Ivan’s Second Thoughts: Steelers vs. Ravens

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Courtney Upshaw, who made one of the best plays for the Steelers on Sunday…

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.

Coaching

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.

15 comments

  • I blame the head coach, he sent a team onto the field that wasn’t ready to compete. They looked as if they expected the win to be handed to them by just showing up. We hadn’t seen them play down to the level of competition this season like we have became accustomed to over the last few years. But it sure reared its ugly head, Sunday. It was an embarrassing performance.

    Oh well…

    Go Bills! Go Steelers!

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    • I disagree with the premise that the team wasn’t ready to compete. All week Tomlin talked about the importance of this game and how the records didn’t matter; that regardless of the teams being fielded, this was still Ravens Steelers. So I have a very hard time swallowing the “unprepared” argument.

      My issue is with offensive execution, and Ben in particular. Dropped passes, errant throws, and just horrible decisions lost this game. Our defense is what it has shown itself to be, inconsistent at best. So we’ve known all season and the team has known all season that winning will come from the offense putting up points. And in my opinion, the D gave the offense a chance to win this game with Tuitt making that stop and forcing the Ravens to punt. Down by three with almost three minutes left, a chance to to tie or win the game, on a day when we didn’t get any turnovers, with this offense; with the way our D plays what more could you ask for from them? Our Franchise QB didn’t deliver plain and simple and this is a serious concern of mine with Ben over the last couple of years when it comes to critical games where we need him to carry the team. He’s been a stat machine and can play out of his mind at times, but those times are totally irrelevant if he can’t come through when the team needs him most and I’m not talking about certain games we need to win I’m talking about THE games we need to win, such as this game.

      Liked by 2 people

  • As we sat there, jaws dropping, they went empty backfield, first and goal from the one. I said one word: “interception.” And you hollered, “oh, no!” And then, as you continued to wail in disbelief, they snapped the ball and the sum of our fears was realized.

    That may have been the single worst Steeler play call of the year.

    That offsides call saved Ben, as did another dropped interception that hit a defender in both hands. Ben had been scorching the league’s best defenses for six weeks in a row, and yet he had a terrible afternoon.

    They didn’t know that when they eschewed* the field goal attempt on the first drive. And they didn’t know that when they moved away from the ground game when Baltimore took the lead. They figured Ben has had the hot hand, so let’s go to the air and score another thirty-spot. But, as the wise guys at the tables in Vegas tell you, sooner or later, everybody rolls snake eyes.

    In the words of the great mid-century American philosopher Shirley Owens Alston Reeves, “Mama said there’d be days like this.”

    * eschewed: it’s a show-off word. This may be the first time Homer has ever used it – other than in a quote. Pay no mind. He’s in a bad mood.

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  • Ivan, well, like most of the faithful in Steelers Nation, I too am in shell shock.

    I don’t fault Tomlin for going for it on 4th so early in the game. If the Steelers convert “Tomlin boldly set the tone for the game.” And with an offense with the kind of firepower the Steelers have, they should be able to overcome a play like that.

    The empty set play….

    …Yeah, I’m not a big fan of empty sets, because as you say, there’s ZERO chance of a run.

    It just seemed like a case of being cute when the situation call for ramming it in and getting back to business of getting the ball back.

    With that said, neither Haley nor Butler was ready.

    In Haley’s case, the number of times Ben looked befuddled as he took it down to the wire was incredible, and something I’ve not seen since 2008. He got looks he was not expecting.

    As for Butler, let me suggest a different take than what you and Andy have proposed.

    This Steelers secondary does not scare anyone, not on their best day. Nothing Butler, Lake or Tomlin could have done would have changed that, short of building a time machine, going into the future and bringing back a fully matured and productive Senquez Golson and inserting him into the line up (yeah, a lot of wishful thinking there.)

    I’m not sure which game made this clear to me, but the fact is that when the Steelers get pressure, they tend to get turnovers, and when they get turnovers the Steelers win.

    So why Butler waited until the second half to bring pressure is beyond me. No one will confuse the second half effort with the return of Blitzgurgh, but the Steelers did get a little of a pass rush going, and Ryan Mallett looked like a good to average NFL QB, instead of Johnny Unitas reincarnated intent on pushing Pittsburgh for cutting him, which is how he looked in the first half.

