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Saunders: Despite Struggles, Steelers Had Hope, But Ravens Took It Away



Steelers Alex Highsmith

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers did not have a strong start to their 2022 season, but after showing steady second-half improvement and two straight wins entering Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, they had a narrow path to the playoffs and hope of a somewhat successful season.

When the Ravens ruled former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson out of Sunday’s game, that narrow path became a bit wider. If the Steelers could have beaten the Ravens, then the moribund Carolina Panthers in Week 15, they were staring at a .500 record with three weeks to play.

At the very least, their future was in their hands.

Sunday, they fumbled that chance. More accurately, it was intercepted.

The Steelers turned the ball over three times in what became a 16-14 loss to the Ravens, with backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky unable to match his opposite parts in Tyler Huntley and Anthony Brown.

“We definitely had a huge opportunity today,” Trubisky said. “We know that.”

The Steelers are not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention despite their loss. If they win out to get to 9-8, with a 3-3 record against AFC North opponents, they will at least have a shot of getting into the playoffs, and will probably remain in contention through early January.

But there’s a difference between mathematical contention and hope. They have one. It’s hard to believe that after Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, they have the other.

It’s not just that the Steelers lost to Baltimore, a team with a clearly better record and likely more talent across the board. It’s the way it happened.

The Ravens were playing their second- and third-string quarterbacks, in Tyler Huntley and Anthony Brown. Huntley entered the game with a career 1-3 record as a starter and a 77.3 passer rating. Brown, an undrafted rookie, was making his NFL debut. The Ravens were nearly forced to run the ball.

“I think everybody knew that,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Steelers did the things that teams can’t do in close games. They turned the ball over, had special teams gaffes, and couldn’t get a big play when they needed one.

“It’s a missed opportunity because we didn’t take advantage of it,” defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. “Just too many mistakes. Especially late in the year. You commend the Ravens; they did their job. They got the job done. On defense, they got turnovers, got a big block by Calais Campbell. On offense, they sustained drives. They got field goals when they needed them and got one touchdown.”

The Ravens are a good team. They’re probably going to the playoffs. But this was not an alluring performance by the Baltimore squad. If the Steelers aren’t even capable of beating a playoff-caliber team when they lay an egg or are besieged by injuries, what good does it do to make the playoffs, even if their tiny percentage chance plays out?

No, the hope that sailed through the air at Acrisure Stadium at the beginning of Sunday after noon was snatched away by Baltimore, just like so many passes.

The Steelers aren’t going to give up. They’ll keep working until they are eliminated, and beyond. They’re professionals.

“We put our head down and go back to work,” Trubisky said. “We’ve got a good group of guys. We’ve got leaders emerging. The chemistry has been building over the course of the season. We just continue to stick together, put our heads down and work and go get the next one.”

At some point, likely, the Steelers will be mathematically eliminated. But that moment likely won’t be as impactful in the end result as their inability to stop a Ravens team led by a player making his NFL debut on Sunday.