BY WILL GRAVES
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s not-so-nimble footwork provided a pretty good impersonation of his team’s decidedly graceless season during a 22-20 loss to Baltimore on Thursday night.
Tomlin got caught looking at the scoreboard and walking a little too close to the field of play during a kickoff return by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones in the third quarter. When Tomlin realized the streaking Jones – and Pittsburgh’s possible playoff hopes – were about to pass him by, Tomlin lamely and belatedly attempted to get out of the way.
While the Tomlin tango might have prevented Jones from making it to the end zone, the damage was already done.
The Ravens (6-6) used the great field position to kick a field goal as the defending Super Bowl champions made it back to .500 while Pittsburgh (5-7) saw its three-game winning streak and the momentum that came along with it disappear like so many Thanksgiving leftovers.
“It was wrong and I take responsibility for it,” Tomlin said.
The NFL will take a look at Tomlin’s inattentiveness during its usual game review sometime next week. Whether or not any action is taken, the moment crystallized a fall in which the Steelers haven’t realized they were in trouble until it was almost too late.
Pittsburgh rallied from a 2-6 start to get into the thick of postseason contention in the mediocre AFC. A lifeless first half against the Ravens, however, looked an awful lot like the Steelers’ listless play during September and October.
The defense failed to pick up a turnover or a sack. A botched field-goal attempt in the first half cost Pittsburgh a chance at three points it certainly could have used at the end. The offense moved steadily, but mostly just bit off yardage in small chunks.
For all their missteps, however, the Steelers still had a chance to tie it after Jerricho Cotchery’s 1-yard touchdown pass with 1:03 remaining. Ben Roethlisberger’s back-shoulder fade to Emmanuel Sanders on the 2-point conversion attempt smacked off Sanders’ hands and hit the turf.
Both quarterback and receiver took blame for the incompletion. Either way, when the Steelers failed to execute the ensuing onside kick, whatever wiggle room Pittsburgh had in making the playoffs disappeared.
The Steelers likely need to win their final four games to have any shot of the wild card, starting on Dec. 8 against Miami.
“We can’t worry about this game,” guard Ramon Foster said. “There’s really nothing negative to take out of it. We need to finish better, but ... we needed to start a lot better. We put ourselves in a big hole. We’ll just go back to work and go from there.”
It sounds similar to the rhetoric the Steelers repeated relentlessly during their lethargic opening eight games. Had they found a way to generate something before falling behind 13-0, things might have been different. It’s something that has happened far too often on the road this year, where Pittsburgh is just 2-5.
At least the Steelers won’t have to travel much in their quest to avoid consecutive non-winning seasons for the first time since 1998-2000. Their only game away from Heinz Field in December is a trip to Green Bay the weekend before Christmas.
Given the uncertain nature of the conference, the Steelers could be right there by Dec. 22 or pointing toward 2014. They have looked like one of the NFL’s better teams over the last month, thanks in part to the development of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.
Yet Bell’s status going forward remains unknown after he sustained a concussion following a vicious hit at the goal line on Pittsburgh’s final drive, when his helmet was knocked loose and his head slammed to the ground. Bell declined to speak Friday. Though he’ll have three extra days to recover before Pittsburgh faces the Dolphins, his immediate future, like his team’s, is murky at best.
Not that the Steelers are inclined to feel sorry for themselves. The margin between themselves and the Ravens has been razor thin for the better part of the last decade. It was much the same on Thanksgiving night. A play here, a play there and Pittsburgh could be talking about finally getting to .500.
Instead, the Steelers are trying to regroup one more time, knowing one more misstep and any outside hopes of playing into January are gone for good.
“We’ve got to get back to it,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “The season still isn’t over with. We still have to play football games. There’s no time to pout or whine. We just have to get ready for the next game.”