By David Todd
After starting the season 0-4 the Steelers have faced a string of must-win games in an attempt to stay relevant and in contention for a possible playoff spot. After winning two of those, they faltered Sunday losing to the Oakland Raiders 21-18 at O.co Colesium in Oakland. As has been the case in virtually all of their loses, the Steelers found themselves in a big early hole, fought back to make the game competitive, but ultimately fell short. On the first play from scrimmage Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor went 93-yards for a touchdown, an NFL record for a quarterback. The Steelers went three-and-out on their two opening possessions and the Raiders blocked the second punt and quickly went in for another score. Down 21-3 at the half, Pittsburgh managed 15 fourth quarter-points, but only got the ball back to run one play from their own 2-yard line to end the game. The Steelers defense looked unprepared and constantly off-balance with what the Raiders threw at them in the first half and the offense was equally out-of-sync. The defense completely shut down the Raiders in the second half and the offense was able to move the ball despite losing three offense linemen to injury, but ultimately they came up short and now at 2-5 may be just playing out the string.
The injuries the Steelers have suffered to offensive linemen over the past few years have been nothing short of remarkable...and devastating. The Steelers lost Maurkice Pouncey for the season in the opener and have been playing with a patchwork line ever since. Just as the line finally appeared to settle in with its best effort against Baltimore last week, three linemen left this game injured and unable to return. Left guard Ramon Foster left early in the first half with a concussion, Guy Whimper, who started the game at right tackle but move to left guard to replace Foster, went out with a left knee injury and right guard David DeCastro left with a right ankle injury. The Steelers don’t have the depth to overcome one long-term injury, let alone two or three.
*There are few positives to take away from this one other than the fact the offense battled until the end. Ben and the offensive line did a very nice job of keeping the play alive on the short touchdown pass to Manny Sanders to cut the Raiders lead to 21-10.
*Manny Sanders did a good job of getting the ball in the end zone on the two-point conversation which was a designed pass play.
*This was Ben’s worst game in a month and the two interceptions had little to do with it as one basically served as a punt and the other was not his fault. He was off-target early missing Antonio Brown on the Steelers opening play and then missing Heath Miller on a short cross on third down. He was not able to move the team at all in the first half, putting up only two first downs over six drives in the opening 29 minutes. And while Ben didn’t have great protection, he had the opportunity to throw the ball away on at least two of the five sacks.
Also, his time out call, with the game clock stopped and 1:43 remaining, was an incredibly poor decision which all but killed any small chance the Steelers had to comeback. We can add this sign to the quarterback/coaches meeting rooms under the Laws of Clock Management: “Never call a timeout in the last two minutes when down multiple scores, particularly when trying to avoid a delay of game penalty when the game clock isn’t moving.” Ben has to know 35 seconds is much more valuable than five yards, but this suggests maybe he didn’t.
*Continuing the clock management theme, the Steelers also mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half. Coming off an incompletion the offense had a 2nd-and-10 at the Oakland 36 with 49 seconds and one timeout. Ben completed an 11-yard pass to Felix Jones, got the team to the line and spiked the ball with 30 seconds left. The team has to have two plays called coming out of the huddle. There is no need to waste a down there. This has happened repeatedly this year. After a 9-yard gain on the next play and the use of the last timeout, Ben threw incomplete to Jones short right and the Steelers faced fourth down. The Steelers were probably lucky that Jones didn’t catch the ball as he had no chance to score and wasn’t going to get out of bounds. They didn’t take any shots at the end zone and Shaun Suisham missed a 34-yard FG, his first miss of the year.
*Much as in the Minnesota game, the Steelers didn’t come out when any visible sense of urgency in the second half. Their opening drive lasted 16-plays and used up 9:11 of clock and still left them with a 4th-and-9 at the Raiders 14. Sure it was brutal to come away with no points after a missed FG, but the drive used up 30% of the second half clock. No matter the outcome they were still going to be down at least two scores. Operating in that matter leaves no margin for error later and the Steelers ultimately paid the price.
*After rushing for a season high 141 yards last week, the Steelers gained only 35 yards on 19 carries. Their longest carry was eight yards. On the season the Steelers still only have one carry for more than 20 yards and Le’Veon Bell now has 64 carries without registering one for more than 11 yards.
*On the drive after the Polamalu INT down 14-0, the Steelers had 1st-and-10 on the Oakland 37. Oakland brought heavy pressure off the Steelers right side. Will Johnson went into the pattern and Marcus Gilbert didn’t recognize the scheme. Le’Veon Bell was left to block two men and Ben was sacked. The Steelers had to eventually settle for a 47-yard FG.
*In the first half the Steelers faced the following third downs: 9, 4, 7, 6, 10, 20 and 1. They failed to convert any of the seven.
*Antonio Brown has been the Steelers only reliable go-to offensive weapon, but he had two costly mistakes in this one. Early in the fourth quarter on a 3rd-and-15 from the Steelers 35, Roethlisberger hit Brown down the left sideline for what looked to be about a 25-yard gain. AB dropped the ball as he was hit going out-of-bounds and the Steelers were forced to punt. The next time the Steelers had the ball, set up by a 44-yard Brown punt return, he couldn’t hold onto a catchable slant, juggling it into the hands of Raiders DB Tracy Porter for an INT at the Raiders 20.
