PITTSBURGH STEELERS 23, BALTIMORE RAVENS 14
January 18, 2009
There was Willis McGahee, lying prone in the middle of Heinz Field, practically motionless after a devastating hit. It was a terrible moment.
Trainers from both teams crowded around him, methodically detaching his facemask and preparing his stretcher. Steelers and Ravens players knelt around him, their faces turned inward with angst. Close teammates, like Ray Lewis, prayed. Ed Reed grabbed his hand. As McGahee was wheeled off the field and into the tunnel a Steelers fan from above could be heard yelling, “good luck, Willis.”
He probably never heard it.
It was a terrible moment. It was a beautiful moment. It was football in all its brutality and its brotherhood.
There you had a player who had once showed so much promise in high school that he earned a scholarship to Miami despite a knee injury in his senior season. After taking a year at Miami to recover, in 2002 he came back to record one of the greatest college seasons ever for a running back. Only to see that promise shattered again with another knee injury, on national television, in slow-motion agony.
McGahee vowed to come back, and that he did, as the first pick of the Buffalo Bills. He sat out another year, recovered, but not quickly enough it would seem, as he was traded to Baltimore in 2006 where he was greeted with more expectations, injury, disappointment, recovery, and injury again.
Like the career of Willis McGahee, the Baltimore Ravens had seen lofty achievements, lowered expectations, rebirth, a plague of injuries, and dizzying success.
And then, finally, the end of their long and wonderful season had come to a crashing halt, with Willis McGahee lying on the grass of Heinz Field. At that moment, we all realized it was really over. Disappointment washed over us like rain on the day of a parade.
As we reflect on such an uplifting season, we must remind ourselves how our team had overcome so much, and held together so well. They were a band of brothers.
The Ravens played without the two cornerbacks who began the season as starters; without their perennial All Pro left tackle, who gave way to a supplemental draft pick of unknown ability. They entered the season without the two quarterbacks projected to play ahead of the rookie from Delaware, suddenly forced to start. They fought on, with players nursing sprained shoulders; with safeties who suffered career-threatening neck injuries; with a second-choice head coach who had toiled for years in the shadows, as a special teams coordinator.
2008 was to be a season of new beginnings, where only optimists would predict six wins. They thrilled us by overcoming the injuries, exceeding expectations, and more than doubling that predicted win total. And yet, they disappointed us too, by failing to take the final step and reaching the Super Bowl. It was a season that equaled their very best, replete with all the ups and downs.
And yet, it’s difficult to close the book on 2008 without acknowledging how far they’ve come and then reflecting on the promise of what may lie ahead.
What will be the impact of losing Rex Ryan to the Jets or free agents who will not be re-signed? What will a new defensive coordinator bring? How much better can Joe Flacco become? Which new additions to the roster will impact future seasons?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, here’s one last look at the final performance, in week twenty of a very peculiar and very wonderful 2008 season.
Joe Flacco started the game with poise and confidence, but the players around him on offense failed to produce. Receivers dropped balls and lineman failed to hold off the rush. In the end he was asked to do too much and the pressure got to him. He was asked to throw the ball thirty times, which is too many. He completed just 13 for 141 yards and three interceptions. As the offense crumbled around him, Flacco began to make bad decisions, like throwing into quadruple coverage, and to turn the ball over – something he had not done in the two previous playoff games.
Running Backs: B
Willis McGahee started in place of Le’Ron McClain who was hobbled with an injury. McGahee ran harder and with more purpose than any previous game. He was outstanding as a pass protector for Flacco. McClain had one of his worst performances, and not just because he carried the ball once for one yard. He dropped a pass and missed blocks. Ray Rice did not produce much as a runner, but looked effective as a third down back catching passes. That bodes well for the future. Rice needs to learn to block better in pass protection. Lorenzo Neal did not have a particularly good game.
Wide Receivers: D
The Steelers seemed to game plan to take away the pass, flooding the defensive backfield, and it was no match for the Ravens receivers. They dropped balls and failed to get open. They did not seem to be on the same page as Flacco, cutting patterns short as balls soared beyond them. Mark Clayton showed talent but seemed ill-suited to the role of deep threat.
