The Ravens had them right where they wanted them. Joe Flacco had just connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin down the left sideline to take a 13-3 lead over the Steelers, with just three minutes remaining in the first half.
For a team riding a 15-game home winning streak, and a three-game streak over their rivals from Pittsburgh, it was looking like the win was in the bag. After all, the Steelers would be relying on Charlie Batch, their ancient, third-string quarterback, to bring them back
The Ravens seemed to sense it, and let their foot off the pedal as the first-half two-minute warning loomed. Immediately, they gave up a 42-yard return to rookie kick returner Chris Rainey. Haloti Ngata jumped offsides on a third and 13 play to give the Steelers new life. Batch fumbled a shotgun snap but still was able to scoop it and get a completion downfield. And then Batch overthrew a wide-open Mike Wallace in the back of the end zone.
The Ravens seemed lucky to escape a sloppy ending to their half when the Steelers settled for a Shaun Suisham field goal to make it a seven-point game. However, for anyone who has seen the Steelers and Ravens play, with six of the previous seven games being decided by three points, a field goal can loom large.
Indeed, it did again, as the Steelers mirrored their first-half finish with another drive and another field goal at the end of the game to en route to a baffling 23-20 victory over the Ravens.
Even with a Charlie Batch interception by Ed Reed in the end zone in the third quarter, and even with Emmanuel Sanders fumbling the ball for no particular reason after a catch as he turned to sprint up the seam for a sure touchdown, the Ravens still could not take full advantage.
Even though the game ended in the typical close margin, it was not a typical, hard-fought Ravens-Steelers football. Particularly on defense for the Ravens, who displayed poor tackling and a nearly non-existent pass rush from the outside to give the Steelers the breaks they needed to overcome their own poor play and leave Baltimore with a win.
The Ravens came out throwing – six straight times to start the game. The game plan seemed to rest on Joe Flacco’s arm, particularly after the Steelers’ best corner Ike Taylor twisted an ankle and yielded his spot to the untested Cortez Allen, who played his football at the Citadel. But Flacco couldn’t capitalize, connecting on fewer than half of his 34 attempts, for just 188 yards – just 55 in the second half – with a pick and a fumble to go along with his TD pass to Boldin.
He was mostly inaccurate on long balls and has now over the last three games developed an inexplicable tendency to throw wildly high on out patterns to the left side, to the point where he began to take speed off this throw to dangerously float the ball in to get any accuracy.
His interception was somewhat forgivable after he escaped Brett Kiesel and dumped a ball into an open spot behind Dennis Pitta, but Pitta got his feet tangled with Keenan Lewis en route to a reception. The fumble was less excusable as Flacco stood in the pocket too long patting the ball on his own 27, asking to have it knocked out by James Harrison, which lead to a fumble followed by a decisive Steelers fourth-quarter touchdown.
Running Backs: B-
Ray Rice mirrored a Jonathan Dwyer touchdown when he bounced out of arm tackles at the line of scrimmage to take the ball 34 yards down the left side for a score. While he did not always make great reads running behind zone blocking, he did finish with 78 yards on just 12 carries. Rice needs to get better in pass protection, however. Bernard Pierce was effective between the tackles on eight attempts for 34 yards.
Vonta Leach had a monster game, averaging ten yards on four catches out of the backfield, and pancaking the 360-pound nose guard Casey Hampton on an unusual inside-trap from his offset fullback position.
Wide Receivers: D
Receivers did not help Flacco much with too many dropped balls. Even when Ike Taylor made a good play on a ball thrown deep to Torrey Smith, Smith should have caught the ball with his hands rather than trying to cradle it in his chest where Taylor could dislodge it. Smith finished with just three catches on eight targets.
Anquan Boldin picked on the rookie Allen at times with five catches for 81 yards including a nice touchdown grab and a long comeback route. But it was too few and far in between as he was targeted 12 times. He was also flagged for clear offensive pass interference and then false started on the very next snap. The penalties are piling up for the veteran receiver.
Tight Ends: C
Billy Bajama played a number of snaps as strictly a blocking end. The tight ends were not a big part of the game plan. Perhaps they should have been, as the quarterback or offensive coordinator – it’s hard to tell which—seems to have an aversion to throwing in the middle of the field. Dennis Pitta’s only catch came down the middle for 19 when Flacco beat Polamalu on a blitz.
