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Ravens 26, Steelers 14: Defense fails early, Roethlisberger falters late

How bad is the Steelers’ defense?

It’s reached the point where all it takes to beat the Steelers is an adequate starting quarterback.

The Steelers fell to Joe Flacco and the Ravens 26-14 Sunday night at Heinz Field, falling to 1-2-1.

Flacco is the last career starter that the Steelers defeated, and even then they gave up 38 points in a 39-38 Week 14 win last season.

Since then the only quarterbacks the Steelers have beaten are T.J. Yates, DeShone Kizer and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick likely lost his starting job Sunday during the Buccaneers’ 48-10 loss to the Bears. Remember when the Steelers and Browns played to a tie while Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers were upsetting the Saints in Week 1? All of a sudden the Steelers’ Week 3 game at Tampa Bay looked a lot tougher.

Well, the Steelers won that game, but it remains their only win and it proves very little considering what transpired in Chicago on Sunday.

Since Week 15 last season, the Steelers have failed to beat Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Patrick Mahomes and Flacco. The talent level among that group varies widely, but what ties them together is that they all have held down starting positions in the NFL at one time or another.

It doesn’t take an elite quarterback to solve the Steelers’ defense these days. All it takes is a competent one.

And the only reason the Steelers managed to beat Flacco in Week 14 last year is that Ben Roethlisberger was better.

He wasn’t better than Flacco on Sunday.

Roethlisberger completed just three of his last 13 passes, including an interception with 3:15 left that allowed the Ravens to kick the last of their four second-half field goals that turned out to be the difference in a game that was tied 14-14 at halftime.

The Steelers’ defense isn’t good enough for them to overcome that kind of performance by Roethlisberger. They allowed 451 yards, including 355 through the air. It’s the first time since 1954 that the Steelers defense has yielded more than 400 yards in three consecutive games, according to Pro Football Reference.

That defense dug the Steelers a 14-0 hole after one quarter. Going back to last season’s playoff loss to the Jaguars, it’s the third straight home game in which the Steelers have allowed at least 14 points in the opening quarter.

The Ravens shredded the Steelers defense like lettuce on a Primanti Bros. sandwich on the game’s opening drive, moving 75 yards on eight plays. Flacco threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to John Brown to make it 7-0.

Then came the same kind of hair-pulling moment that lowlighted the early moments of the Steelers’ two previous home games. Vance McDonald went from embarrassing Chris Conte last week to being embarrassed when he caught a pass and allowed Tony Jefferson to take the ball away from him as if he were a thief pilfering a purse from an elderly tourist. That gave the Ravens the ball at the Steelers’ 31-yard line and they flipped that into a 1-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins and a 14-0 lead.

The Steelers damn near fell behind 21-3 in the second quarter after Flacco connected with Brown for 71 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the Steelers’ 2. But Coty Sensabaugh forced a Collins fumble that Terrell Edmunds recovered and the Steelers eventually turned it into a field goal to pull to within 14-6.

McDonald repaired his stock somewhat on the Steelers’ next possession when he broke Jefferson’s tackle and dragged two other Ravens on a 33-yard reception that led to Roethlisberger’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown and a 2-point conversion throw to James Conner that tied the game 14-14.

But that was all the Steelers’ scoring.

It’s the first time since 1993 that the Steelers have failed to score in the second half in two straight games.

It’s nice that the Steelers defense shut out the Ravens in the second quarter, but allowing four field goals in the second half wasn’t going to cut it in a situation where the Steelers couldn’t afford to give up any points.

Wouldn’t it be great if the value of second-quarter scoring was enhanced like some kind of lottery power ball? The Steelers have out-scored their opponents 73-10 in the second stanza this season. All that really means, however, is that opposing offenses have the luxury of a siesta before finishing their job in the second half.

Players like Artie Burns and Sean Davis have taken their share of the blame for the Steelers’ defensive woes, but it might be time to look at T.J. Watt.

Since his three-sack game in Week 1, Watt has no sacks and just three quarterback hits. More splash plays from him would help.

The Steelers also could make a splash by adding a player to their defense.

And that’s where Le’Veon Bell inevitably comes in.

The Steelers, and all the scribes, pundits and bloggers who agreed that Bell was asking for too much money, have to stick to their guns and press forward without Bell.

Conner ran the ball nine times for 19 yards on Sunday. He’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry for the season. But we don’t yet have to confront the possibility that the Steelers made a mistake by not paying Bell because when it comes to the offense, Sunday’s loss is on Roethlisberger even if he was facing the No. 2 defense in the league.

That said, it’s looking more and more like the only way the Steelers can save their season is to trade Bell and get some defensive help in return.

The Steelers are tying to move Bell, according to NFL.com,  and are seeking a second-round draft pick and a “good” player in the deal. It would behoove the Steelers to get a “good” defensive player if they can swing a trade.

But trading Bell would be a complicated matter. He would first have to sign his franchise tender, and he won’t do that unless he knows there’s a long-term deal in it for him after the 2018 season. He would somehow have to be convinced that his new team has long-term plans for him and doesn’t want to risk his health this season any more than he does.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and the likelihood of a trade is remote. But the Steelers have to keep trying, because if their defense doesn’t get better in a hurry their chances of making the playoffs will be just as slim as their chances of trading Bell.

The Steelers currently aren’t good enough to overcome a top-tier defense or stop any non-backup quarterback.

That’s a bad combination.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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