The Ravens and Steelers had to wait eleven weeks to renew the NFL’s best rivalry. It was a long enough march to this point of the season to see a good number players go down on both rosters. The biggest and newest name on that injury list was Ben Roethlisberger, who was out with a shoulder and rib injury from the previous week, making way for veteran signal caller Byron Leftwich to get the start at quarterback for the Steelers.
Given Roethlisberger’s history of overcoming injury histrionics to perform late-game heroics against the Ravens, his missing this game boded well for Baltimore. Particularly when considering how porous the Ravens defense has appeared at times this season, and considering that Leftwich had not started in three years.
Still, somehow someway, even with Leftwich in at quarterback this game came down to the wire with the ball in Pittsburgh’s hands and the Ravens clinging to a narrow three-point, fourth quarter lead. Typical Steelers-Ravens. However, it was a lead that would hold up for the Ravens as their defensive secondary stiffened on the final drive to secure the win and build a two-game lead for in the AFC North division standings.
So this turned out to be a typical, low-scoring, hard-fought Ravens-Steelers game after all. With Roethlisberger prowling the sidelines, Leftwich did his best Big-Ben impression at quarterback for the Steelers.
That started on the first play of the game with a deep ball to Mike Wallace that drew a 42-yard interference penalty on Cary Williams. Then, still less than a minute into the game, Leftwich rolled to his right and sidestepped defenders down the sideline, rumbling like a circus hippo on a tightrope. He was so unaccustomed to the feat that he literally tripped over himself, falling and jamming his elbow into his own ribs as he landed with a thud in the end zone.
The injury would affect him the entire game and heighten the sense he was impersonating the oft-injured, drama-prone Roethlisberger. That sense extended to Leftwich’s ability to improvise, whether he was scooping a bad snap off the turf while escaping to make a play, or improvising a pass shot-put to his running back from inside a collapsing pocket.
But in the end there would be no heroic comeback for the Steelers. They would not score another touchdown after their opening drive. In fact, other than the opening-minute Leftwich run, neither team would score an offensive touchdown. It came down to Jacoby Jones’ third special teams touchdown return to give the Ravens their 13-10 win.
It was the Ravens’ 12th consecutive AFC North victory going back nearly two years, and it ran their record to a franchise-best 8-2 start heading into a road trip to San Diego.
It may not have been a pretty game, with plenty of areas that stood out as needing improvement for the Ravens, but the final result is really all that matters when these two teams square off.
Joe Flacco was 20 of 32 for 162 yards, no touchdowns and two sacks. He was lucky to escape without an interception after forcing some throws into double coverage early. He seemed unnerved after losing his go-to tight end Dennis Pitta early in the first quarter to a concussion. And the Steelers also seemed to bother him with their double coverage of wide-out Torrey Smith, running a safety underneath and forcing Flacco to throw high and off target.
Running Backs: B
While Ray Rice did not manage much production – just two yards per carry on 20 attempts – he ran hard to pick up extra yards despite taking some hard hits. He caught all five balls thrown his way, including when he split out to the right and got lost behind the defender for 31 yards. Bernard Pierce continues to show good balance and an ability to get free on the outside running in relief of Rice.
Wide Receivers: C+
Anquan Boldin carried this group and the offense at times. The Ravens seemed to game plan around attacking cornerback Keenan Lewis, who covered Boldin most of the game, with Ike Taylor taking Torrey Smith on the opposite side. Boldin made a number of tough catches in traffic, including an eight-yard reception on 3rd-and-10 where he spun to pick up an extra five and a first down. He was not much of a threat running the fade in the end zone.
Smith was limited by his route running; the go-route was too predictable and too easy for the Steelers to defend with press coverage and safety help. He finished with just one catch on seven attempts, with Boldin grabbing eight balls for 79 yards. Boldin had just one catch in the second half, however.
Tight Ends: D
Dennis Pitta was out with a concussion early, and it was a big drop off with Billy Bajama getting reps in his stead. Bajama’s only contribution was a holding penalty that negated a nice gain by Rice off the right side. Ed Dickson didn’t factor in the pass game and was hopeless as a run blocker, allowing James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to beat him inside and stuff Rice in the backfield.
Michael Oher had a nice game and seemed to handle James Harrison with ease despite the Steelers linebacker’s attempt to beat the snap count. Kelechi Osemeli was beaten once by Woodley for a sack, but otherwise held up well as a pass blocker. He became the go-to lead blocker in the second half, effectively sealing the edge with stretch blocking as the Ravens ran to the right repeatedly.