Michael Oher had trouble containing James Harrison, who was back after a long injury. He was also flagged for a stupid late hit after the whistle. Harrison beat him for the sack/fumble immediately after Reed’s interception that gave the Steelers new life. He also made an earlier look-out block on Brett Kiesel, which lead to the pressure on Flacco to force the interception toss. Kelechi Osemeli was better on the right side and was effective on stretch plays to the right, helping Rice run his YPC average to nearly 7.
Interior Line: B
Matt Birk is quietly having a nice season and fared well against the very tough Casey Hampton. Marshal Yanda couldn’t move Hampton much but was able to shield him or cut him on the back side to get Rice some running room. Jah Reid also played better, including a key block on Rice’s cutback run for the score. The inside pass protection overall was good.
Corey Graham continues to be the most impressive Ravens player on defense. He finished with a team-high 11 tackles and showed very good recovery speed, including a nice read and interception when Antonio Brown took a sweep left and threw back to his side of the field. There was a good bit of confusion between Graham and Chykie Brown that left Mike Wallace wide open in the end zone on Batch’s poor overthrow. Cary Williams was again very good in press coverage including a nice reach-around to bat down a ball on a slant.
Ed Reed gave us a patented “no, no, no…yes, yes, yes” interception return out of the front of the end zone, as he broke two tackles at two and returned it to the Ravens 23. Most of his tackles however consisted of riding the ball carrier five yards down field as he tried to rip the ball out as he waited for help to arrive. He cheated up on a Batch scramble and was burned for 34 yards when the ball was dumped to Antonio Brown behind him. Bernard Pollard was very effective in run support, playing close to the line of scrimmage. Pollard finished second on the team with eight solo tackles.
Paul Kruger started off fast, including a tremendous burst around a double-team, coming all the way around the back side for a sack. But overall there was not enough pass rush from the outside, which allowed Batch to set up and pick apart the defense at times. Perhaps out of frustration Kruger was flagged for a clear late hit. Terrell Suggs was practically non-existent on the opposite side, finishing with just two tackles and leaving with what appeared to be an arm or shoulder injury with five minutes remaining in the game.
Albert McClellan moved to the inside and got some snaps with Dannell Ellerbe out, and played well. He shared snaps with Josh Bynes, who was mostly feeling his way through the game, and Brendan Ayenbadjo, who showed speed, but was knocked around against the run and did not get back in coverage to shut down the middle of the field. Jameel McClain also struggled in coverage, including poor awareness on a rollout that allowed Heath Miller to run past him for a 43-yard reception, and he missed a number of tackles.
Defensive Line: B-
Other than an Arthur Jones sack, there was not much inside pressure. But this unit played well enough against the run. Pernell McPhee was back, but not back to full speed. He stuck out a hand and tripped a runner for his only tackle. Ma’ake Kemoautu continued his mini-streak of decent showings, with good penetration against the run. Haloti Ngata was getting pressure and flashed a nice spin move, but was not much of a finisher, with just one assisted tackle. DeAngelo Tyson was consistent in a limited role and Terrance Cody rotated in and was able to bat down a pass attempt.
Special Teams: B-
The coverage units played well in most instances, including the return of David Reed, however the 42-yard kick return at the end of the game was as back breaker. Albert McClellan was able to get a finger on a punt to give the Ravens the ball at midfield, but was later flagged for holding at the line on a punt return.
Justin Tucker was perfect from 45 and 23 on his two field goal attempts. Credit Sam Koch with a nice recovery of a high Morgan Cox snap on the longer kick. Koch also boomed a 57 yard punt at the end of the game to force the Steelers start their game-winning drive from their own 15.
After not showing much offense at all two weeks ago against the Steelers, Cam Cameron put together a decent game plan to stretch out the Steelers, not afraid to throw the ball against the number one passing defense in the league. The chances were there, but the quarterback and his receivers simply did not execute.
The X’s and O’s were a thing of beauty on the Leach trap block of an unsuspecting Casey Hampton, and the ability to get Leach involved in the passing game was a big plus.
On the negative side, the decision to challenge Batch’s arm moving forward on a throwaway was a poor one and the team was flagged for 12 men in the offensive huddle. On defense, there are still communication issues on the back side in coverage.
To their credit, the officials allowed a lot of aggressive play in the secondary, including Cortez Allen mugging Boldin. An exception that drew a flag on Keenan Lewis could have been allowed inside of five yards, but it also could have been called pass interference with the ball in the air. The most egregious miss by the officials was blowing the play dead when Joe Flacco was wrapped up but still managed to step into a dump-off completion to Leach. If that play is blown dead, then the earlier Batch throwaway while falling down in the grasp should have also been blown dead.