By Jeremy Hritz
The momentum has been stifled, and the longest win streak for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 ends at three games, one better than their previous streak of two. If this pattern continues, their next streak will be four in a row, and they could keep their slim playoff possibilities afloat at least until the final gun sounds on the NFL season.
The loss against the Ravens was indeed a heartbreaker, yet despite the final outcome, there were several components of the performance to be satisfied with, specifically the continued above-the-line play of the offensive line, the pass catching and running by the versatile rookie Le’Veon Bell, and the solid first-half for Jason Worilds.
With that said, it was the secondary, which has become the greatest weakness of this team, that played the biggest role in the loss in Baltimore. Sure, you can point to the cadence error in the field goal attempt or the dropped pass to Emmanuel Sanders for the two-point conversion, but the play that set the tone for the entire game and put the Steelers in catch up mode was the 54-yard bomb to Torrey Smith from Joe Flacco. This set up an eventual seven yard pass to Smith that gave the Ravens a 7-0 lead that the Steelers could not overcome.
When the game was all said and done, Flacco finished 24/35 for 251 yards and one touchdown, and while not gaudy numbers, they were efficient enough to help the Ravens achieve a 58% third-down conversion percentage that ultimately was the difference in the football game.
While the season isn’t over by a longshot, and a great deal can happen in four games, the Steelers secondary has not made the improvements that other units of this team have in 2013, and it could be the result of the aging of several key starters in the defensive backfield. Through twelve games this season, the Steelers secondary has given up 11 pass plays of 40 yards or more, tied for sixth worse in the league, and more disturbingly, have consistently demonstrated a weakness in tackling the catch. What it adds up to are drive-extending, and in some cases, like the pass to Smith, or in previous games against Cincinnati, Chicago, Minnesota, and New England, game changing plays that the Steelers cannot recover from.
The element of pressure has to be considered a factor in the play of the secondary, as Flacco and others have had the time to dissect the defense, but when every other week there appears to be miscommunication amongst the DBs as far as deep responsibilities and when opposing teams receivers are one to three yards ahead of Steelers defenders, pressure cannot fingered as the exclusive cause.
It’s not that the secondary has been god-awful.
Over the course of the season, the secondary has played good enough to hold opposing quarterbacks to an 83.7 passer rating and a 58.3 completion percentage, but they rank in the middle of the pack as far as yards surrendered per game at 225.4, which positions them as the 14th best passing defense in the NFL.
While 14th in the NFL may be good enough to win games when you have explosiveness on offense to score points at will and the playmakers at other defensive positions to create turnovers, it is not enough for this Steelers team to compensate for their other shortcomings, and this has resulted in the unevenness of the season.
Again, with four games to play, the Steelers could get hot again and somehow find a way to get back in this thing. Or, the floodgates could have been opened for how opponents will attack for the remainder of the season.
Do Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu have enough left in their legs to make it a memorable four game stretch? Or has their time come and gone and will we see more of the same?