The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t turn the ball over Thursday night.
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked.
Jason Worilds had two sacks, a forced fumble and 10 tackles.
Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
None of this seemed possible in September or even a month ago. But the Steelers showed again on Thanksgiving that they’re getting better.
They just weren’t good enough to win at Baltimore. Their rally from a 13-point deficit fell short – and their playoff hopes were reduced to slim and none – in a 22-20 loss.
The strides the Steelers have made since they were 0-4 and 2-6 were offset by a few lapses Thursday night.
There was Joe Flacco’s 54-yard pass to Torrey Smith that set up the Ravens’ only touchdown less than six minutes into the game.
There was Jacoby Jones’ momentum-squashing 73-yard kickoff return after the Steelers cut the Ravens’ lead to 13-7 in the third quarter.
Mike Tomlin’s inadvertent, touchdown-saving toe might have robbed the Ravens of four points on that return. The problem was, Tomlin contributed more with his toe than Shaun Suisham did with his.
In the second quarter, the Steelers kicker botched a 50-yard field goal attempt and instead lost 12 yards on a makeshift fake. The Ravens turned that into a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The goofiness that inflicted Suisham all night was apparent again when the Steelers lined up for an onside kick after they had pulled to within 22-20 and missed the 2-point conversion. He got too cute and kicked the ball sideways. It didn’t go the required 10 yards, and the game was over.
This loss can’t be blamed entirely on Suisham. The Steelers defense allowed the Ravens to convert 10 of their 17 third-down attempts, and Roethlisberger failed to fully take advantage of the 16th sack-free game of his career.
This is the first time Roethlisberger hasn’t been sacked in back-to-back games, but a few off-target passes at key points were part of the reason the Steelers lost for the first time in a game in which he wasn’t sacked.
Roethlisberger shouldn’t get too comfortable. Two of his protectors, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and center Fernando Velasco, were injured late in the game. Mike Adams, who unnervingly replaced Beachum at left tackle, also was hurt. The Steelers have a 10-day break before hosting the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 8, but it’s unclear if that will be enough time for the banged-up offensive line to heal up and protect Roethlisberger the way it has in the last three games.
It’s also unknown whether Bell can recover from the concussion that knocked him out of the game. The Steelers rookie running back lost his helmet, and nearly his head, when he was stopped a half-yard short of the goal line with 1:32 left in the game. Bell gained 73 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown. He also had more receptions (seven) and yards (63) than any Steelers wide receiver.
Bell’s injury looked scary, and as if the Steelers needed another emotional punch to the gut, his apparent touchdown was reversed. It was the second Steelers touchdown negated by replay in the last two minutes.
Roethlisberger finally threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery. Not even David Copperfield could come up with an optical illusion that could reverse that one. But Emmanuel Sanders couldn’t hang on to Roethlisberger’s pass on the 2-point conversion attempt.
Suisham’s joke of an onside kick squashed any remaining hopes for a Steelers victory.
Perhaps all those fourth-quarter injuries and the heartbreak of a comeback that fell just a hair short was a late manifestation of the Thanksgiving curse that haunts the Steelers every 15 years.
The last time the Steelers had played on Thanksgiving was the Phil Luckett Coin Flip Game, which they lost 19-16 in overtime at Detroit.
Thursday’s game isn’t likely to get a name and it probably won’t be talked about 15 years from now, but it continued the motif of Steelers misfortune every 15 years on Thanksgiving.
In 1983, the Lions annihilated the Steelers 45-3 on the holiday.
It’s a cycle similar to the horror that descends upon the town of Derry, Maine every 28 or so years in Stephen King’s “It.”
The Steelers went to Detroit 9-3 in 1983 and 7-4 in 1998. But both of those Turkey Day losses at the Pontiac Silverdome precipitated declines that led to a one-and-done playoff appearance in 1983 and a five-game losing streak to end the season in 1998.
While those Thanksgiving defeats might have been the beginning of the end for those Steelers teams, this year’s might just be the end, at least in terms of their playoffs chances.
At 5-7, the Steelers quite likely must win the rest of their games and get some help to make the playoffs.
Three of their last four games are at home. Their one road game, however, is at Green Bay on Dec. 22. Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly be back by then.
The 2005 Steelers won their last four games to make the playoffs and went on to win Super Bowl XL.
However, the 2005 Steelers were an 11-5 team. The 2013 Steelers will at best be a 9-7 team, and while they’re getting better every week, they’re still not good enough.