*Coming into this game Manny Sanders had been flagged for holding two weeks in a row and Le’Veon Bell was called for a 15-yard face mask penalty last week. Mike Tomlin discussed those mistakes and other pre-snap mistakes at his press conference this week. On the Steelers first possession of the second quarter, Sanders false-started on 3rd-and-five and on the next play Bell was called for holding and Ben for an illegal forward pass. Sanders was also called for offensive pass interference (declined) on the next series.
*The defense generated a season-high three turnovers and finally created some short fields for the offense, most-notably when Brett Keisel recovered a fumble, the team's first of the year, on the Raiders 11-yard line late in the game.
*Jarvis Jones’ pressure on Pryor in the first half led directly to Troy Polamalu’s INT, his first not against the Browns since 2010, the second turnover Jones has forced this season (Jets).
*The Steelers completely stuffed Oakland in the second half. In seven drives and 22 plays the Raiders only managed one first down and 41 total yards.
*The defense also managed to keep the Raiders passing game in check. Pryor finsihed 10-for-19 for 87 yards and two INTs and a quarterback rating of 25.7.
*Both Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin talked about Pryor’s ability to make plays with his legs leading up to the game. Pryor drove home the point with the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in NFL history on the game’s opening play as he went 93 yards for the score. Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley bit on the read-option dive fake to Darren McFadden crashing the edge and Pryor broke the LOS around right end with clear sailing. Ryan Clark was hopelessly out of position also biting early on the play-fake to provide run support. The middle of the field was left wide open. It was a complete lack of discipline by at least a couple Steelers on the play and made it 7-0, 19 seconds in.
*The Raiders absolutely gouged the Steelers on the ground in the first half piling up almost all of their 197 rushing yards and pushing around the Steelers defensive line. The Steelers had trouble containing both Pryor and Darren McFadden who took snaps out of the wildcat formation which gave the defense trouble. The Raiders put together an 11-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter where the only third down they had to convert was a 3rd-and-1 at the Steelers five. Hot knife through butter.
*The Steelers got two sacks late in the game to stop Raiders drives, but they weren’t able to get Pryor on the ground when they had opportunities in the first half (Woodley, Polamalu) and lost contain on multiple occasions.
*After dropping a crucial pass early in the fourth quarter, Antonio Brown returned a punt 44 yards to the Raiders 31. Unfortunately Brown would juggle another pass three plays later that would be intercepted.
*Shaun Suisham had back-to-back four field goal weeks and was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week last week. This week he was one of many goats. He missed field goals of 34 and 32 yards, his first two misses of the year. While it appeared at least one of the holds wasn’t great, he has to make those. No excuses.
*I’ll be genuinely surprised if Zoltan Mesko is with the team on Wednesday. He mishandled a snap in the first quarter and, combined with a poor block by David Paulson, had a punt blocked leading to the Raiders second touchdown. He had a few decent punts late, but it has to be too little, too late as he has not shown an ability to change field position or generate solid hang time.
*While recovering onsides kicks is always a long-shot, Shaun Suisham did not execute the late-game kick very well.
*Whether it was defensive adjustments or the Raiders unwillingness to take any risk with an 18-point lead, the Steelers did all the right things defensively in the second half.
*Mike Tomlin had some difficult decisions to challenge in a game that was filled with reviewable plays. In the first quarter down 14-0 he chose to challenge a clear first down completion to Heath Miller for 10 yards to the Steelers 48. He won the challenge but the Steelers ended up punting on the drive. While it is debatable to use a challenge in a spot like that on a play that is clearly not game-changing, down 14-0 it don’t think it was necessarily a poor decision by Tomlin.
*While giving lip-service to what the Raiders capabilities were during the week, the Steelers did not look prepared to handle the Oakland running attack in the first half. Mike Tomlin down-played or dissed, if you want to use the term in the headline here, the read-option in the offseason and the Steelers hardly practiced against it in the preseason. Today he might regret having said, “I understand that that’s the flavour of the month. We look forward to eliminating it.”
*As discussed above, the team's clock management continues to be beyond poor. With 2:44 left in the game the Steelers converted a 3rd-and-1 and did not get another play off until 2:10 was left. That play resulted in a sack so they got off one play between 2:44 and the two minute warning. They have to move with more urgency. Having two plays called in the huddle is a necessity and getting plays in from the sideline has to happen faster. Not having a play called because Ben and/or the staff was arguing for a horse collar tackle with 1:43 left and then burning an ill-advised timeout showed a complete lack of focus.
*The Steelers have now lost eight straight games outside of Eastern Standard Time. Maybe it's time for Mike Tomlin to think more about the travel arrangements.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Many plays were reviewed and the officials generally got most of them right with the initial call. Particularly impressive were the calls on the Raiders muffed punt and on the Tracy Porter interception, both of which correctly went against the Steelers and were not overturned.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the New England Patriots next week at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Kick-off is scheduled for 4:25 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, the Steelers Nation Radio app on iHeart Radio or DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.