The Baltimore Ravens displayed their ability to play with a top gun of the AFC on Monday night but also renewed an old habit of self-destructing at a critical point in the game.
The Ravens outplayed the Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the night, but a costly penalty and protection breakdowns in the third quarter ultimately led to a 23-20 defeat in overtime at Heinz Field on Monday night.
Santonio Holmes' 38-yard touchdown catch followed by LaMarr Woodley's 7-yard fumble return for a touchdown turned the Ravens' 13-3 lead into a 17-13 deficit in only 15 seconds during the third quarter, but rookie quarterback Joe Flacco led the Baltimore offense to a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to force the extra period.
The Ravens failed to muster any points on the opening drive of overtime before Pittsburgh kicker Josh Reed kicked the game-winning 46-yard field goal.
Despite the disappointing loss, the Ravens' impressive performance showed a national audience that their previous wins against the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns were no flukes.
Here is a final look at the Ravens' overtime loss in Pittsburgh.
Mason continues to be Flacco's main target in the passing game, accumulating 137 yards on eight receptions. The pair connected for several key first-down receptions throughout the night.
A questionable incomplete call in the first quarter wiped out a potential 15-yard touchdown. Replays showed that Mason appeared to get both feet inbounds and control the ball, but head coach John Harbaugh decided not to challenge the ruling. Matt Stover later kicked a 33-yard field goal on the drive.
Unlike past seasons, Mason is gaining more yardage after the catch, breaking tackles and even throwing an occasional stiff arm. With the lack of production from the other receivers, Mason has developed a strong chemistry with the rookie Flacco.
The punter had a 47.4 average and placed two punts inside the 20, giving the Ravens the edge in field position for much of the night. Koch is getting good hang time on his punts, allowing the coverage team to get down field and neutralize the return.
His only blemish came in the third quarter when he shanked a 27-yard punt to give better field position to the Pittsburgh offense on their own 33-yard line. Pittsburgh eventually scored their first touchdown on the ensuing drive.
The defensive unit played very well for most of the night but was especially dominant in the first half. The Ravens allowed only 46 yards of total offense in the first half, as defenders were able to pressure quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the secondary provided strong coverage.
The front seven allowed very little room to run and controlled the line of scrimmage.
Corey Ivy, Terrell Suggs, and Trevor Pryce each accumulated a sack in the first half. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata intercepted a Roethlisberger pass to swing the field-position battled and lead to the Ravens' first points of the game.
Critics continue to insist that Lewis has lost a step from his best years, but any steps that he may have lost have been replaced with a higher football intellect and tremendous instincts.
Lewis was all over the field, accumulating 13 tackles to lead the Ravens' defense. He also had two key tackles on the goal line to hold Pittsburgh to a field goal in the fourth quarter and give the offense the opportunity to tie the game in the closing minutes.
At 33-years old, Lewis is still one of the best defensive players in the game and continues to lead a ferocious Baltimore defense.
Despite Flacco's two fumbles in the third quarter, the rookie refused to wilt and displayed strong composure in his first road game against the Ravens' biggest rival. Few could have expected such a strong performance by Flacco in his first road start in a hostile environment such as Heinz Field.
Many young quarterbacks would have folded in the aftermath of the disastrous third quarter, but Flacco rebounded to lead the offense to a touchdown in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter to tie the game.
Flacco still needs to improve in protecting the football, as his second fumble could have been avoided by tucking the ball away.
The moves he displayed in buying time and completing a 26-yard pass to Mason in the third quarter should silence any questions about his mobility. Unlike many young quarterbacks, Flacco keeps his eyes downfield as he scrambles instead of simply tucking the ball and looking to run.
He and Mason are quickly becoming an impressive passing duo.
The kick and punt return teams failed to provide any spark throughout the night. The units failed to provide any seams to spring returner Yamon Figurs. Figurs also fumbled a punt in the second quarter but was able to recover.
In overtime, a holding penalty negated Figurs' return to the Baltimore 48 and moved the offense back to their own 15. Not only did this spoil the Ravens' opening drive of the extra period, but it also allowed Pittsburgh to control the field position and win the game with a 46-yard field goal on their next drive.
With the Ravens lacking explosive playmakers on offense, the return teams need to provide more of a spark than they did against Pittsburgh. One or two big returns could have put the Ravens in better position to win the game.
Although the defense turned in a strong overall performance, the unit needs to improve its tackling. On Holmes' touchdown reception in the third quarter, defensive backs Chris McAlister and Ed Reed missed tackles that could have prevented the receiver from scoring.
Safety Jim Leonhard, starting for the injured Dawan Landry, missed a tackle in overtime that allowed Pittsburgh to move closer for the winning field goal. Safety Tom Zbikowski and linebacker Bart Scott also missed opportunities to sack Roethlisberger.
While other members of the offensive line such as Jared Gaither struggled with protection in the second half, Terry allowed a sack while lining up on the left side and allowed pressure from Woodley that led to Flacco's second fumble of the third quarter.
Terry needs to sure up his pass blocking, or the coaching staff will look to veteran Willie Anderson to take his spot at right tackle.
Deep Passing Game
Though Flacco has built a strong chemistry with Mason, the Ravens' passing offense needs more explosive downfield plays with receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams. Neither receiver has been able to create much separation or make plays on deep balls.
Flacco needs to get his deep throws away much sooner and has to break the habit of throwing flat-footed on some deeper passes. His arm strength is an obvious strength, but he needs to use it more effectively.
Opposing defenses will continue to creep up to the line of scrimmage and stack more defenders in the box if the offense is unable to stretch the field.
Where is Todd Heap? The Ravens' tight end has virtually disappeared, though he stayed in to block on many max protection formations.
Lack of Discipline
Much like recent seasons, the Ravens continued to hurt themselves with critical extracurricular penalties after the play.
The most critical penalty came in the third quarter when linebacker Jarret Johnson shoved Hines Ward on the sideline, drawing a 15-yard penalty and pushing the struggling Steelers' offense into Ravens' territory. Three plays later, Roethlisberger connected with Holmes for the score, swinging the momentum in Pittsburgh's favor.
Penalties are part of the game and are easier to swallow when they take place during play, but the Ravens' lack of discipline continues to hurt them in big games. While Johnson is a classy player who simply lost his cool during the heat of the moment, the mistake ultimately led to the series of events that caused the Ravens to lose the lead and, ultimately, the game.
Linebacker Antwan Barnes was also flagged for a personal foul on the Steelers' first drive of the game. The penalty offset a Pittsburgh penalty that would have turned a 3rd and 3 situation into a more difficult 3rd and 8. Pittsburgh converted the play, leading to the eventual field goal.
Special teams’ standout Brendon Ayanbadejo earned an unnecessary roughness penalty, pushing a Ravens' punt return from their own 33-yard line to the 18.
Harbaugh was extremely unhappy with these penalties and will be sure to repeat the importance of discipline, both during and after the play, to his players.