Ivan’s Second Thoughts: Steelers vs. Ravens
by Ivan Cole
Ivan got this to me after I had already headed out for a six hour trip to see my mother, so I’m just posting it now. He said he needed time to cool off. I think maybe he didn’t cool off quite as much as he thought he did. You’ve been warned…
Okay, let me say at the outset that this isn’t a fire someone set up. I am asking for your help because of something I honestly don’t understand. So please talk me down from the ledge on this one.
When the situation is first and goal at the one yard line why would you line up in an empty set? Just to clarify, that means no one but the quarterback in the backfield, and just to remove all doubt, in shotgun formation as well. This is just not a knock on Todd Haley. Bruce Arians did this kind of thing too. It just seems to me that you have made the job of the defense so much easier. They don’t have to be concerned at all about the run, and are able to defend the pass in the most confining space possible.
We saw this kind of smart thinking in Super Bowl 43 with Haley (James Harrison was the beneficiary), and more recently in Super Bowl 49. Running the ball is too boring, too predictable, let’s trick ‘em! Or in this case, let’s not. We have four downs to get the ball in the end zone, hell with it, we’re passing, try and stop us.
What I remember was literally screaming at the television when I saw the formation and then watched in horrified disgust as the pass was intercepted and returned the length of the field.
[‘sigh’] Thank God for Courtney Upshaw in this case.
The story here is about greed and hubris. Maybe they were looking to achieve some level of high art. Perhaps this was the interpretation of not living in your fears. Of course, my version of not living in your fears is believing that your running back can get a yard in two or three tries.
But obviously I’m missing something here. Please help me out.
Let’s start there. Though it hurts me to say it, the failure begins here. Although Haley’s goal line antics were the most egregious failing of the day in my opinion, there is enough blame to go around.
How about Keith Butler? As my brother pointed out, the issues which brought this unit to grief at the beginning of the season, namely a sense of being unprepared for what they were facing, is still characterizing their efforts at the end. They dodged the bullet last week, were not so lucky this week. Why, you may ask, can’t they do on a consistent whistle to gun basis (though they really don’t use guns anymore) what they are able to achieve sporadically?
Homer wondered whether they simply lacked the talent to do so. Maybe. But changing hats and speaking for the defense, let me suggest another explanation. Systems aren’t built in a day. It was considered a truism that Dick LeBeau’s defense took years for most players to master. This has been one of the explanations given for the early struggles of Haley’s offense as well. And if I were tasked with defending Chip Kelley of the Eagles I might base my case on some variation of that argument. While Butler’s system was allegedly less complicated and was very similar to the old system, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be growing pains associated with its implementation. Time will tell. Assuming everyone isn’t fired by sundown.
And then there was Tomlin’s decision to forego a field goal and attempt to execute a fourth down run. With the beauty of hindsight this was the difference between overtime and a loss. At the time, I and no one I was with had a particular problem with the decision. The team was moving the ball well on the ground. You could almost say that the Steelers might have been accused of being timid if they hadn’t gone for it. However, history being your guide, with Steelers/Ravens three points can be a lot of points, and often the margin between victory and defeat.
My point is, my confusion and ambiguity about concepts like ‘taking what they give us’ and ‘not living in our fears’. Could you not say in this case that taking what they gave us was an opportunity for three points, extremely valuable and sometimes rare in the context of this rivalry? Could you also say that not living in our fears is that taking those three points at that time will prove to be enough, even if the final score happens to be 3-0?
Why is not living in our fears most often interpreted as swinging for the fences, looking for the knockout punch when it could also mean have faith that a steady diet of jabs can do the job as well? Muhammed Ali made a very good living based upon that philosophy. More on this angle soon.
But about this taking what they give us business. My problem is that it seemed awfully one sided. Why was Ben, a pro bowl quarterback leading a top ranked offense so confused and discombobulated that they had to call two time outs early in the second half to run a play and took a delay of game penalty to boot? Meanwhile, the Ravens quarterback has been with the team five minutes and had no such problems. We weren’t dictating much of anything. Perhaps they thought that doing so was unnecessary? That we could just steamroll them with superior talent. That might provide the best explanation as to why a team with absolutely nothing to gain could match and exceed the intensity of team that had more to gain and lose with the outcome.
Now back to greed.
I haven’t seen any of the postgame comments or interviews. I’m sure Ben was contrite. I wish he were a little smarter. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of the Broncos game when Ben made a decision that had basically zero reward and very high, potentially catastrophic risk. And then he was left looking for all the world like Jerome Bettis when he fumbled in Indianapolis, having to be picked up by some of his teammates while others went out and saved his bacon.
He didn’t learn much from that, apparently. I am not objecting to the high wire nature of the Steelers attack. But like so many things in life timing is everything. There is a time to go for the splash play and then there is the time to go for a first down. There is a time to go empty set, but not first and goal on the one. There is a time to put your amazing skills on display, to throw that haymaker. And then there is time to just throw the jab. Ask George Foreman.
So the good and bad news is that character flaws were exposed today among players and coaches. Without firing anyone, let the soul searching begin, and let’s see what comes out on the other side.