Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Steelers defense crumbles again
OAKLAND, Calif. –
The Steelers had a perfect opportunity to position themselves for the AFC playoffs, as the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens all lost Sunday afternoon.
The Steelers knew beforehand that they would have to beat the Oakland Raiders without James Conner, a test for their running game. The surprise came when they had to start the second half without Ben Roethlisberger, who injured his ribs late in the first half.
Big Ben would rally the Steelers to another fourth-quarter comeback.
But the outcome would depend on the defense.
And the Steelers came up short.
1. Nowhere to run: Other than handing off to Jaylen Samuels on first down on their first two possessions, the Steelers did little to establish the run game.
Samuels got his first NFL start and had six carries for 11 yards in the first half – an average of 1.8 yards per – and added four receptions for 22 yards. The Steelers had 10 rushes for 6 yards, an average of 0.6 yards per carry.
They were bailed out by the Raiders, who had three facemask penalties for 45 yards. Two came on the same second-quarter drive: Samuels was pulled down on a run by linebacker Tahir Whitehead and on a pass by defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
But the Steelers failed to take advantage, as Roethlisberger was sacked by Clinton McDonald for a 7-yard loss and Chris Boswell missed a 39-yard field goal wide right.
2. Toe-tap JuJu: The Steelers have seen their share of toe-tap catches, from Santonio Holmes to Antonio Brown.
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s touchdown in the back of the end zone just before halftime has to rank among the best.
Roethlisberger nearly had a pass picked off in the end zone, as his throw to Smith-Schuster was broken up by safety Karl Joseph. On the next play, Roethlisberger found Vance McDonald for a 10-yard gain to the Raiders’ 2. But Samuels ran for no gain, and a short pass to Ryan Switzer left the Steelers a yard short of the goal line.
On third-and-goal at the 1, Roethlisberger threw a high pass in the back of the end zone. Smith-Schuster leapt high, tipped the ball to himself and touched both toes down.
The play was initially ruled incomplete, but reversed after a video review for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 14-10 halftime lead.
It wasn’t picture-perfect but it was pretty.
3. Calling all Volunteers: The Steelers started the second half with a surprise, as Josh Dobbs ran onto the field.
It was revealed that Roethlisberger injured his ribs in the first half and his return was questionable. Dobbs filled in admirably in his with a big pass play at Baltimore, but would be asked to do more than make one throw this time.
The Steelers ended their first possession with a punt. On their second, a 12-yard pass to Smith-Schuster on the Steelers sideline drew a challenge by Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
During the delay, Roethlisberger drew cheers when he ran across the field and returned to the Steelers sideline. But a toss to Samuels on third-and-3 was stopped short, and a fourth-and-1 play-action pass to McDonald was snuffed out by Tahir Whitehead.
That led to a pair of testy turnovers.
4. Hit and miss: On a third-and-19 at the Steelers’ 22, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr whiffed on a pass attempt. It was ruled a fumble that was recovered by Mike Hilton at the 16.
Dobbs answered by running 10 yards for a first down on a third-and-8. On the next play, he was hit by defensive end Arden Key and the Raiders challenged that Dobbs fumbled.
Although the Raiders lost that challenge, Dobbs was intercepted on the next play by Whitehead after safety Marcus Gilchrist broke up a pass intended for Antonio Brown.
The Raiders would stop Dobbs again and again before Carr directed a 14-play, 73-yard scoring drive that saw him convert crucial third-down passes to Marcell Ateman and twice to Jordy Nelson, the first of which led to Jalen Richard’s 5-yard run on fourth-and-1.
Carr connected with Lee Smith for a 3-yard touchdown pass to give the Raiders a 17-14 lead with 5:20 remaining.
5. Big Ben does it again: That set the stage for Roethlisberger’s heroic comeback, which should have come as a surprise to no one.
The Old Cowboy was ready for a shootout.
Big Ben wasted no time in re-establishing the pass game, finding Brown and Samuels for back-to-back 13-yard gains. An overthrown pass to Smith-Schuster drew a holding penalty on the Raiders, giving the Steelers the ball at Oakland’s 44.
A pass to Samuels went for 23 yards, followed by one to Smith-Schuster for 12 yards. An 8-yard pass to Smith-Schuster set the Steelers up at Oakland’s 1.
Roethlisberger went back to Smith-Schuster for a third time, throwing a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 21-17 lead with 2:55 remaining. Big Ben had done it again.
But Carr rallied the Raiders.
Carr connected on a 39-yard pass to Seth Roberts to the Steelers’ 7. Hilton pressured Carr into throwing it away on second down, and safety Morgan Burnett made a beautiful pass breakup in the end zone on third down.
This would come down to a fourth-and-goal play, and Carr found tight end Derek Carrier between the coverage of Hilton and safety Terrell Edmunds for a 6-yard touchdown with 21 seconds remaining for a 24-21 edge.
Even then, the Steelers still had a chance.
From their own 30, they ran the hook-and-ladder. Roethlisberger threw it to James Washington at the 39, who lateraled to Smith-Schuster, who raced down the left sideline to the Oakland 22 before stepping out of bounds with five seconds left.
The Steelers set up for a field goal, but Chris Boswell slipped and his kick went straight into the Raiders’ defense.
And the Steelers’ playoff picture became as clouded as the fog that hung over the Bay Bridge.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.