Tight Ends: C+
Todd Heap was open more often than he was thrown to. He did fail to get his head around on a ball once, perhaps surprised to see a pass come his way. Once again, with the chips down, he hauled in a nice twenty yard catch. He also blocked very effectively.
The tackles were manhandled by the Steelers outside linebackers. Jared Gaither jumped offsides on second and inches. He also got flagged for a hold when the refs were all but blind to holding on the line. He was beaten badly by James Farrior for one sack. Willie Anderson looked worn out and slow, too slow for the Steelers rush. Adam Terry was somewhat effective as the third tackle, showing an interesting wrinkle going in motion to block out of the H-Back slot.
Interior Line: C
The interior line was not much better in pass protection. They were able to block more effectively this week up the middle for McGahee.
With Samari Rolle out and Frank Walker nursing a shoulder injury, this group performed as well as could be expected. They played aggressively and tight in coverage. They did get extra support from the safeties in coverage, but the scheme was mostly effective. Most of the Steelers’ passing damage was in other areas of the field. Limas Sweed beat Evan Oglesby badly on a long attempt that was dropped. Frank Walker could not hold onto an interception in the endzone, and that led to a Steelers field goal to go up 16-to-7. Corey Ivy could not tackle Santonio Holmes in the open field on the Steelers lone TD offensively. This is not a good tackling secondary.
Ed Reed was invisible, although he was asked to play more conservatively to support a banged up cornerback group, he and Jim Leonhard were effective on run blitzes. The tandem fell when trying to cover Hines Ward to allow a long gain. Haruki Nakamura failed to bring down Ben Roethlisberger on a blitz, but recovered to hit the quarterback hard in the back. Jim Leonhard got another fumble recovery and was around the ball all day.
Anyone who thought a heavier Ray Lewis is too slow did not see him run down Hines Ward from behind. Ray also knocked out a fumble. He was very effective playing off of Haloti Ngata’s penetration to stop Willie Parker, who was held to 47 yards rushing on 24 attempts. Lewis missed one interception chance, looking stiff in coverage. Bart Scott was very strong in run support. Terrell Suggs was used more sparingly but made the most of his pass rushing opportunities, with two sacks. Jarrett Johson was steady, as usual.
Defensive Line: A
Haloti Ngata was the most impressive defensive player on the field, including the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu. He was devastatingly quick, including a sack on Roethlisberger. He completely clogged blockers at the point of attack. Trevor Pryce was nearly as effective getting penetration. He was flagged once for offsides at a critical juncture, however. Justin Bannan and Marques Douglas were also strong contributors.
Special Teams: B-
Rex Ryan, in his final Ravens coaching role, may have been too conservative in pressuring the Steelers, who could only throw the ball. He sent just four on the 45-yard completion to Ward.
Cam Cameron made a curious decision to put the game on Joe Flacco’s shoulders when the offensive line was not effective in protection and when the receivers were not effective catching the ball. With McGahee playing very well, a more run-oriented attack seemed warranted. John Harbaugh again made a great challenge of Holmes’ touchdown catch.
Bill Corrolla announced he would retire after this game, another clunker. The worst was the roughing the punter call against the Ravens when even a running into the punter call was not warranted. The crew seemed to have trouble spotting the ball. The Steelers were flagged for pass interference that was questionable given the no call on Frank Walker on a similar play. Corey Ivy was flagged for illegal contact on a play he never came near the receiver. There was a strange illegal procedure call on the Ravens that came nearly a minute after the play ended.
Jim Nantz has no feel for NFL football games, particularly hard-hitting Ravens-Steelers games. He is better left to golf telecasts. He somehow confused Haloti Ngata with Ed Reed during a shoving match, and later referred to Jim Leonhard as Yamon Figurs. He continued to note that Santonio Holmes’ knee was not down as he bounced across the goal line, but seemed oblivious to the fact that Holmes’ elbows were down at the one yard line (and the play later ruled incomplete when the ball bounced out). Nantz also strangely suggested Limas Sweed had dropped a touchdown pass because he was distracted by the large video monitor. The broadcast crew seemed a lot more interested in presenting scripted, in-game promotional announcements. For instance, after Bart Scott made one of the hardest hits of the year and Nantz ignored it and prattled on about a different play from the end of the previous half.