Monday, September 12, 2011

Week 1, Ravens 35, Steelers 7

A 'WTF?' kind of day

By Mike Batista

The Steelers spent a ton of money during the offseason re-signing key players on defense.

Now they're stuck with those guys.

It looked like life couldn't get any better when the Steelers re-signed Troy Polamalu to a four-year contract a day before the season started, putting all their major contract concerns to rest.

The Steelers now have Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ike Taylor locked up long-term.

Maybe the Steelers should have let some players go into the final year of their contracts, because on Sunday they looked like a bunch of guys who had nothing to play for.

The Steelers defense forced no turnovers, while the Ravens forced seven in their 35-7 win.

Laid-back Camp Tomlin doesn't seem like such a great idea now, does it? Steelers coach Mike Tomlin takes it easy on his aging players during training camp, and this is what happens.

I hope Tomlin's a little tougher on the Steelers this week in practice. No shuffleboard. No drinks with little umbrellas. It's time to get to work because, in case the Steelers didn't know, the season has started.

No one needed to remind Ravens running back Ray Rice that the season has started. At the moment, Rice is the transcendent talent that controls which way the pendulum swings in this bitter rivalry, just like Polamalu was in 2008 and last season.

Without Polamalu's pick-six, the Ravens probably drive for a game-winning touchdown or field goal in the 2008 AFC championship game. Without Polamalu, the Ravens win last season's game in Baltimore, and the Steelers have to go the wild-card route to get to the Super Bowl.

Rice has the same uniqueness on offense that Polamalu does on defense. Defenders don't get a lot of practice tackling 5-foot-8 guys. In the last three years, only Rice has figured out how to gain 100 yards on the Steelers defense, and he's done it twice, including his 107 yards on 19 carries Sunday.

Rice is just as dangerous as a receiver. He caught four balls for 42 yards and hauled in a touchdown pass to go with his rushing TD.

Steelers fans who saw the game from the beginning knew what kind of day it would be right away when Rice picked up 36 yards on the first play from scrimmage.

I knew what kind of day it would be without even being aware of that play. This game, as well as few others, kicked off while names of those who died on Sept. 11 were still being read at Ground Zero in New York.

Having moved from New York to New Jersey last month, I found a Steelers bar where I could watch the game. When I walked in about 20 minutes before 1 p.m., CBS was showing the Sept. 11 memorial live. It went past 1 p.m., and since Steelers-Ravens was being televised locally in this area, DirecTV wouldn't play the game when the staff switched the channel.

If the Jets were playing at 1 p.m., I wonder if CBS would have switched to the game or stayed with the ceremony. It would have been a nice touch if the NFL could have waited for every name to be read before kicking off. Not every game started right at 1 p.m., so it looked like they waited a few minutes. Why couldn't they wait a few minutes longer?

So by the time the game came on at Danny's in Red Bank, the Steelers were down 7-0. Not long after that, Rice scored on a 1-yard run to make it 14-0.

Just like in their last game that mattered, the Steelers spotted their opponent 14 points. Unlike the Super Bowl, however, the Steelers responded with a touchdown instead of a wimpy field goal when Ben Roethlisberger threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, making it look like this would be a game.

Still, Sanders managed to show just how clueless the Steelers were on this day. On the ensuing kickoff, the Ravens' Lardarius Webb caught the ball in the end zone for a touchback. Sanders said something to Webb. Whatever it was, it was enough for Webb to look at Sanders as he ran by and for an official to calm Webb down.

The Ravens still had scoreboard at that point. Sanders should have kept his mouth shut.

Taylor, one of those Steelers defenders who signed a comfy contract this summer, also had some behavioral problems on Sunday.

Late in the third quarter, with the Steelers down 32-7, they stopped Rice on a third-and-1 at the Ravens' 25. The Ravens were going to have to punt and maybe, just maybe, the Steelers could get something going.

But Taylor was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, giving the Ravens a first down and allowing them to burn more time off the clock. The Ravens added a field goal in the fourth quarter to ensure that this would be the Steelers' biggest margin of defeat since the 1997 season opener, when they lost 37-7 at home to the Cowboys.

Sunday's loss was the Steelers' first in a season opener since 2002, when they got hammered 30-14 by the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. They entered Sunday's game with the NFL's longest active winning streak in season openers, which made it easy to forget just how bad they were in openers during the Bill Cowher era.

For some reason, it seemed losing openers at home to the Cowboys was part of a twisted formula to success in the 1990s. Despite that 30-point loss in 1997, they reached the AFC championship game. They also made it to the AFC title game in 1994 after losing 26-9 to the Cowboys in Week 1 that year.

In this day and age, however, reaching the AFC title game isn't enough for the Steelers. Anything short of a seventh Super Bowl victory this season will be a disappointment. While none of the Steelers' eight Super Bowl teams opened the season with a loss, a couple of Super Bowl champions in the past decade have started the season just as hideously as the Steelers did Sunday.

The 2003 Patriots opened with a 31-0 loss at Buffalo and went on to win Super Bowl XXXVIII. The 2007 Giants started 0-2, including a 35-13 loss to the Packers at home in Week 2. They ended up beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

So a season-opening loss, even one as humbling as the one suffered by the Steelers Sunday, doesn't necessarily doom a season.

Still, it's not the way you want to start.

1 comment:

  1. Not the way you want to start, but that's why they play 16 games. Way too early to panic.