Mike Tomlin isn’t one for excuses. Even as COVID-19 wreaked havoc with his team’s schedule, pushing their matchup with Baltimore from Thanksgiving night to middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week in the middle of a pandemic, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers coach refused to reach for one.
So while the Steelers stayed perfect with a disjointed 19-14 win over the undermanned Ravens in the first NFL game on a Wednesday in eight years, their play was anything but. And Tomlin knows it.
“To be bluntly honest, I’m really disappointed in our performance tonight,” he said after Pittsburgh improved to 11-0. “We did enough to win tonight, that’s all.”
Calling it “junior varsity”-level play, Tomlin seethed in the aftermath, a testament to both how high the bar is set and just how far the Steelers came from clearing it.
Asked about an offense that managed just one touchdown in four trips to the red zone — missed opportunities that allowed the Ravens (6-5) to hang around until the final minutes — Tomlin didn’t offer analysis as much as rage.
“Us sucking,” he said, declining to get into specifics.
There really was no need to.
The Steelers turned it over twice, once on a fourth-down heave into the end zone by Ben Roethlisberger, the other a fumbled punt by Ray-Ray McLoud that set up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Gus Edwards. They let Baltimore backup quarterback Robert Griffin III briefly turn back the clock to his 2012 Rookie of the Year season and looked at times like a team in the middle of ho-hum midweek practice — which, to be fair, Wednesdays typically are — rather than a showdown with its longtime rivals.
“Obviously we won, but it sure doesn’t feel like it,” said Roethlisberger, whose 1-yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster early in the fourth quarter gave the Steelers a 12-point lead they flirted with squandering. “Just not good football. 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.”
Ravens ravaged by COVID absences
Pittsburgh didn’t for long stretches, though some of the credit goes to a spirited effort from the Ravens. Running onto Heinz Field missing more than a dozen players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore didn’t exactly roll over.
While Griffin completed just 7 of 12 passes for 33 yards and a first-quarter Pick-6 by Joe Haden that gave the Steelers an early lead, Griffin ran for a game-high 68 yards before leaving in the fourth quarter with a left hamstring injury. Trace McSorley, one of 11 players promoted from the practice squad, came on and connected with Marquise Brown for a 70-yard touchdown with 2:58 to go. But the Steelers were able to drain the clock behind a third-down grab by James Washington, eliminating the Ravens from repeating as AFC North champions.
HUGE third down conversion!<a href=”https://twitter.com/JamesWashington?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@JamesWashington</a> | 📺 NBC 📱<a href=”https://t.co/tI5aUTu7te”>https://t.co/tI5aUTu7te</a> <a href=”https://t.co/lGXfaYxJBs”>pic.twitter.com/lGXfaYxJBs</a>
“The way the game went, obviously we wanted to win,” Griffin said. “We felt like we had a chance to come in here and win, shock the world and do something special. I put it on myself. I feel like if I didn’t pull my hamstring in the second quarter we would have won. It was really emotional trying to fight through that. I feel like I let my guys down.”
A COVID-19 outbreak in Baltimore forced the NFL to push the game back three times: first from Thanksgiving to Sunday, then from Sunday to Tuesday, and eventually from Tuesday to Wednesday. The teams kicked off in the afternoon to not interfere with NBC’s annual Christmas special at Rockefeller Center.
Good idea. The fewer eyeballs on this one the better.
While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called it “a great game,” the product on the field suggested otherwise.
The Ravens were trailing 12-7 late in the second quarter when a 39-yard sprint by Griffin helped move the ball to the Pittsburgh 1. A handoff to Gus Edwards on second down went nowhere. Out of timeouts, the Ravens could have spiked the ball to set up a field goal to draw within two at the break. Instead, Baltimore nearly converted, but Luke Willson — a reserve who had played all of 21 offensive snaps on the season coming in — couldn’t bring in Griffin’s pass in the end zone.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh thought Pittsburgh’s defense took its time — perhaps too much of it — getting up after stopping Edwards, allowing the clock to tick away.
“We knew we had enough time to run the two plays we wanted to run,” He said. “I just feel like if you’re laying on the ground like that you’re either injured or it’s delay of game.”