The Steelers came out of Charm City winners 13-10 and took control of the tough AFC North and put themselves in the driver's seat of one of the coveted 1st round byes for the 2010-11 playoffs.
The game was hard fought, hard hitting, bloody (ask Ben Roethlisberger), intense, and for all the AFC North marbles. While Ravens face questions about some dubious decisions, the Steelers are flying high with three consecutive home games to finish out December. So here is this week's observations, analysis, and overreactions from last night's epic death match:
1. Troy Polamalu saves the Steelers....again.
Most of the week, the pundits picked the Ravens to win the game for many reasons, one of which being the playmaking ability of Ravens safety Ed Reed. Reed did not play in the first Steelers-Ravens game but figured to be a factor in last night's matchup. Reed was not much of a factor last night, making three tackles and fielding one punt.
Reed's counterpart, Steelers safety and resident hair man Troy Polamalu, showed again last night why he is the best safety in the NFL.
In a moment that will likely define the fates of both teams, Polamalu sacked Ravens QB Joe Flacco and stripped him of the ball. The ball was recovered by Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley and set the Steelers up for the game winning touchdown inside the Ravens' 10 yard line. That touchdown not only decided the game, but it was also the first one the Ravens defense gave up this season after a turnover.
None of it would have been possible without Polamalu's clutch play.
Sure, Reed has the hardware (2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and named to 100 Greatest Players of All Time) but Polamalu has rings and a bigger impact on his team than Reed does. While Reed was out, the Ravens beat the Steelers and maintained a lead (albeit a tiebreaking one) on the AFC North. When Polamalu was out for most of 2009, the Steelers defense and secondary fell apart. After struggling during the middle of the season, Polamalu is back to his old self, much to the delight of Steeler Nation.
2. Blitzburgh is back!
In the three losses (and several wins too), defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was criticized for not blitzing enough and having the Steelers defense play a more read and react style instead of the aggressive blitzing style we all know and love. Last night, LeBeau dialed up one blitz after another, making life for Flacco and the Ravens' offensive line miserable.
Sure, the Steelers got burned on the blitz several times, including two 60 plus yard bombs to Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, but the Steelers also put Flacco on the ground countless times and sacked him officially four times. Yes the Steelers have a weak secondary (more on that later) but the best way to help a weak secondary is to make the QB make faster decisions.
The Steelers made all the adjustments as the game went along.
After converting on several early 3rd downs, the Ravens could not convert consistently in the second half. Why? Because of timely 3rd down blitzes. Whether it was James Harrison forcing Michael Oher to false start or hold, or James Farrior busting through the A gap, or Lawrence Timmons coming around on a stunt, the Steelers never gave Flacco too much room to operate in the 2nd half. Credit LeBeau for making the adjustments, taking advantage of Ravens' mistakes and letting the dogs loose last night more often than not.
3. Despite some changes. the Steelers secondary still an issue
I will not blast Bryant McFadden too harshly because McFadden is a solid player who had a bad game last night.
Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are excellent receivers and two primary reasons why many pundits picked the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl this season. I will chalk up McFadden's performance to a nagging injury and the caliber of opponents he faced all evening. Hopefully McFadden will bounce back strong this weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals. However, the Steelers secondary needs more help.
Last night, the Steelers did well in not playing much maligned cornerback William Gay as often as they did in the past few weeks. To say that Gay has been targeted by opposing offenses would be a gross understatement. The Steelers put special teams maven Anthony Madison in more defensive packages than ever before. While Madison held his own, Madison being in the game as often as he was speaks volumes about the lack of depth in the secondary.
First, 2009 3rd round pick Keenan Lewis made his weekly head scratching mistake when he purposely went out of bounds during a punt, negating a great punt by kicker Shaun Suisham. Lewis might have all the physical ability but he obviously lacks discipline. Rookie Crezdon Butler has yet to crack the gameday roster. I am not even going to mention the play of Ryan Clark, who also has had his ups and downs this season, including last night when he was burned for 61 yard catch and run by Boldin.
With Lewis making one mental mistake after another and Gay's struggles well documented, I have one solution for the Steelers. For the remainder of the 2010 season, bring back Deshea Townsend. Townsend signed with the Indianapolis Colts this past summer and was released by the Colts last month.
Sure, Townsend is 35 and does not have much left, but he might have enough left to play in dime packages for four games and the playoffs. He knows the system as well as anyone and he has played with this group of Steelers less than one year ago. It could happen and it should happen, hopefully by Christmas.
