There were a few harbingers of hope emanating from the Sunday Night Heartbreaker, all coloured, however, by the agony of defeat:
* The Steelers were not done in by the presence of 2nd year QB Dennis Dixon in the starting lineup. Lest we sing too loudly, however, the praises of young Dixon, let's remember that #2 after a first half of eight completions in 10 attempts, was a paltry four out of 16 for 48 yards in the 2nd half and overtime.
* The Steelers reversed the balance of their offense, running 60% of the time. One would have thought, though, that Pittsburgh's favorite scapegoat, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, would have rolled his greenhorn QB out more than twice. Putting the sophomore signal-caller on the edge brought TDs on both occasions, one by air and one by land. Seemingly plays on the perimeter worked so well Arians was reticent to exploit Dixon's fleetness afoot. Also, might the Steelers have too willingly sacrificed a scoring chance by choosing to run out the first half clock when gaining a first down at the 40 with 40 ticks remaining and a timeout in their pocket? At any rate, perhaps the team can continue in this run/pass vein once #7 returns to action.
* The offensive line responded to the challenge posed by the late QB switch with a performance that yielded 153 rushing yards, and no sacks surrendered. The Steelers had two big gainers deep into Baltimore territory, though, negated by holding calls, and were whistled a third time for a holding infraction. Third-down back Mewelde Moore was flagged, as was tight end Matt Spaeth. Combo Moore's three-yard loss in a big spot last week, along with David Johnson flat-out being a better blocker than Spaeth, and perhaps it's time to relegate this pair to the bench.
* The pass rush, led by linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons was fierce, netting four sacks; the secondary was not, yielding a long bomb and significant chunks of yardage underneath. Ike Taylor continues to need a campership to Ball Skills Overnite, Ryan Clark continues to look for the hit while ignoring the ball, and the defense appears to miss, in extraordinary fashion, the play and the spirit of Troy Polamalu.
*The streak of eight straight games with opponents' returns for touchdowns was broken, though the interception return in overtime by a Ravens' rookie defensive lineman was more damaging than any of the eight scoring runs.
There are no positives to note in that for the fourth time this year, the Steelers surrendered a 4th quarter lead on the road, this time after having battled back to overcome a deficit in the final frame. Against the Ravens, the Steelers' "legendary" defense yielded the tying score after putting the Baltimoreans in a 3rd & 22 predicament, and in deja vu of the September loss at Paul Brown Stadium, it was James Farrior a step too late in coverage on a 4th down play that would have likely won the game for the Black & Gold. There is no silver lining in that for the 2nd consecutive week, the Steelers received the overtime kickoff, and in the extra frame, found themselves on the cusp of field goal range, only to have the whole thing go awry. There is no pride in noting that the Steelers lost overtime games on consecutive weeks for the 2nd time in their history, the previous occasion being pre and post Thanksgiving Sundays of the 6-10 '86 campaign.
* If one searches, however, for hopeful, while not necessarily meaningful historical precedents, there are apt comparisons to the magical '05 season, which brought One for The Thumb to the Steel City:
* The loss was the Steelers 3rd in overtime in the city made famous by Edgar Allen Poe and Francis Scott Key. The most recent of these extra session defeats was in November of '05 with Tommy Maddox at the helm, after the Steelers had lost both Ben Roethlisberger and Charley Batch to injury.
* The Black & Gold last suffered a pair of overtime losses in a single season in '05.
* It was the Maddox Jacksonville Debacle of '05 when the Steelers last lost via an interception in overtime.
* The dubious feat of losing three games in a row marked the '05 season (they most recently endured 3-game losing streaks, a pair of them, in '06).
* Like Blanche Dubois, the Steelers depended on the kindness of strangers to gain a playoff spot in '05, needing not only to win their four final regular season games, but requiring two losses apiece by the Chiefs and Chargers.
For those who opine that the Steelers should not need to depend on the schadenfreudian misfortunes of others, consider the Steelers' good fortune in this regard over the years:
1976: On their way to a nine-game win streak, in which they surrendered a total of 28 points, the Steelers needed a Bengals' loss to secure a playoff spot. The Bengals lost to the Oakland Raiders on the season's next-to-last Monday night.
1977: Having lost a key divisional tilt at Riverfront, the Steelers once again needed a Bengals' loss for a playoff spot. The Bengals once again obliged, losing to the Oilers in the season's finale.
1989: Needing three games out of four to break their way on the season's final weekend, losses by the Raiders, Colts, and yes, the Bengals (apropos on Christmas Night) secured entry to the Tournament for the Steelers.
1993: Losses by the Dolphins and Jets put the Steelers in the playoffs on the season's final Sunday.
After a November that commenced with so much promise with the Beatdown at Mile High, the Steelers enter December on the outside of the Playoff Hunt looking in. On closer inspection though, Steeler Nation should remain hopeful when examining both their remaining games and those of the franchises whom they pursue:
* The Steelers play three of the next four in the friendlier confines of Heinz Field, with the lone road tilt at hapless Cleveland. After a pair of tomato cans in the person of the Raiders and Browns, the Steelers face sterner, but winnable challenges, versus Green Bay and Baltimore at Heinz.
* The Broncos, now at 7-4, must travel to play both Indianapolis and Philadelphia.
* Jacksonville, ahead of the Steelers, but with a matching 6-5 record, still must face undefeated Indianapolis, and venture to snowy Foxboro.
* Baltimore plays the Packers at Lambeau next week.
Five weeks remain in the 2009 NFL Schedule, sufficient time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to "unleash hell", per Head Coach Mike Tomlin, and enter the Annual Post-Season Tournament.
For more by Dave Villiotti, check out We're From the Town with the Great Football Team: A Pittsburgh Steelers Manifestoas well as We Cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘70s, available at both www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com