PITTSBURGH – It remains an inexplicable question pondered throughout the region in the wake of the Baltimore Ravens’ self-destruction against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
How did the Ravens allow the Steelers to convert a pivotal first down on 3rd-and-19 in the final minutes of the AFC North champions’ comeback playoff win?
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger launched a 58-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown behind cornerback Lardarius Webb.
And that set up the game-winning touchdown run by running back Rashard Mendenhall.
The Ravens were in a prevent defense, rushing just three players.
“That’s been our philosophy all year is don’t let the ball get thrown over your head," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It’s a prevent defense. It’s a third and 19, you can give up 18. Get off the field, and the offense has an opportunity to win the game.
"But somehow we gave up a deep one. I don’t know how, I wasn’t back there. I don’t know what happened. All I know is some dude caught the ball."
Brown simply dashed past Webb, one of the fastest players on the Ravens’ defense.
"He had a step," Webb said. "He got a step."
Roethlisberger was shocked that the Ravens only sent a three-man rush.
"We called the play and I told (offensive coordinator Bruce Arians) that even though all the outside guys are supposed to run 15-yard ‘stop’ routes, just try to get something, but I said, ‘Let’s send ’em, let’s just take a shot,” Roethlisberger said. “Who cares? Chuck it deep.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘If they pick it, it’ll be a pick way down there, just as good as a punt.
“Let’s take a chance.’ Ed Reed lined up to the left and that’s always a key, to find out where he is. Keep the safety in the middle of the field and throw it as far as I can."
The Steelers had Mike Wallace line up wide left and had Hines Ward in the slot on the left with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders lined up right and Brown wide right.
The Ravens essentially dropped eight players and rushed three.
"Yeah, I thought they were going to come all out," Roethlisberger said.
Added Suggs: “We were fully confident that our three-man rush could get there. That’s what we wanted to do. You’re not supposed to give up that big one.”
A sixth-round draft pick from Central Michigan, Brown’s speed was on full display.
"He got even with the guy," Roethlisberger said. "Like we say, if he’s even, he’s leavin’."
And Roethlisberger made another play against the Ravens, adding to his legend.
He has won seven consecutive games over Baltimore.
"It’s Ben," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "You give this guy an opportunity to snap it, he’s capable of producing plays. It’s not always how you draw it up, but he has a no-blink mentality. He’s a competitor and a winner.
"And those guys follow him. In third-and-20, there’s no such thing as a primary guy. Hopefully, somebody down the field was open and he was."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh defended the strategy by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, which was ultimately an ineffective gambit.
"I just think they made a great play over the top," Harbaugh said. "It was a great throw. They ran a nice route, got behind us obviously and made a play. It’s going to happen sometimes. I thought our secondary played well the whole game. I don’t have a problem with any individual performance. Our guys were battling out there. That’s what you ask for."
In Harbaugh’s opinion, Roethlisberger would have been able to escape the rush no matter how many people the Ravens sent after him.
"The ball would have been out either way," Harbaugh said. "That was a pretty quick throw. I don’t think it would have mattered how many guys we brought in that particular situation. We could have brought more and moved the ball out quicker.
"I thought we had good pressure. We had six sacks. We had a bunch of knockdowns. These are two teams that play great defense, so I don’t think pressure was the problem."
UNCERTAIN FUTURE: The Ravens have several pending unrestricted free agents.
That includes wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte’ Stallworth, offensive tackles Marshal Yanda and Jared Gaither, offensive guards Chris Chester and Tony Moll, fullback Le’Ron McClain, backup quarterback Marc Bulger, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerbacks Chris Carr and Fabian Washington and strong safety Dawan Landry, kicker Billy Cundiff and punter Sam Koch.
Plus, running back Willis McGahee is unlikely to be back unless he takes a drastic pay cut from his scheduled base salary of $6 million for next season under his seven-year, $40.12 million contract that has three remaining years with $19.7 million left on his contract.
Meanwhile, McClain remains frustrated that he didn’t get more involved in the offense beyond blocking.
“Wherever I end up, man, I ain’t got no control over that with my situation,” McClain said. “I had a great four years in Baltimore. Wherever I end up, I don’t regret any of the four years here.”
