into a 10-point Baltimore lead.

- Through three-and-a-half quarters, I felt very disappointed by Santonio Holmes' production against such a wounded Baltimore secondary. Of course, I felt very disappointed by the rest of the team through three-and-a-half quarters, too. At the point at which it appeared that they might actually pull out a win, I wondered about having to write this same stuff, with all the same criticisms, from the context of a nice comeback win, but they really were that bad for the first 52 minutes.

- I won't rag too much on Charlie Batch, who led a pretty valiant comeback attempt, but he jumped the gun on a desperation heave to Holmes into heavy coverage with a full minute left and room to pick up yards and get out of bounds on a scramble.

- Oh, and it's official: even Batch gets the roughing calls that Roethlisberger couldn't buy with all his upcoming millions.

- I'm skeptical about Troy Smith's future prospects as an NFL starter, but he certainly showed the ability to get off some decent throws with pressure in his face. That alone may make him a better prospect than Kyle Boller.

- With the regular season now closed, some of the individual player statistics take on a broader context. I've been touting Holmes for his stellar yards per pass targeted to him, and his final mark of 11.1 yards per target is indeed best among the top 50 pass-catchers in yardage for the year. That goes along with his 18.1 yards per catch, which also leads the group. To put those numbers in some perspective, the top 50 pass-catchers averaged 13.2 YPC, and 8.1 YPT. Randy Moss, pretty obviously the premier receiver for the season, notched 15.2 YPC and 9.4 YPT.

- Heath Miller also finished with impressive efficiency marks. Among the 25 tight ends who caught the most passes, he posted the best YPT at 9.3, the best catch rate at 77.0%, and his touchdown rate of 11.5% of passes is second only to Ben Watson of New England. The Steelers feature none of the league's 22 1000-yard pass-catchers, but they do boast the most ruthlessly efficient players at both positions.

- Nate Washington had himself another solid day, and not just in terms of his five catches for 68 yards, or the 47-yard pass interference call that amounted to Pittsburgh's best offensive play of the first half; he also recovered an onside kick, and chased David Pittman for 30 yards downfield through traffic after an interception to force a fumble, showing hustle and awareness that he has lacked at times in his young career. Of course, Baltimore's Nick Greison fell on the fumble, as all the fumbles bounced Baltimore's way this time, but Washington made a nice play that could easily have been bigger.

- After another year of fan consternation over the quality of Roethlisberger's receiving targets—Washington in particular—the Steelers yet again finished with better production out of their third receiver than most teams enjoyed. Washington's numbers are down somewhat from last year, and 29 catches fell just 17th among third receivers around the league, but his 21 first downs were 12th-most, his 450 yards were 11th-most, his 15.5 yards per catch were eighth-best, and his five touchdowns fifth-most. That all came on 55 passes thrown to him, just 16th-most among that group. My new favorite receiving stat, yards per target? Tenth-best, at 8.2. Indianapolis's top rookie Anthony Gonzalez started nine games in that prolific offense in place of the injured Marvin Harrison, and caught just nine more balls for an extra 121 yards with two fewer touchdown grabs. Would it hurt to add another big weapon to Roethlisberger's arsenal? Certainly not. Is it an area in which the Steelers find themselves deficient? The numbers don't seem to think so.

- It's at this point that I stop thinking about why the Steelers might logically be expected (or even able) to win, what match-ups they might exploit against the upcoming opponent, and just start screaming my lungs out as a fan on Sunday. Or, ahhh, Saturday. On paper, the way everyone is playing, there's no reason they ought to win a single game. But Roethlisberger, Polamalu, LeBeau, Casey Hampton, and Hines Ward have all been magical in past playoffs. Hell, Ward has been the most prolific post-season pass-catcher of the decade, with more catches, more yards, and more touchdowns than anybody in that span. Whatever chance the Steelers have to make a run at this thing hinges upon those players (and a few of their teammates) finding that same magic again. I'd be game for that.


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