Harris: Steelers have work cut out for them
BALTIMORE — So much for the Steelers playing wide-open football against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night.
And so much for the Steelers preventing another loss — 20-17 in overtime at M&T Bank Stadium — their third setback in a row.
New quarterbacks, old quarterbacks, potential locker room disharmony. Where to begin for the defending Super Bowl champions?
End at the beginning, I suppose.
Second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon started for Ben Roethlisberger and was 12 of 26 for 145 yards, one touchdown and a costly interception that lead to Baltimore's winning field goal in his first NFL start.
Roethlisberger, who didn't play because of doctors' concerns about a concussion he suffered in Kansas City last week, made headlines even while on the sideline — courtesy of Hines Ward, his favorite receiver.
During a pregame interview on NBC, Ward expressed unhappiness about Roethlisberger not playing because of a head injury.
Citing the importance of the game, Ward said after last night's defeat that it was "very shocking" when some players learned on Saturday that Roethlisberger would miss the game.
When pressed about his comments, Ward said he wasn't questioning Roethlisberger's willingness to play.
"Me calling him out; that wasn't my intention," Ward said.
Said coach Mike Tomlin: "I'm not worried about a problem in our locker room."
That's because the 6-5 Steelers have bigger problems on the field.
Contrary to popular opinion (i.e., offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and Tomlin), the Steelers don't have to throw the ball 40 times a game to be productive. And — surprise, surprise — their offense didn't fall apart without Roethlisberger.
Seventeen points should have been enough to defeat Baltimore — it wasn't.
Of the Steelers' 64 plays from scrimmage, 38 were runs and 26 were passes.
Seven of the Steelers' first eight plays were runs. This from an offense that attempted a total of 84 passes in the previous two games.
The Steelers ran to establish the pass, instead of passing to set up the run.
Finally turned loose, Dixon completed a 19-yard pass to Ward on first down, followed by a 33-yard laser to Santonio Holmes for a touchdown that tied the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Last night, common sense prevailed.
With Dixon making his first career start, the offense resembled past Steelers' offenses.
Of course, Roethlisberger wasn't playing, a fact that Ward was extremely candid about during his NBC interview.
Ward's response to Roethlisberger inactivity was so out of the ordinary that studio analyst Rodney Harrison, recently retired from New England, said Patriots' players would never question quarterback Tom Brady's decision to miss a game, even if he had something as minor as a hangnail.
Ironically, the Steelers trailed, 14-7, at halftime because the league's top-ranked defense permitted two long Baltimore touchdown drives — not through any fault of the Dixon-led offense.
Dixon was 8 of 10 for 87 yards and a touchdown with a 136.2 passer rating in the first half. He didn't throw an interception.
For a player who didn't receive many first-team reps in practice, Dixon's performance right out of the gate was exceptional for his first pro start.
Ultimately, though, it came down to Dixon's inability to engineer the type of game-winning drive that Roethlisberger is famous for.