The rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers has been highlighted by close, hard-fought defensive battles that always seem to be decided in the fourth quarter. The games between the two teams are always great football, but in the head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco era, the Ravens have not been on the winning side of the rivalry often—especially in close games.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played some of his best games against the Ravens, and last night’s game was really no exception. The only difference is that Flacco, facing an opponent he has struggled against in the past, also played one of his best games and was able to lead the Ravens to a last-minute victory.
The game started out exactly how people would have expected. In the first half, the Ravens and the Steelers both scored field goals in a defensive battle and were tied 6-6 with less than three minutes remaining in the half. Flacco led the Ravens on a five-play, 32-yard drive that put them ahead 9-6 at the half.
Starting in the second half, the Steelers came out with a sense of urgency and started testing the Ravens corners deeper down the field. The Steelers had much more success moving the ball, but an interception by Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs stopped a potential Steelers scoring drive and led to a 12-play, 71-yard touchdown drive by the Ravens.
After the Ravens’ touchdown, the Steelers continued testing the Ravens corners, and the Ravens had a hard time pressuring Roethlisberger. As a result, the Steelers scored two consecutive touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and with only 2:24 left on the clock, Flacco took the field with the score 16-20 and engineered a 13-play, 92-yard drive that ended with a 26-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Torrey Smith.
In many ways, this defensive battle was exactly what people were expecting, but not many people would have bet that Flacco would have—or could have—led the Ravens on a 92-yard touchdown drive against the Steelers defense with only two minutes remaining.
Not many analysts were picking the Ravens going into this game, despite the thrashing they gave to the Steelers in Week 1. The biggest reason is because it’s hard to figure this team out. The Ravens are full of surprises, and not always good ones. We always learn something new about them whether they win or lose, so let’s take a look at what we learned from the Ravens’ 23-20 win over the Steelers.
There has been much said about Flacco over the past few weeks, and he was one of the most scrutinized players in the offseason. Fans and analysts talked about how he could never beat Roethlisberger—until he did in Week 1—and before this game, people were saying he’d never be a truly elite quarterback.
Much like the first argument about Flacco versus Roethlisberger, the argument against Flacco being an elite quarterback can only be made until he proves otherwise. That’s not to say Flacco has magically become elite after a few wins against the Steelers, but if he keeps having games like he did last night, people will have to stop talking.
It’s really hard to overstate how good Flacco played against the Steelers last night. The Ravens running game was struggling and averaging under 2.5 yards per carry, the offensive line was struggling to contain a rejuvenated James Harrison and the receivers certainly weren’t doing Flacco any favors, either.
On the final, game-winning drive by Flacco, receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith were both dropping passes, and the offensive line was having trouble blocking the Steelers. The only factor that kept the Ravens moving down the field was Flacco, and frankly, that’s exactly what you’d expect from an elite quarterback.
There will certainly be fans that want to crown Flacco an elite quarterback after the win against the Steelers. In all fairness, Flacco deserves most of the credit for last night’s win, but he still needs to prove himself with consistency. If he can go out and finish the season strong and consistent, he’ll make a believer out of many.
Whether or not Flacco is elite, the Ravens really needed that performance from him. The Steelers are one of the few teams that have the Ravens' number. The Steelers don’t dominate the Ravens, but Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays has decided many close games between the two teams. The Ravens needed Flacco to carry the team when the defense was struggling, and he didn’t disappoint them. Flacco may not be considered elite by many people, but when he plays like that, the Ravens are tough to beat.
Everyone made a big deal about the Ravens cutting receivers Derrick Mason and Todd Heap this offseason, but it’s very clear that cutting them was the right move. Both Mason and Heap are no longer worth the contracts they are being paid, and the Ravens were smart to go younger at the position by drafting Torrey Smith.
However, whether or not they made the right decision, they are still struggling at the receiver position. The problem isn’t because of lack of talent, and that’s the most frustrating part. The problem with the receivers is that they lack experience.
Anquan Boldin is the only experienced receiver on the roster but has clearly had a hard time separating in coverage and has even been dropping passes. Many of the struggles aren’t his fault. The fact is, Boldin probably shouldn’t be No. 1 option at this point, but the Ravens don’t have any other options.
Torrey Smith had a great catch at the end of the game, but for the most part, both he and tight end Ed Dickson have been inconsistent so far this season. They don’t always run their routes correctly and will often drop passes when they’re contested by the defender. Luckily, tight end Dennis Pitta stepped up in a big way against the Steelers with five catches, but if the Ravens are going to continue having success, the young receivers are going to need to step up more consistently.
Winning fixes everything in the NFL.
After this win, many people are going to forget about the offensive struggles over the last few games. The Ravens certainly didn’t iron out all of their offensive problems, but there’s no question they’ve found a game plan that works.
Cam Cameron deserves credit for the game plan against the Steelers. It certainly took long enough to develop, but it finally looks like the Ravens have an offensive plan that they can win with.
The biggest change is that the Ravens seemed more focused on sustaining drives. This seems like an elementary point, but it has been a big problem for them this season. When the Ravens have struggled on offense, they have a hard time getting into manageable third-down situations. Sometimes it’s a busted play on first down, a negative run or an incompletion, but the play calling was usually questionable. They didn’t seem to have any balance in their offense.
Against the Steelers, the Ravens play calling was nearly flawless. They were effectively setting up short third downs with runs and short passes on first and second down. They were also keeping the defense honest by testing the secondary whenever they had single coverage. It was a thing of beauty for any Ravens fan.
The best part is that the Steelers were actually playing good defense, so the Ravens' success is truly of their own making and not the result of a bad game by the Steelers, which many people argued in Week 1. When the Ravens offense is balanced with intelligent play calling, they can move the ball on anyone, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Statistically speaking, this may not be the best game to highlight the Ravens corners, but the fact is they played very well despite the good statistical day by Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown. There isn’t a corner in the league that can defend some of the things that Roethlisberger is capable of doing.
The point is that the Ravens corners—especially Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams—have been much better that anyone could have anticipated. They occasionally make blunders in coverage, which can lead to some big plays, but they are learning fast and are rarely beaten simply due to lack of physical ability.
Their ability to hold up in one-on-one coverage has been a big factor in the Ravens' success on defense this season. That allows the Ravens to execute more complex blitzes up front and cover the middle of the field more effectively.
There were times where the Steelers receivers clearly beat the Ravens corners, but that happens in the NFL when a defense chooses to be aggressive. That’s why the front seven needs to be able to help the secondary, and against the Steelers, the Ravens were not always able to bring consistent pressure.
The Steelers had clearly game planned Terrell Suggs, and outstanding play by left tackle Max Starks with Roethlisberger’s ability to move in the pocket made it hard for the Ravens to get pressure. The lack of pressure isn’t a real concern since it’s more the result of the familiarity that the Steelers have with the Ravens’ defense, and that’s also why the Ravens really need the offense to perform in close games with the Steelers.
The bottom line is that the Ravens defense is good enough to play with anyone, and when the Ravens offense plays like it did last night, the Ravens could easily be considered one of the best teams in the NFL and clear favorites to win the AFC North.