The Baltimore Ravens beat the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night, sweeping the season series. The Ravens played like a team hellbent on vengeance following last year's playoff collapse at the hand of their AFC North rival.
While many towel-twirling fanatics expected Pittsburgh's best effort in the aftermath of a 35-7 opening weekend beating, Heinz Field faithful witnessed a mixture of positives and negatives in an evening that served like an emotional pendulum.
Both teams seemingly had the game won. The Ravens took a commanding 16-6 lead in a defensive contest, only to witness Ben Roethlisberger rebound from a foolhardy interception and rally the Men of Steel into the late lead.
The Steelers had chances to put away the game offensively and defensively. Nevertheless, Jekyll replaced Hyde in the final two minutes of the contest when the offense stalled with the lead and the defense couldn't put the game away.
Speaking of scary characters and stories, many fans know the Ravens were named after Baltimore native Edgar Allen Poe. In the past, Baltimore's offense played like a rewritten line from one of his finest works: quote the raven, "Never score!"
Yet, in arguably the brightest moment of his young career, Joe Flacco completed a surprisingly efficient evening with a 92-yard scoring drive to capture first place in the AFC North. It was a situation that saw many Balti-snore quarterbacks, including Flacco, fail miserably in the past.
A win would have set the Steelers up nicely for an inside track to home field advantage.
While Steelers fans debate the breakdowns that led to the heartbreaking defeat, ravenous Ravens fans (and coaches) celebrate their first regular season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2006.
Here are 10 observations from the 23-20 Sunday Night stunner.
Caller after caller voiced their opinion on "The Fan's" radio blitz on Monday morning, presenting various opinions in the aftermath of an unexpected loss. The bulk of voices seethed with disdain for cornerback Willie Gay, often labelled by coach Mike Tomlin as "Big Play Willie Gay!"
According to most, those big plays are benefiting the other team far too often.
The hosts dismissed the negativity surrounding the defender, citing the various reasons Pittsburgh loss that were not exclusive to one man. They were right. Sort of....
Despite the reality of a number of contributing factors, another reality is not dis-proven: Gay has to go!
While most of the secondary has played well (or better) throughout 2010, Gay's name has come up often in postgame discussions the last couple of seasons. Like offensive linemen, hearing your name at corner when you're not considered among the NFL elite is not good.
It was clear throughout last night's game that Baltimore focused on the corner primarily. At halftime, NBC reported coach Harbaugh as stating his plan for the remainder of the game was to "attack the corners."
Indeed, they did. Moreover, they attacked a corner. And, specifically, they attacked him on the most important drive (potentially) of their 2011 season. Yet, the abuse of the corner began earlier in the game, and it even dates back to Week 1.
On the opening drive on Sunday Night, a pass interference penalty set Baltimore up at the 1-yard line. The defense held strong.
Afterwards, Gay got away with a non-call on a hold, a play in which the corner nearly allowed a score anyway. Flacco's deep pass was thrown just beyond the reach of Torrey Smith.
On the fourth down on Baltimore's final drive? Flacco to Boldin. Covering on the play? Take a guess.
Do we need to go over the touchdown? Gay refers to the drive as his "worst ever."
That may be true. Often, drives aren't required when Gay gaffes.
From Jordy Nelson's opening touchdown in the Super Bowl, when Aaron Rodgers switched the receiver's assignment to a go-route as he realized the coverage.
Or, opening day, when Anquan Boldin torched Gay to set the tone in Baltimore?
Nobody ever mistook Gay for being the team's finest cornerback, and he's certainly made plays during his time in the Black and Gold.
For my money, the eyeball test is clear. His angles are often off, he allows too many receivers behind him with space (though he should have had safety help on Sunday Night), and too many big plays go over his head.
Gay is a liability, and the team should've replaced him at the first opportunity yesterday!
Should he have had help up top in the loss? Yes. But, he was completely beaten on the play, like so many others!
Welcome back, killer!
Coming back from a shattered FACE, the linebacker was by far the most effective force on defense. His eight tackles ranked second on the unit during the contest, and his three sacks were the lone take-downs of Joe Flacco.
His forced fumble was nearly the turnover that brought the game's winning points, a strip that was ironically (considering the last slide) recovered by Willie Gay.
After decimating the Steelers defensive front in the 35-7 route in Maryland, the Steel Curtain dropped on Ray Rice and Ricky Williams, combining for 27 runs and gaining only 67 yards, a 2.5 average per carry.
While pressure didn't get to Flacco on the final, fateful drive, the Steelers run defense (not so "old" and "slow") was solid and James Harrison came back with a fury!
These are both great signs going forward.
Those who understood the nature of the game knew a 50-pass plan from Big Ben was not going to do the trick against the Ravens.
Simply, it would backfire. With the Ravens' talent, it would be too predictable. The game plan would require some balance.
Bruce Arians did implement the run, wisely. With Mendenhall averaging four yards per carry, I'd argue it should have been implemented more!
Yet, three other factors cause me to question his effectiveness in this game:
The Steelers' first offensive play of a historically smashmouth game was a nine yard burst by Mendenhall. I was a proud Steelers fan in the small moment. Establishing a great gain on the first play isn't a small feat, though it is a small moment.
