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What we really learned, both on the field and in the league office, from Steelers-Ravens 2.0

Wednesday, the Steelers narrowly defeated AFC North rival Baltimore via a 19-14 decision to remain perfect. The game took place nearly a week later than initially anticipated, bringing to a close the longest week in NFL history. 

Not only was week 12 the longest in league history, it was one of the strangest as well. Among the laundry list of oddities to be seen: A Baltimore Ravens COVID-19 outbreak waged on, wreaking havoc on the NFL schedule, ultimately leading to a Wednesday NFL game for just the second time since 1949; The Detroit Lions cleaned house, firing both their head coach and general manager mid-season; The San Francisco 49ers were left homeless (or stadium-less I should say) after the city of Santa Clara kicked the team out of Levi’s Stadium for at least their next two home games. As a result, the 49ers will relocate to Glendale, Arizona, beginning with their Week 13 game against the Buffalo Bills. And, most bizarre, the Denver Broncos played a real NFL game using a practice squad quarterback after their entire QB room was rendered ineligible due to coronavirus issues.

The Steelers-Ravens game was noteworthy in its own right. The Steelers remained unbeaten (11-0) on the season despite delivering easily their worst performance of the season. While they deserve credit for the win, neither signal caller Ben Roethlisberger nor head coach Mike Tomlin minced words when discussing the team performance postgame. 

“Obviously we won, but it sure doesn’t feel like it,” Roethlisberger said. “It starts with me. It’s a mental game, it’s been a challenging and draining week but at the end of the day we need to step on the field and play good football when it’s time.”

As for Tomlin, an NFL Coach of the Year candidate, his comments were even more pointed, a surprise from the traditionally even-keeled and mild-mannered coach. 

“To be bluntly honest, I’m really disappointed in our performance tonight,” he said after Pittsburgh narrowly eked out a 5-point victory improved to 11-0. “We did enough to win tonight, that’s all.”

He even went so far as to liken his teams play to that of a junior varsity squad and said his team just “sucked” in certain areas of play, but elected not to go into further detail. 

Statistically speaking, its easy to see why the Super Bowl XLIII winning coach is a bit miffed. For Pittsburgh, it was as if the theme of the game was, “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Well, Wednesday afternoon, a lot went wrong at Heinz Field for the team wearing black:

  • Despite a season-high 51 pass attempts, Roethlisberger ended with a rather underwhelming 266 yards, averaging just 5.2 yards per completion, Ben’s lowest average of the season. 
  • There was a smattering of dropped passes by multiple Steelers’ wide receivers. More concerning though was the fact that the drops in question were indeed passes, catchable, makeable passes.
  • The Steeler special teamers were abysmal. First, Chris Boswell missed yet another extra point. Then, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled a punt that later turned into an easy score for Baltimore. 
  • The Steelers had two turnovers, both of which proved costly. The first being, a Roethlisberger interception thrown in the endzone that surely took points off the board for the Black & Gold. The second turnover, the aforementioned McCloud botched punt return gave the ball back to the Ravens deep in Pittsburgh territory. It quickly led to a Ravens’ touchdown. 
  • The Pittsburgh rushing attack was grossly ineffective. The running back duo of Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. accounted for just 69 total yards on a combined 19 carries. Comparatively, Baltimore quarterback Robert Griffin III accounted for 68 yards himself on just nine runs. As a team, the Ravens tallied 129 rush yards and a score.  
  • The Steelers were held to under 20 points for the first time all season. As if scoring just 19 points against a deeply depleted Ravens team wasn’t bad enough, six of those points came via a Joe Haden interception that was returned for a touchdown.  
  • Pittsburgh was once again bitten by the devastating injury bug. After losing linebacker Devin Bush to a torn ACL against Cleveland earlier this year, fellow linebacker Bud Dupree suffered an identical fate – a torn ACL on a non-contact play.

So, the obvious takeaway from what was a rare Wednesday afternoon football game, a game that was squeezed in just prior to the 88th Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are fortunate that their record remains blemish-free. 

It also is worth mentioning that the Ravens played a heck of a game. Despite not having their starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, their top two running backs, their top wide receiver, three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen and more, Baltimore still had a chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter. Plus, who knows what happens if Griffin III doesn’t pull a hamstring, forcing him to leave the game. Baltimore gave all they had and nearly won, truly a remarkable feat given the circumstances. 

Few would argue with the statement that the “bend but don’t break” style of play the Steelers have relied on all year will hold up in the postseason against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. The reality is that the Steelers have a lot of work to do if they want this stellar regular season to mean anything at seasons end, Roethlisberger knows this and Tomlin clearly does too. 

Off the field, the way in which the NFL’s whirlwind Week 12 unfolded also revealed some equally noteworthy (and disturbing) information about the fate of the 2020 regular season and beyond.

The decisions made by both Roger Goodell and the NFL league office, particularly those pertaining to the Broncos-Saints game and the previously discussed Steelers-Ravens contest tell me the following: 

The 2020 NFL season is not a fair season. The season hasn’t been fair up until this point and it likely will not be completely fair and equitable moving forward. This is true for two reasons: 

  1. This season is not fair because of an uncontrollable deadly virus that does not give a damn about NFL football. 
  1. This season is not fair because the NFL league office does not care about “being fair.” The NFL has decided what matters most to them is making sure that not a single NFL game is cancelled in 2020.  With that, they will push through and play every game regardless of whether it is safe, fair, or just. 

In the end, the NFL has set a very dangerous precedent. It has chosen to put generating revenue above both the health and safety of its players and the integrity of the game itself. Rather than cancel a game in the interest of player safety or to prevent a clear and obvious competitive advantage, the NFL chooses to surge forward and finish this season one way or another without missing a game. 

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter illuded to this revenue-first mentality earlier this week on Monday Night Countdown prior to the Eagles-Seahawks game on Monday Night Football

“The show goes on,” Schefter said demonstratively on Monday Night Countdown. “If you don’t think the league is determined to plow through the season and play all these games, and cash in on all this TV revenue, then you’re not paying attention.”

The team that wins Super Bowl LV will deserve credit. That team will have found a way to persevere and perform under the most uncertain of circumstances during a frightening time in our society. That said, the team that brings home football’s highest honor likely won’t be the best team, the strongest team, or the team with the most wins because if the debacle that was Week 12 has taught us anything, it is that the NFL isn’t fair in 2020. 

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