McClain rushed for 85 yards and no touchdowns on 28 carries during the regular season. He had no touches against the Steelers.
“There’s only so much I could do from watching,” McClain said. “I wish I could have done more. It is what it is.”
McClain gained 902 yards and scored 10 touchdowns two seasons ago.
Why does he think offensive coordinator Cam Cameron didn’t utilize him more?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s frustrating at times, but I never let it affect my game. I just did my job.”
McClain said he’ll make his decision on where he’ll sign based on his proposed role in the offense.
“If I do come back, I’m going to want to be a part of it,” McClain said. “I would love to be a part of the offense.”
CONTRACT EXPIRES: For several weeks, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh griped about his limited role in the offense.
And then he accepted that it wasn’t going to change.
He wound up catching 30 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, he’s not expected to return unless his role increases if veteran Derrick Mason was to retire.
“I had fun playing here, and I would definitely consider playing here again,” said Houshmandzadeh, whose one-year, $855,000 contract has expired. “It’s a great locker room and a great organization. I’d like to be back. I don’t know if I will be back, but I’ll listen to whoever wants me to play for them.”
LOT OF PENALTIES: The Ravens were flagged six times for 74 yards and the Steelers were penalized nine times for 93 yards.
Referee Jeff Triplette and his crew lived up to their reputation for calling a tight game.
They called wide receiver Marcus Smith for holding, nullifying a Lardarius Webb punt return for a touchdown. Rookie nose guard Terrence Cody was flagged for defensive holding three plays before Rashard Mendenhall’s game-winning touchdown run.
“I probably am not in the position to rate the referees,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s not something I would be qualified to do, although sometimes I enjoy doing that or take the opportunity to do it. I don’t really have a problem with that right now.”
Although there’s video and photographs of him grabbing Will Allen’s jersey, Smith said he thought the referees got the call wrong.
“I lock up, drive and my feet, try and keep my hands inside, work the technique we work on every day in practice I thought it was clean,” Smith said. “The referee throws a flag. I think it’s a clean block. I’m talking trash, thinking it’s effective, thinking we ran the kick back and there’s a flag on the field. I didn’t think it was on me. I thought no way could it be on me. That situation in the game you never want to be that guy, for any reason. You want to be that guy making the play on the other side.
“After the play happened, I was honestly disgusted with myself and the play in general. We can’t have that, period. If it was an accident, if it was the referee’s fault for whatever reason. At that point in the game, everything’s on the line. Those are the type of plays we have to win to become that team, to get over that hump.
Webb wasn’t sure what happened on the punt return.
“They were giving weird calls all night, but you can’t blame it on that,” Webb said. “We did a lot of things to give the game away.”
PLAYING HURT: Running back Ray Rice dealt with a stomach virus that cropped up one day before kickoff.
He hadn’t eaten since Friday and had an IV before the game to combat dehydration.
“I still am a little bit under the weather,” said Rice, who rushed for only 32 yards. “I haven’t eaten nothing. I was playing the game on straight fluids, but that’s no excuse.”
BIG GAME: Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs justified his $62.5 million contract, recording three sacks.
He finished the postseason with five sacks. For his career, Suggs has 10 sacks in the playoffs.
BOUNCING BACK: Anquan Boldin predicted that the Ravens will bounce back strongly from this setback.
“Just because of the character of the guys we have in this locker room,” Boldin said.
Following a 13-5 season that included five consecutive wins before being beaten by the Steelers in the playoffs for the third time, middle linebacker Ray Lewis expressed optimism that the Ravens will contend in the future.
“It’s heartbreaking for us to lose the way we lost, absolutely,” Lewis said. “But you have to set it aside. We had a heck of a year. We had a heck of a run at it.
“Me being the leader of this team, there are a lot of guys who are going to be hurt because of this game. A lot of guys are going to beat themselves up because of this play or that play. All you can do is come back and be better.”
There’s a harsh reality, though, about the finite amount of time for older players such as Lewis, Ed Reed, Kelly Gregg and Matt Birk.
“It sucks we couldn’t get it done for the old guys, for Ray, for Ed,” Yanda said. “It’s tough to go out like that.”