The ghosts of Januarys past lingered.
Bad memories of melt down games that ended horribly and included costly personal fouls, fumbles, interceptions and dropped passes haunted our thoughts. The last 3 postseason trips to Heinz Field were like a horror movie trilogy – Nightmare on Art Rooney Avenue Parts I, II and III.
Would there be a fourth?
Up 20-9 and after what we thought was a successful kill shot on 4th and 1 from the Steelers 49, Justin Forsett fumbled and the Steelers recovered. Three plays later it was 20-15.
On the ensuing set of downs Joe Flacco started with a wild pass to the left intended for Torrey Smith that was dangerously close to being another big mistake – certainly too close for comfort. Forsett was then thrown for a 3-yard loss and suddenly the Ravens faced a 3rd and 13 against a team and a crowd that seemed to sense blood in the water.
In years past, you could have almost guaranteed an upcoming punt – if we were lucky. But that was before No. 5 had experienced the journey to and through the Big Show in 2012.
Flacco dropped back and hit Owen Daniels on a crossing route that ended up 23 yards downfield at the Steelers 43. Three plays later when facing a 3rd and 1 Flacco went for broke and hit Torrey Smith in the back of the end zone. Smith was unable to drag his second foot through and the pass was incomplete.
Justin Tucker hit a 52-yard field goal to put the Ravens up 23-15.
But that pass to Daniels, given the dangerous change in momentum that was lurking and one we’ve frighteningly witnessed before – THAT was the ghostbuster!
And that shot downfield, while a failed dagger, was evidence that the Ravens would play to win.
Joe Flacco wasn’t flawless but he played like the former champion that he is. He was fearless and clutch and despite a couple of mental lapses in the pocket, he rallied when he had to and outplayed Ben Roethlisberger in a big way in the second half when he completed 13 of 18 for 185 yards and 2 TD’s on his way to a passer rating of 142.1. More importantly he extended his string of postseason passing attempts without an interception to 155…
Steve Smith, Sr. stepped up when his number was called, hauling in 5 passes for 101 yards including a big contested catch for 40 yards in the third quarter that significantly flipped the game’s momentum the Ravens’ way…Owen Daniels caught 4 passes for 70 yards, two of which were third and longs plays to extend drives and lead to two Justin Tucker field goals…They weren’t significant plays but it was nice to see Kyle Juszczyk (2 catches, 16 yards) get into the flow of the offense as a receiver. That’s just something else to force opponents to prepare for…Justin Forsett’s pass protection was outstanding!
When you play in Pittsburgh against Dick LeBeau’s defense you expect pressure. For the Ravens to get through the game allowing just 1 sack while scoring 30 points with two rookies on the offensive line, you have to tip your hat to their teamwork and guidance of Juan Castillo and Gary Kubiak…Kelechi Osemele had a couple of key blocks on both Bernard Pierce’s TD run and the TD pass to Torrey Smith.
Welcome back Haloti Ngata! He was a menacing inside presence while disrupting the pocket and preventing Roethlisberger from a clean step up in the pocket. He had a sack, a pass defensed and a few QB hurries…Ngata’s sidekick Brandon Williams was every bit his equal contributing a sack, a couple hurries and 4 stops…Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil brought consistent heat combining for 3 sacks, 4 hurries and 5 stops. Suggs was once again an effective edge setter and how could we forget his INT, showcasing those soft knees…Ben Roethlisberger had been sacked just twice in his previous four games. Yesterday he hit the turf with ball five times.
Pernell McPhee continues to build a case for a hefty offseason raise. He’s a reliably disruptive force both inside and outside the tackles and continues to show improvement against the run…Daryl Smith had a productive evening in his first ever playoff game. He was very good in pass coverage while chipping in with 10 tackles…The defensive backfield stepped up led by Will Hill and Darian Stewart who helped contain the Steelers speedy receivers with over-the-top support. Hill delivered a thunderous shot to Martavis Bryant that Patriots’ receivers will certainly take note of during film study this week. Stewart made a big play to drive Antonio Brown out of bounds on a would-be TD pass…Lardarius Webb rebounded in the second half against one of the league’s best receivers.
Justin Tucker was perfect going 3-for-3 from 28, 45 and 52 yards…The Ravens played a clean game, penalized just twice for 14 yards.
James Hurst is a turnstile. Hopefully Eugene Monroe responds to treatment this week…Jeremy Zuttah was blown up twice by Steelers’ NT Steve McClendon on running plays that forced Flacco to the ground. Fortunately neither resulted in a fumble…Torrey Smith, although he caught a TD, needs to get more involved (only 2 catches for 28 yards) and he should spend part of the week practicing his toe-tapping. If you want to earn big boy contracts you need to drag that foot for the score.
Jerry Rosburg’s unit is in a bit of a slump. The kick return unit looks clueless and to have Fitz Toussaint nearly side by side with Jacoby Jones on shorter kicks seems to remove a potential blocker. They also did the same with Jones and Mike Campanaro on punt returns. If they aren’t confident in Jones’ ability to catch the ball then get someone else back there…On a Steelers field goal attempt the Ravens had too many men on the field giving Pittsburgh a gratuitous first down. Then during a punt late in the game Sam Koch was forced to field a high snap and the result was a slow get off and a blocked punt through the end zone for a safety. Sloppy work from a special teams unit that was amongst the league’s best during the regular season.
THE MEGAN FOX AWARD
Many times on these pages I’ve taken issue with the play calling of Gary Kubiak and Dean Pees. Maybe they were both trying to lure opponents into a false sense of security because in Pittsburgh on Saturday night they both came out with guns ablaze.
Kubiak seemed intent on winning first down and did so often by throwing the football. Gaining 5+ yards on first down helped to open up the playbook and force Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau into a more conservative approach. Winning first down also afforded the Ravens the added benefit of taming the Pittsburgh pass rush, a prerequisite given the fact that the Ravens were playing without both of their starting tackles.
The approach opened up the running game in the first half which set up the Ravens effective play action passing game. When the Steelers throttled down on Justin Forsett (he had 6 rushes for 41 yards in the first half but finished with 16 carries for 36 yards…not a misprint), Kubiak didn’t force the run but instead put the game on the arm of Flacco who repeatedly delivered clutch passes fearlessly.
On defense Pees kept Roethlisberger and Todd Haley guessing. They didn’t stop Antonio Brown but they did contain him and in doing so Pees willingly mixed up blitz packages to disrupt Roethlisberger’s timing while knocking him around. During the last game between these clubs Pees didn’t adjust to Pittsburgh’s max protect packages. This time around Pees dictated the flow with a nice mix of zone blitzes, A-gap blitzes and overloads to the outside of either tackle, sometimes simultaneously, almost inviting throws to the middle of the field. And when the Steelers did, the Ravens closed in quickly particularly in the red zone where the Steelers were just 1 of 3.
Despite 19 players on IR the Ravens have the talent to win. And with game plans like these designed to exploit weaknesses while managing strengths, the Ravens could go a long way and they’ll be an undesirable draw for future opponents in the tourney.
Great job Messrs. Kubiak and Pees.