Interior Line: C-
Casey Hampton was too much for Matt Birk, whose rear end was constantly turned around the wrong directly attempting to block the big nose tackle. The one plus for Birk was figuring out he needed to alter his pattern when making a shot gun snap, which kept the Steelers from getting a jump from the edges.
Jah Reid got his first start at left guard and had an uneven performance. On the right side, Mashal Yanda looked fairly average. He’s better at pulling and drive blocking at the second level, but seemed to struggle keeping his pads perpendicular to the line on the type stretch plays that were in the game plan this week.
Cary Williams let Mike Wallace run past him on the opening play and got flagged for a slight grab for a 42-yard penalty. Otherwise he held the speedster in check for most of the night. In fact, wide receivers Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery only managed nine catches for 130 yards. Williams excelled at jamming Wallace at the line.
With injuries to Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, special teams ace Corey Graham was forced into a starting role and he was more than up to the task (other than getting beat on third and short for a long completion behind him, with Ed Reed guessing wrong). He made a number of critical plays on the ball, including a well-timed pass defense around a pick in the end zone on a corner fade, and a big hit on Heath Miller in the waning seconds to help seal the win. Newly signed Chris Johnson also played well, particularly with outside blitz pressure.
Bernard Pollard started slowly, getting suckered on an end around and missing a tackle on Leftwich’s TD run. But as the game wore on he made a number of sure tackles, including closing on a dump-off to Rashard Mendenhall and a big hit on Cotchery, laying him out along the sideline to break up an pass that might have otherwise allowed the Steelers to make a final drive.
Ed Reed guessed wrong on a number of throws in the middle of the field, and was also flagged for a personal foul shot on Sanders, hitting the defenseless receiver in the helmet. He finished with just two tackles and no passes defended. He did pick up a Wallace fumble and return it ten yards, resisting the temptation to lateral it. James Ihedegbo played well, including a big hit on Leftwich on a blind side blitz to force a punt.
Dannell Ellerbe continues to play inspired football and finished with a team-leading 12 tackles and was in good position in pass coverage. Jameel McClain was not as active and was knocked around a bit getting to ball carriers. The Steelers were able to get some momentum running right at him, but McClain played well sideline to sideline.
On the outside, Paul Kruger had one of his better games getting pressure on the quarterback; he was too much for rookie right tackle Mike Adams, which required the Steelers to adjust with tight end help. On the opposite side Terrell Suggs did not have much of a burst off the snap, but he drew double teams and allowed coordinator Dean Pees to get pressure from that side of the line.
Albert McClellan also played well in limited duty. Courtney Upshaw expanded his versatility, covering the fullback all the way downfield effectively in pass coverage. He also recovered a fumble on the game’s final play.
Defensive Line: B
Steelers running backs combined for just over 100 rushing yards in a game where stopping the run was critical to stopping the Steelers. The weakest link on the line was Arthur Jones, who got blown off the ball on a number of runs, including the Leftwich TD. He is much more effective playing a one-gap technique and slicing his way into the backfield, but struggles playing head up on blockers as called for in the 3-4 scheme.
Haloti Ngata did not appear to be back at full strength but played better as the game wore on and did affect the running game and picked up a sack when he slipped a block. DeAngelo Tyson quietly played well for a rookie, with Pernell McPhee and Terrance Cody both out with injuries.
Special Teams: A-
Other than a missed 41-yard field goal when Justin Tucker seemed to overthink the wind conditions at the notorious open end of Heinz Field, the special teams units were fantastic. Tucker did hit from 26 and 39 yards.
Jacoby Jones hits the seams faster than just about any returner in the league and managed to get his third return touchdown on a punt, which was the difference in the game. Sean Considine threw a key block on the 61-yard return. Anthony Allen picked up a squib kick and made a nice return out of it, breaking several tackles.
With the Steelers taking away Torrey Smith on the outside and with Dennis Pitta unavailable to help Flacco over the middle, Cam Cameron failed to change up his approach much to help get the offense moving – it was as if he lacked confidence challenging the number one defense in the league by spreading them out and using the middle of the field. It would have been interesting to see the team use Tandon Doss more as a possession receiver when the tight-end play fell off.
With the clock ticking below the 2:00 mark on 3rd-and-2, the call to finally spread the defense by Cameron to throw the ball was curious. Throwing the ball in that situation was dangerous – an interception or sack and fumble would have been disastrous — and an incompletion would have left two much time on the clock. Thankfully (!) Flacco took a sack and held onto the ball to keep the clock moving before punting. Why not just run the ball there, Cam, particularly after playing so conservatively the previous 58 minutes?
On defense there continues to be communication issues in the secondary that need to get fixed.