Baltimore Ravens: Game Balls Handed Out in Tough Win Vs. Steelers
The Baltimore Ravens won a nail-biter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field to improve to 3-1 on the season and, together with a Cincinnati loss, took the lead in the AFC North division. The Steelers are also 3-1 following their loss, but the Ravens will appear atop the standings due to the head-to-head tiebreaker with another game between the two teams to follow in Baltimore later this season.
WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught the winning touchdown pass from QB Joe Flacco with just over 30 seconds left in the game to put the Ravens ahead, and ILB Ray Lewis sealed the deal with an interception of Steelers' QB Charlie Batch on the ensuing possession to put the game away.
Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome yet again looks like a genius, as another key acquisition, this time Houshmandzadeh, played a big part in winning the football game.
Offensive Game Ball: QB Joe Flacco
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Really, could it be anyone else? The Ravens came out firing early, seeking to attack the Steelers with a quick-hitting, short and intermediate passing game, which seemed to catch the Steelers by surprise. Flacco was 3-of-4 with 50 yards off of play-action passes in the first half alone, and it's a function of how much respect Pittsburgh has for Baltimore's running game (which wasn't that effective today) that the play fake continued to work.
Flacco only turned the ball over once, but was bailed out by Jeff Reed's missed FG attempt from 45 yards, after he had already missed from 49 following a Willis McGahee fumble after a gigantic Pittsburgh-Baltimore kind of hit.
Flacco was 24/37 for 256 yards with one TD and one INT- the TD throw being the decisive score in the game.
Offensive Game Ball #2: Ravens Offensive Line
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Lost amidst the solid play of QB Joe Flacco was the ability of the Ravens' offensive linemen, particularly LT Michael Oher and RT Marshal Yanda, to keep Flacco clean and keep the pressure off his back. Like most quarterbacks, Flacco tends to do poorly when faced with pressure, and prior to the game-winning drive that trend had been continuing. Flacco was only sacked once and he made few mistakes- that is a testament to how well the big hogs in front of him played against an elite Steelers' front seven.
These guys weren't getting their names called with any regularity today. Since they are offensive linemen, that's a great thing.
Defensive Game Ball: Haloti Ngata
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Yes, I know Rashard Mendenhall had two rushing touchdowns on the day, and that typically the focal point of the Ravens' run defense- Ngata- would usually take the blame for that.
However, Ngata had eight tackles, three assists, and a sack on the day, and periodically decided to eat multiple Steelers' offensive linemen for breakfast (I'm convinced that's his secret for being such a massive human being), notably rookie C Maurkice Pouncey, who looked overmatched all day long.
Of course, Ngata's impact on the game wasn't purely statistical- Mendenhall has been an effective runner over the first quarter of the season, and he only rushed for 79 yards with his longest run measuring 11- a small number considering he got a whopping 25 carries on the day.
Your postgame hibernation was well justified, oh Great Bear of the line.
Defensive Game Ball #2: Lardarius Webb
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Usually instead of second game balls I try to point out "goats," but this week, after the Ravens' best regular season win in some time, I'm just full of love.
Just as Ngata was a huge factor in keeping Mendenhall from having a big day, so, too, was Lardarius Webb a big factor in keeping the Steelers' best home run threat- WR Mike Wallace- from having any sort of impact on the game. Wallace was held to two catches on 24 yards, but was targeted deep downfield twice in the second half, both times coming up with key deflections. On one of those throws, Webb was beaten and Webb was only able to recover because Batch underthrew the ball, but the fact remains that he DID recover and prevent a long Steeler touchdown pass that would likely have been the decisive score in the game.
Webb was huge in crunch time- not much more you can ask of him.
Unsung Hero: Derrick Mason
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Okay, yeah, I'm cheating a little bit this week- it's tough to call Mason "unsung" when he's been the team's No. 1 receiver for the last several years prior to the acquisition of Anquan Boldin. Still, when the Ravens decided to come out attacking the Pittsburgh defense with a quick-strike passing game, Pittsburgh had clearly chosen to take away Boldin. That put the pressure on Baltimore's other receivers early, and Mason made a handful of catches very, very early in the game.
It may not seem like much at the game's conclusion, but that forced Pittsburgh to more evenly "divide" its coverage, and allowed Anquan Boldin to get back into the game.
In case you didn't notice on the replay of T.J. Houshmandzadeh's TD catch, the reason why he was singled up was because Boldin ran right at the safety, commanding his attention as Baltimore's top target.
As for Mason? Yeah, he was over on the other side of the field... in double coverage, so Flacco couldn't send the ball his way. Pretty impressive for a "No. 2" to command that kind of attention from an elite defense with under 1 minute to play, huh?
Wish Answered: Beat the Steelers
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I know what the Ravens players will say- a win is a win, and a divisional win is important. But they also alluded to something else in the postgame press conference: it isn't just a division win, and it isn't even just a division win over Baltimore's arch-rival. It's a division win over Baltimore's arch-rival ON THE ROAD. That is hard to do in the NFL, and presented with an opportunity to get a win at Heinz Field without facing suspended QB Ben Roethlisberger, this game was almost a must-win for the Ravens if they were going to factor in the AFC North division race.
It also opens up the possibility of a sweep, with the second game to follow this year in Baltimore, where the Steelers have only defeated the Ravens once in their last seven trips. As always, the rule of thumb in this rivalry is to pick the home team unless there is an extenuating circumstance (like the absence of a Pro Bowl QB).
Oh, and one more thing. Bragging rights. Any time you beat your arch-rival it's just pure awesome whenever it happens.
Wish Answered, #2: Hello, Joe
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Again, normally this slide would be a "wish unanswered" section, but after a tough road win I'm all smiles so no need to criticize imperfection.
Joe Flacco really was "Joe Cool" today in the second half, first after a bad throw that resulted in his only interception on the day, and second as he drove the Ravens inside the red zone twice in the fourth quarter. Elite QBs make those kinds of throws like Flacco did to Houshmandzadeh today with 32 seconds left in the game for the winning score, and oh by the way, it's now two weeks in a row that Flacco has led the Ravens to a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. Obviously, it's more impressive when done against Pittsburgh on the road compared to against Cleveland at home, but it's still two weeks in a row.
Flacco is by no means to be compared with the elite QBs in the league like Tom Brady- at least, not yet. But I do know that making those kinds of throws will put you in the conversation if you make them repeatedly. It's way too early to say that "Joe Flacco has arrived as a top 5 QB in the NFL."
Still, if that statement ever DOES become accurate, Ravens fans will look back on this game as his coming out party, and if Flacco keeps playing like this it's no secret that the Ravens have some of the most talented, accomplished players in the league around him on both sides of the ball.
If Flacco plays every week like he did against Pittsburgh, then Baltimore could very well be headed for a deep playoff run. Of course, that's why they play the games every Sunday.
One other thing: that's a big IF. But for one week, Flacco is the hero of Baltimore, and we all love him for it.