So, naturally, the second down play is a pass (nearly intercepted) and the third down option is a pitch out. With a yard to gain following a long drive by Baltimore- and the defense needing rest- the Steelers offense left a single yard to gain on the field of play without one more honest run.
Would this be an issue if the Steelers got a long gain on that second pass? Nope.
But, too often single yards are left on the field with multiple downs and the benefit of sheer odds.
While I think B.A. shows moments of brilliance in his playcalling, he seems to over-think the most basic situations. I'm not calling for his head, but a more traditional approach may be appropriate in circumstances like the opening drive.
Late in the game, Ben called many of his own plays on two touchdown drives. Those two endzone trips were the only of the night for the 'Burgh, both coming on the no-huddle in the fourth quarter.
It seems that the Steelers offense gets such a spark when the no-huddle is run. While it keeps personnel packages on the field, it also marks a time when Roethlisberger (not Arians) truly controls the tempo of the offense...and the calls!
Admittedly, this factor works more on hindsight. That said, I am not a fan of the time management in the final minutes.
On the final drive, where critical time management and playcalling is occurring, Bruce Arians could have inserted himself and went with an approach that at least forced Baltimore to burn resources (time or timeouts).
Instead, the best thing that could happen to the Ravens did: incomplete passes. On the final drive, the first play was incomplete, the same as a stuffed run but without the clock running! The Ravens took two timeouts on the drive. While one of the six plays was a justifiable pass on third and long to earn a first down, the total time in the four extra plays (including the completion on third down and long) had they run the ball (especially on the third down) could have been 2:40.
In all, the drive took two total minutes. Those extra 40 seconds were killers. Especially considering that the Ravens would have gotten the ball inside of two minutes remaining!
In reality, hindsight is 20/20. Critics of my rationale will argue that getting the first down on third and 6 by air would end the game and was the way to go!
Coupled with the early series, the time management at the end of the game left a lot to be desired. Additionally, the bulk of offensive success came when Ben called plays in the fourth quarter.
If you ask me, Ben just might by the cosmetic Bruce Arians doesn't deserve!
Some crazed maniac has been high on the Antonio Brown bandwagon for some time! In 1999, the same nut saw huge upside in Hines Ward as a receiver.
Now, with mixed emotions that zany lunatic (it's me!) feels Hines should be lowered on the depth chart to the third receiver. Hines has always been effective from the slot (except when Ray Lewis hits him helmet to helmet, a play I've never felt should be flagged!).
It is not Hines' inside strengths that persuade this thought. Antonio Brown is becoming a first rate NFL receiver before our very eyes! Last night, he led the team with five receptions for 109 yards. If not for a magnificent snag by Wallace coming across the field, Brown may have hauled in the Steelers' second touchdown of the night!
Earlier in the season, I ranked the Steelers receivers and many debated that Sanders deserved rating over Brown. While this can still be debated, I stand by my early conviction. My only regret is not ranking Brown over Ward, an instinct I ignored under the weight of public scrutiny!
His speed and explosiveness are a dangerous compliment to Mike Wallace, and his ability to move the chains have proven immeasurable in recent weeks. The chemistry between Brown and Roethlisberger is clearly developing, and Ward's time is measured anyway.
The time to start the lineup of the future is now. I feel strongly that Antonio Brown is developing into a replacement for Santonio Holmes. He has huge upside, validating his remarkable exhibition season and improving each week.
Jericho Cotchery watched as the hands of the football gods placed the pigskin into his waiting arms. Twice on deflections, Cotchery made key receptions. Not to take credit from him, those snags require concentration.
Okay, so there was some luck involved, too!
With three receptions for 44 yards, Jericho made a true impact on the game, and this production only chips the iceberg of his potential in the offense. During the broadcast, Cris Collinsworth referred to him as "Hines Ward five years ago!"
During his tenure with the Jets, he became a favorite target of Brett Favre (2008) and a leading receiver for Gang Green. His reputation for tough catches and a good work ethic made him a favorite target by Steelers fans in the offseason.
After an injury-riddled start to 2011, Cotchery has a chance to make a difference on the offense. With Hines' production dropping and his status in question, Jericho could make up the difference in coming weeks.
With Heath Miller's production rising at tight end, both young receivers making huge plays, and the game's (arguably) most dangerous deep threat moving the sticks as well, another legitimate threat would add to the AFC's deepest receiving corp!
It wasn't sheer luck. Joe Flacco played a great game against the Steelers.
He finished 28 of 47 for 300 yards and a touchdown. More impressively, the Ravens converted 14 of 21 third downs. Before stops on two series in the fourth quarter, Flacco was 12 for 14 on third down passing. On his final drive, he completed a critical fourth down pass to Boldin.
Of their 21 first downs in the game, Flacco moved the sticks 18 times! In fact, he averaged 11 yards per pass on third down.
On some plays, he had time in the pocket. Other times, he made clutch throws with under pressure, the occasional Steelers defender in his grill.
He had nearly no help from his running game. And, in the fourth quarter, his defense began to fall apart.
