The Pittsburgh Steelers took the second of back-to-back losses on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals as the Bengals routed the Steelers 41-10 to complete the season sweep. QB Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ defense was beaten up and the offense was stagnant for the entirety of the game. The quarterback went 24 of 41 for 263 yards, one touchdown, and 2 costly interceptions. I mentioned last week the fact that Roethlisberger hadn’t thrown an interception for almost two months; boy, did I put my foot in my mouth?! WR Diontae Johnson kept on churning all the way through garbage time to lead the team in receiving once again, collecting 9 receptions for 95 yards. The Steelers move to 5-5-1 on the season and are back at home for another big-time divisional game against the AFC North leading Baltimore Ravens (8-3) Sunday at 4:25pm ET. Most fans considered last week a must-win situation, but the Steelers are still in the hunt in the AFC playoff picture. To quote HC Mike Tomlin, it’s time for this team to “smile in the face of adversity,” and bounce back in a big way against the Ravens or it could be the nail in the coffin for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Before we go into tomorrow’s matchup with a “we’re onto Baltimore” type of mentality, let’s briefly talk about what happened last week in the lackadaisical performance against the Bengals.
Last week in review
The 3 things I noted to keep an eye on last week were:
1) Guess Who’s Back?
With the return of OLB TJ Watt and FS Minkah Fitzpatrick, my fandom and blinding bias was expecting this defense to get back on track and capture a couple of splash plays. The truth is, this is a different and battered defense than a season ago. To reiterate, what former Steelers’ safety Ryan Clark stated this past week, “this defense lacks physicality.” The team has been unable to mask the absence of DE Stephon Tuitt and NT Tyson Alualu, especially the past few weeks in the running game. The defense currently ranks 28th in the league in run defense over the season. Teams successfully running the football against the Steelers has opened the door for opposing offense’s passing games to flourish as well. Another point that deserves reiteration that Clark noted this past week, Fitzpatrick has turned into a 5th linebacker because of the defense’s struggle to stop the running game. The defenses has crippled one of the league’s best playmaking safeties because of the failure to stop opponents’ rushing attack at the second level. Last week, it also seemed clear that Watt was not 100% health wise, but the Steelers’ defense is desperate for stops and lack competent depth at almost all positions. A 70% Watt is still significantly better than a 100% Taco Charlton.
2) Testing the Secondary
With the absence of CB Joe Haden, it was inevitable for the Bengals and QB Joe Burrow to test the Steelers’ passing defense. Especially after they had success with the running game early on last week. Burrow completed 20 of 24 for 190 yards for 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Obviously, this doesn’t look like a mind-blowing stat line for a league that has some incredibly explosive offenses, but it was all the quarterback needed to do with how dominant RB Joe Mixon was in the rushing attack. Mixon collected 165 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries on the day. CB James Pierre filled in for Haden and was made to look like amateur a couple of times with the ball in the air. On a day that the Steelers were missing a vital piece of the secondary, poor tackling by everyone and gaping holes created by the Bengals’ offensive line spelled disaster for the Steelers’ defense for an entire 60 minutes.
3) Find the balance, piece it all together!
A week removed from finding some magic on offense and scoring 27 points in the 4th quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Steelers seemed to have done just the exact opposite of that against the Bengals. All three phases collapsed. I expected the Steelers’ offense to finally click in some way. That just wasn’t the case at all. The Steelers posted just 10 points. The team lost the turnover battle and was just beaten up for 4 quarters.
Let’s take a look at 3 things we should watch for against the Ravens:
1) It’s Time to Get Physical
It’s Week 13, it’s time for this team to put up or shut up. Like or not, the couple of former Steelers that were explaining their displeasure with the team’s performance have a lot of good points. If there was week for the team to kick into gear and play with a physical and controlled rage, it’s Ravens week! It’s a historical rivalry that is notorious for the physicality exhibited during matchups perennially. The Steelers’ defense is running out of excuses. Sure, the team has been plagued with injuries and has been missing some vital players in several games this season, but the Steelers aren’t that team. Excuses aren’t acceptable in Pittsburgh; they never have been. This team has to overcome the cards that are stacked against them and play up to the tradition of winning football. Tomorrow’s matchup against the division leading Ravens is a must win, if I have ever seen one. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ offense isn’t playing with any kind of physicality either. This young offensive line might need a shakeup to become more physical. Is it time that we insert T Zach Banner into the starting lineup, or at least see him come in more often as an “eligible receiver” as an extra run blocker? I think the team needs to shake up something, attempt to get some things going on offense to produce points. There is no magical cure for the Steelers’ struggles, and the only option is be more physical and execute better. The definition of insanity is to repeat the same things and expect different results. Expect to see the Steelers try some different things on offense to exhibit more physicality, whether it be a change on the offensive line, more run heavy packages, or maybe even the use of FB Derek Watt more than once or twice this game.
2) Find a way to stop the Ravens powerful rushing attack
We have activated LB T.J. Watt from the Reserve/COVID-19 List.https://t.co/i39se8z7Ql
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 4, 2021
The Steelers rank 28th against the run as a defense and the Ravens are 2nd in the league on the offensive side of the ball in the same category. If the Steelers’ defense doesn’t play more physical than they have this season, the Ravens could break the rushing yards per game NFL record tomorrow. The Steelers need to force QB Lamar Jackson to beat them through the air to even have a chance. If the Steelers’ defense struggles tackling and gap filling physically against the Ravens, you could see a repeat of last Sunday’s beat down. The progression of the feelings of the Steelers’ chances on Sunday have been wild this past week. At the beginning of the week, Watt had been placed on the Reserved/COVID-19 list. Yesterday around noon, news trickled out that defensive captain DE Cameron Heyward was battling an illness (not related to COVID) and fans continued to expect to see another thrashing in tomorrow’s matchup against the Ravens. Since then, Watt has been activated off the Reserve/COVID 19 list and reports have come out that the Steelers are optimistic about Heyward’s availability tomorrow evening. And a glimmer of hope shines through the darkening hopelessness. Even with Heyward and Watt hopefully both playing tomorrow, the Steelers defense will still be tested on the ground due to their struggling performances the past several weeks. On the positive side of Watt spending the week at home due to being placed on the Reserve/COVID 19 list, Watt had the chance to recover from a nagging hip and knee injury that had him inactive against the Chargers in Week 11. Expect to see a healthier Watt and hopefully Heyward as well make a big impact on Sunday against a high-powered rushing attack. They have to or this season will fade further into the abyss.
In addition to getting TJ Watt back, Steelers feeling good about the availability of Cam Heyward as well for tomorrow's critical game against the Ravens
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) December 4, 2021
3) The Response
This is when Tomlin’s Steelers usually respond with big wins. Their backs are against the wall, talking heads are back to discussing the end of a winning culture in Pittsburgh, and the possibility of Tomlin having his first losing season as head coach of the team. With 6 weeks left in the season, the Steelers sit at 5-5-1 and have a difficult stretch of opponents left on the schedule. However, for some reason, I still can’t concede that this team is going to go out without some type of fight. That’s just not the Steelers’ way. Call me what you will, a fanboy, an unrealistic optimist, or crazy, I expect to see the Steelers respond well in all three phases of football tomorrow against the Ravens. It’s time for one of those Tomlin coached masterpieces. It all starts with how the Steelers come out physically. It’s time to hit the opponent in the mouth on both sides of the ball, again. If the Steelers’ defense can contain Jackson and the Raven’s rushing attack, they just might have a chance to get back into the win column.