BALTIMORE — Paul Kruger’s invisible man season finally ended Sunday night.
The Baltimore Ravens’ rookie outside linebacker had waited a long time to make a play of consequence.
And his timely interception of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon in overtime allowed the Ravens to win a pivotal AFC North encounter that provided a major boost to their playoff ambitions.
Kruger’s 26-yard return against the Steelers’ usual third-string quarterback set up Billy Cundiff’s 29-yard game-winning field goal at M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens took a 20-17 victory to halt a three-game losing streak against their chief rival and the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
“We didn’t come up in the short end,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after his first win this season in a game decided by three points or less. “I was proud of them in those other situations when we didn’t win, and I’m proud of them in this situation when we did win.
“And I’m proud of them in this situation when we did win, maybe just a little bit more, to be honest with you. I have a ton of respect for that football team, and we’re very proud of this victory.”
The Ravens (6-5) capitalized on the Steelers playing without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu.
A second-round draft pick from Utah, Kruger was pounded with congratulations on the sidelines. Kruger had played sparingly or been inactive for the majority of the season.
And he made the pivotal play for the Ravens.
“It’s been hard all season,” Kruger said. “I’m a competitive guy. I want to be on the field, but I respect the coach’s decision. To come away with a win like that and to be a part of that victory is huge for me.
“It was a designed blitz. They were coming from the other side. I was the dropper. It’s hard to pick up the quarterback. It’s easiest from a down position. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Perhaps the Ravens are, too.
With the victory, the Ravens are now one game behind the Denver Broncos (7-4) in the wild-card standings and are tied with the Steelers (6-5). The Ravens would be behind the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5), who lost Sunday, if the season was over because the Jaguars have a superior AFC record.
And the win separated the Ravens from a pack of four 5-6 teams in danger of falling out of playoff contention: the Miami Dolphins, the Tennessee Titans, the New York Jets and the Houston Texans.
With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs sidelined for the second game in a row with a sprained medial collateral ligament, Kruger was an unlikely figure to emerge as the hero.
“It was just like I told the team, ‘I’ve always loved that kid,’” Harbaugh said. “We said it all along. He’s a player. There’s a reason why we drafted him.”
Harbaugh met with Kruger earlier this week, advising him to remain patient.
“We’ve had a few discussions just about what I needed to do to get on the field, practice habits, basic stuff,” Kruger said. “It just so happens that we had that conversation this week.”
The Ravens probably don’t win this game without running back Ray Rice’s critical 44-yard catch-and-run to set up Cundiff’s game-tying 24-yard field goal in the final minutes.
On fourth-down-and-five, the Ravens went for it.
Rice dashed into motion outside of the backfield, lining up in the slot against Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior.
Scooting upfield away from Farrior’s grasp, the elusive runner caught the football in stride from quarterback Joe Flacco.
Then, his instincts and moves took over as he spun away from several defenders for an electrifying jaunt down to the Steelers’ red zone.
“That was a way to get my confidence back,” Rice said. “That play was for me on James Farrior. It was either you’ve got me, or you don’t. For them to call my number in that situation, it shows the confidence they have in me as a player.
“This is a confidence-booster, not only against a great team with a great legacy, but a divisional opponent. It sets us up for a five-game season right now. I’d be a fool to say there isn’t a lot of emotion.”
Toward the end of regulation, Joe Flacco was sacked by Farrior with the fumble recovered by offensive guard Ben Grubbs.
And that left the Ravens scrambling to set up a last-second field goal. As time expired, Cundiff was short on a 56-yard field goal attempt, sending the game into overtime.
“He hit it great,” Harbaugh said. “A 56-yarder is a tough kid. The kid was dead straight. It was just too far. To get out there and hustle like that, to get it off the way he did and to kick it the way he did, I thought was a real tribute to him.”
Rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb, on the Steelers’ final possession of the fourth quarter, broke on the football crisply. However, Webb dropped a potential game-winning interception as he had a ton of open real estate in front of him.