    As for Ben….

    …I don’t know. I don’t want to scapegoat him, because he had help, plenty of help from the coaches and his teammates in this loss.

    But he was clearly off.

    Last week I posed the question about whether or not Ben’s penchant for “throwing stupid interceptions” had returned and if this was worrisome.

    Well, it seems to be back. And his struggles on the road now seem to form a pattern.

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  • Tomlin said this team can beat anyone or get beat by anyone (or something like that). I hate to say it, but that is on the coaching staff. Playoffs in hand and they sh!t the bed. If there is a worse loss than this under the current staff, someone please educate me.

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    • is there a worse loss during the Tomlin era? Right now it doesn’t feel that way, but would argue that perhaps there have been.

      The 2009 Steelers road loss to Todd Haley’s Chiefs was very, very bad and their loss two weeks later to the Raiders was worse. As was the Cleveland loss.

      You could also argue that the 2012 loss to San Diego after Charlie Batch upset of the Ravens at home was worse. Of course none of the games were “win today or else.”

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  • Oh well, I think everyone shares some blame. The Captain,(coach T) goes down with the ship but I am sure the guys sitting in those life boats know who is to blame.

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  • Loss like this can’t be put on one person. Frankly, if Big Ben is so good at going no-huddle and calling his own plays, etc., it is difficult to understand how the Ravens could so flummox him. It doesn’t make much sense for the defense to have issues with Mallett. Everything had to go wrong for a 10 point favorite to lose, and it pretty much did.

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  • I’m still ill.

    Liked by 1 person

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    I am still glad I didn’t get to watch this one. I would have been more upset that an obvious trap game turned out to be a trap. Coaches can have some of the blame but, as is usual in these cases, there is usually enough for everyone. Coaches or not, Ben deserves a big part of the blame.

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  • I want to make a couple of additional points. My criticisms of the team’s effort was not as comprehensive or nuanced as they might have been, but frankly the piece might have been three times as long. As I tried to point out at the end, a lot of people, players and coaches, have to take a hard look at themselves and decide as the whether they had properly prepared for the challenge of what was, in essence, a playoff game regardless of the record of the opponent.

    With that said, I would like to double down on one thing and bring up another that hasn’t been discussed much but speaks to a larger problem with the league.

    When I suggested that Ben (and Haley for that matter) need to be smarter, I am thinking that there are times when the ego has to take a back seat in favor of what is the best course of action for the team. There are situations where rolling the dice may be desirable, even necessary. And then there are times when taking certain risks are completely unwarranted. For two weeks running, and at other times as well, such as the first Bengals game, Ben attempted to make plays that were not necessary or prudent. It takes talent and intelligence to win.

    And what about the Antonio Brown touchdown pass that wasn’t? The rules in this regard make no sense to me, and to overrule the decision on the field, and the inconsistent way in which this and other decisions are being made is causing some people to talk openly about the ‘F’ word, and whether the league is on the up and up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      The “F” word has come to mind for me many times this season. Whether it is instituted at the league head office or if it is just happening on an official by official basis, there is so much money involved and so many questionable calls that I think a serious investigation is warranted and I don’t mean one initiated by the league. Perhaps a federal investigation though I am not certain under whose auspices this would fall.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Great comments, Ivan. I think it’s really hard to draw the line between playing to win and foolhardy risk. Ben’s pick in the Denver game was clearly over the line and foolhardy. Decisions to go on fourth and one are less clear and I think within the coach’s prerogative, though as you suggest, perhaps some introspection be in order.

      I’m still totally pissed over the AB call. This “what is a catch” has to be simplified. The fact that the ball moved about a foot along AB’s body while he completed the catch does not seem to be indicative that he did not have control of the ball when the first foot went down. It’s hair splitting and it’s stupid. It is especially galling that it’s overturned on an automatic review because it was a scoring play. To me, there should be no automatic reviews, there are enough delays without them and re is certainly no less controversy now than before replay review was instituted. Reform it or scrap it. Bottom line – AB caught the ball.

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