Did success against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots spoil the Steelers pass defense Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens?
The Steelers tactics on defense Oct. 30 against Brady were hailed for shutting down one of the great passers in NFL history. The Steelers, who usually play plenty of zone defense in the secondary behind Dick LeBeau's famed fire-zone blitzes, did little of that while beating New England, 25-17, and holding Brady to 198 yards passing.
Instead they played more man-to-man, their cornerbacks coming closer to the line of scrimmage opposite the receivers in what is known as "press" coverage.
And, likely under the theory that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, they played a lot of that same defense against Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
Only this time, Flacco torched them. He completed 28 of 47 passes for 300 yards and he converted 14 of 21 third downs, the most conversions in Ravens history.
Despite his success, the Steelers played that defense right up until the bitter end, with corners playing man-to-man press coverage as Baltimore swept downfield from its 8 and moved in for the kill. Flacco threw deep a number of times against that coverage and a couple of times, his receivers had the coverage beat. Rookie Torrey Smith dropped one of those in the end zone after beating Ike Taylor on a pass from the 37.
Later, Smith hung on after beating cornerback William Gay for the 26-yard touchdown pass that gave Baltimore a 23-20 victory with eight seconds to go.
Mike Tomlin was hired by Tony Dungy to coach his secondary in Tampa Bay, and Sunday night Dungy was critical of how Tomlin's Steelers played that final drive on defense.
"I thought Joe Flacco was outstanding. He was poised. He made some great throws," Dungy began in his postgame comments on NBC-TV's "Football Night in America."
"But the one thing I have to say, Dick LeBeau is a tremendous defensive coach, but I did not understand those last three plays from about the 25-yard line. Bump-and-run coverage, really giving them a chance, as Flacco said, to take those shots into the end zone where you get a chance for a long pass interference penalty or the deep touchdown. I didn't understand the defense the Steelers were in there, at the end."
Turns out, the Ravens got a pass interference penalty and a touchdown on that final long fling by Flacco.
Ryan Clark took some blame, saying he was late getting over to help out Gay, but maybe they just played the wrong defense.
Smith, Baltimore's second-round draft choice this season, is the Ravens version of Mike Wallace, an unpolished receiver who has blazing speed and came into the game averaging 21.7 yards per catch. Yet, instead of making sure he did not get behind their corners, here was Smith's version of his winning touchdown:
"The final play was actually supposed to be a speed-out so I could catch the ball and get out of bounds. But, [Gay] was in press coverage and I was just able to run past him. I saw he was holding onto me a little bit, and held onto me a little bit earlier. I saw the ball in the air, and I saw the flag out of the corner of my eye, so I gave him a little nudge myself and was able to get open."