Webb was fortunate, too, to have Steelers receiver Mike Wallace drop a potential touchdown catch in the end zone after gaining separation behind him.
Cundiff’s score followed an impressive 24-yard touchdown run by Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon as he made his NFL starting debut with Roethlisberger sidelined with a concussion.
Dixon faked a handoff on third down and then sauntered outside before dashing into the end zone in the fourth quarter. Dixon finished 12 for 26 for 145 yards and the critical interception on his final pass.
In the first quarter, Flacco heaved a spiral high into the air, hanging it almost too long as wide receiver Mark Clayton gathered his steps to leap for the football.
Ultimately, the pass connected with Clayton deep in Steelers’ territory as safety Ryan Clark mistimed his swipe at the ball.
For Flacco, who went 23-for-35 for 289 yards and a touchdown, it was something of a breakthrough after three dormant weeks, although he was sacked five times and fumbled twice
With Roethlisberger out, the timing couldn’t have been much better for Flacco to halt a troublesome slump. Two plays after a 54-yard completion to Clayton, Flacco lobbed it into the outstretched hands of veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason for a 10-yard touchdown pass on a fade pattern.
It marked Flacco’s first touchdown pass since a 30-7 victory over the Denver Broncos on Nov. 1
Flacco was under heavy duress most of the game. He was stripped from behind by outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in the fourth quarter as Brett Keisel recovered the fumble.
Flacco was limping slightly throughout the second half as he aggravated a sprained ankle.
“Anytime you’re going against Pittsburgh, you know it’s going to be a tight game, a physical game and we were ready for it the whole time,” Flacco said. “You got to play 60 minutes, and you have to play a little bit more than that, and I think our guys did a great job of fighting all day.”
Defensively, the Ravens didn’t do enough to capitalize on Roethlisberger’s absence as Dixon calmly operated the offense. Dixon handed off to running back Rashard Mendenhall 24 times as he gained 95 yards.
After falling behind 7-0 and having a 31-yard run by Dixon negated by Justin Hartwig’s holding penalty, the Steelers answered early in the second quarter.
Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth got lost on a crisp double-move by Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes, stumbling in coverage and allowing Holmes to get into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown catch. It was Dixon’s first touchdown throw of his NFL career.
“I think we had kind of an up-and-down, rocky start,” Foxworth said. “We kind of pulled it out in the end, so I think it’s very encouraging to see us playing the way the Ravens’ defense is supposed to.”
And it was just the latest example of Holmes’ mastery of the Ravens. Holmes has scored touchdowns in six consecutive games against Baltimore, including a total of seven with two scores 50 yards or longer.
The Ravens struck first behind some potent passing from Flacco.
He completed all five of his passes on the Ravens’ opening drive, including completions of 15, 20 and 12 yards on three successive downs.
It set the table for the Ravens’ first offensive touchdown in the first half since an Oct. 4 loss to the New England Patriots, a span of six games.
Running back Willis McGahee busted into the end zone by stepping over a fallen Pittsburgh defender and following a powerful lead block from defensive tackle Haloti Ngata for a two-yard touchdown run. Ngata cleared a large path by moving his 6-foot-4, 345-pound frame faster than most men of his dimensions.
It was McGahee’s eighth touchdown of the season, his fifth on the ground. And the rushing touchdown came one week after the Ravens were stuffed in a key goal line stand in the fourth quarter of a 17-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
“It feels great, man,” McGahee said. “It’s been a long time. That’s the funny thing about it. It’s been a long, long time.”
It’s also worth pointing out that the Ravens replaced Chris Chester at right guard after some concerns about his run blocking arose over the past few weeks.
Marshal Yanda returned to the starting lineup after giving way to Chester last season when he suffered a season-ending knee injury where he tore every major knee ligament.
The Ravens’ playoff outlook is very much alive after this win.
“It’s what we needed right now for the playoff run,” Flacco said. “We needed a win, and a win against these guys is even bigger. We’ve got five games left, and we need every one of those just as much as this one, so we got to go out there and realize that and just continue to play hard.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.