4. Ben Roethlisberger: Simply Amazing
Yes, his off the field issues are troubling.
Yes, his relationships with his teammates and his attitude have been and (rightly been) questioned. His penchant for holding the ball too long and taking unnecessary sacks have been documented as much as any story in the NFL. However, last night showed once again why Roethlisberger is one of the best QBs and clutch players in the league today.
He does not look pretty doing it but he gets the job done. There are no style points in the NFL. If Peyton Manning and Tom Brady played behind that sieve that the Steelers call an offensive line, they would be on IR by Halloween. Roethlisberger toughed out a broken right foot, a broken and bloody nose, and Terrell Suggs all night and led the Steelers to another signature victory. How many other QBs (save for Brett Favre) would have even dressed for a game with all those injuries? Not many but luckily for the Steelers, Big Ben is one of them.
The play that defined Roethlisberger was the 1st and goal play after the Polamalu sack and Woodley fumble return. With Suggs hanging all over him, Roethlisberger fought out of the grasp and managed to shovel the ball out of bounds, thus not losing any yards on a sack and maintaining the momentum that the Steelers defense just gave them. Two plays later, Roethlisberger hit underrated power back Isaac Redman, who proceeded to break two tackles to score the game winning touchdown.
The Steelers have not lost to the Ravens since 2006 when Roethlisberger takes the ball, winning 6 games (including 1 playoff game). However, whenever someone else takes the ball for the Steelers against the Ravens, the Steelers have not beaten the Ravens, losing 3 games. Coincidence? I think not.
5. Daniel Sepulveda's loss will rally the team
Last night's physical and hard hitting game brought a laundry list of injured players. From Ravens TE Todd Heap and Steelers TE Heath Miller, both teams' respective training staffs worked all night. Even punters were not immune to the physicality. Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda, the same man who I wrote as the Steelers MVP this season, was lost to an ACL injury, likely ending his 2010 campaign. Kicker Shaun Suisham punted three times last night and Steeler Nation held their collective breaths every time Suisham caught the snap in his stomach before he booted the ball. It was a miracle that the Ravens did not block any of Suisham's attempts.
In 2008, the Steelers also lost Sepulveda to a knee injury, forcing the Steelers to go to Mitch Berger. Berger was not very good but he earned a Super Bowl ring with that Steelers team. The Steelers will likely try out punters this week to replace Sepulveda for the remainder of the 2010 season. It will be tough because Sepulveda was a great weapon who consistently kicked the Steelers out of trouble and put the opposition deep in their field.
The Steelers defense will have to rally as they did in 2008. In 2008, they did it for the entire season. In 2010, they will only have to do it for four more regular season games and the playoffs. The Steelers defense rallied when Roethlisberger missed the first four games and they will have to play with the same level of intensity once again without Sepulveda. Can a Super Bowl be won without a great punter? Absolutely. However, Sepulveda's loss should not be taken lightly.
I could go on about the development and growing pains of rookie WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown (both are coming along nicely despite some early drops). I could go on about the crucial dropped pass by veteran Hines Ward and about Shaun Suisham's field goals. I could go on about how much I miss Todd Fordham every time I see Jonathan Scott line up at left tackle (yes, Scott is that bad). I could definitely go on for days about the officiating last night and the lack of personal foul calls on Haloti Ngata for his swipe at Big Ben's face and the defenseless receiver hit that took Heath Miller out of the game with a concussion. I could even do my weekly bashing of Bruce Arians. However, last night's win was so great they all get a pass from me.
Several things I will say about the Ravens is this. I agree with coach John Harbaugh for going for it on 4th and 2 instead of kicking the field goal from 49 yards away in high and gusting wind in the face of the Ravens offense.
I also agree with Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to pass the ball on the fateful sack by Polamalu. The Ravens pick up the first down, the game would have pretty much ended there. The Ravens made a similar move in 2009 against the Steelers when they passed the ball to Ray Rice, who then ran 40 plus yards to set the Ravens up deep in Steelers territory. The Ravens had their chances to take the game several times but the Steelers stepped up and made enough plays on defense to secure the top spot in the AFC North.
The Steelers have the Bengals, the New York Jets, and the Carolina Panthers in the next 17 days. Those three successive home games will decide if the Steelers will first, make the playoffs, and second, secure a first round bye in the playoffs. Will there be a letdown or a trap against the struggling Bengals considering the Jets are coming to town a week after?
Until next week....