On an seemingly epic 92-yard drive, the much maligned QB had the defining moment of his young career.
Simply, he played a magnificent road game with a helluva finish!
Yet, what does it prove? If Flacco's Jekyll and Hyde act is any indication, it's that you never know what you will get!
This is the same quarterback who completed 10 of 31 passes in a winning effort against the Jets. The same field general led his team to all of seven points in Jacksonville.
The Ravens have won in spite of Joe Flacco. Last night, they won because of him. It could be the springboard for a great 2011, the moment a young man developed into a tough NFL starter.
Or, it could be an aberration. Which will it be?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Earning his own slide in my recap of classic pregame antics between the squads, T-Sizzle didn't disappoint during the game.
After an interception, the charismatic Raven found the nearest camera, boisterously celebrated, and gave the entire nation the most high definition view of a man's gums ever seen!
How great is that, really? For all of the t-shirts (flipping the bird, hating the Steelers, etc.) and tough talk, he walks the walk, a perfect combination of what's told and what's bold....and frankly, I'm sold!
In these contests, he always seems to make a critical play, win or lose, and Ben Roethlisberger surely replayed last night's interception in his head as he slept.
You have to give credit where it is due.
Late in the game, Mike Tomlin had to decide (prior to a false start by the offensive line) whether to try a 47-yard field goal prior to the two-minute warning.
Making the kick would give the Steelers a seven point cushion.
Missing would forfeit the opportunity to pin the Ravens deep, giving them great field position with little time to play. Likewise, the risk of a block was great.
After all, this is Shaun Suisham.
Ultimately, Suisham is the reason that the decision was correct. Chastised after the game, fans asked:
"Why didn't he try the kick?"
A better question would be "why not have a kicker on the roster that inspires confidence in those types of situations?"
Three of Suisham's four misses have come from the range in question. With only four makes and considering the risks, why not go with your amazing defense?
The defense gave up a 92-yard drive, calling the decision into question. Still, the odds were in coach's favor.
Why did we lose? Tons of reasons have been presented from various sources.
Ben's interception is a popular choice.. Yes, it was a horrible decision and premature throw. Let's face it; it won't be Big Ben's last turnover.
The laundry list is long: a lack of deep safety coverage on the final throw. A slow offensive start. A lack of no-huddle. Press vs. zone coverage. Willie Gay. Bad luck. Bad calls. Helmet to helmet against Ryan Clark, giving the Ravens three critical points at the end of the half.
Yada. Yada. Yada.
As games unfold, s$#$ happens! That's the simple reality of the NFL. In truth, the biggest factor is this: when you have the chance to win in your grasp, you have to seize it.
Part of the blame surely lies on the offense for not finishing the affair. But, are they the real soul of what caused the loss?
So many things can be targeted as reasons for the Steelers' breakdown after a 92-yard drive beat them in the final seconds.
For the real perspective on the loss, let Ray Lewis (ugh!) be your guide.
The time was 2008, and the setting was Baltimore.
After a tight defensive game, Santonio Holmes caught a controversial touchdown (the ball barely crossed the goal line) with seconds left in a 13-9 Steelers win. Referees deliberated, then raised their arms, sending fans back in Pittsburgh and the Steelers sideline into a frenzy.
From their own 8-yard line, the Steelers had traveled 92 yards. Most fans in Pittsburgh hopes for a field goal. In a magical season that would ultimately deliver a championship to the "Steal" City, Pittsburgh decided to 'steal' another game!
After the game, Ray Lewis summarized the events succinctly to those second-guessing every microscopic detail of the events.
I can't find the interview online. I can't find an article that published it. But, I recall hearing it and listening to praise for it, and I will paraphrase:
He said that it wasn't the call that beat them, but the 92-yard drive!
It doesn't get simpler than that! And, for the record, he was right....
At the end of the day, the Steelers needed a split during the homestand. Naturally, fans will get greedy.
Nevertheless, the sky hasn't fallen on the Steel City.
Do the Steelers have things to work on? Yes, notably elements of the secondary, balance on offense, ending out opponents, and avoiding mistakes.
Have they demonstrated aplomb in these areas and struggled in other perceived "strength areas" earlier in the year? Absolutely.
That's the nature of the NFL, a pendulum of rights and wrongs, strengths and weaknesses, and cans and cannots.
At the end of the day, the Steelers are a half game behind Baltimore, lacking the tie-breaker. Their second half schedule has interesting games.
Two games versus the surprising Bengals, including next week's trip to Ohio, should clarify the status of Cincinnati. Likewise, trips to Kansas City and San Francisco may not be cakewalks. Or, perhaps they'll be blowouts, if the Dolphins' 31-3 win at Arrowhead is any indication.
Don't give up on the AFC North, Steelers fans. The Ravens don't have an easy road left. They also play the Bengals twice, a team they've struggled against in recent seasons on both sides of the ball. With a trip to San Diego and a home game against the upstart 49ers and coach's brother Jimmy, who knows what could happen?
This is the same team that lost to the Jaguars, 12-7. Any given Sunday....
At 6-3, the Steelers sit among a block of fine teams in the AFC with a favorable schedule, enough to work on to keep them hungry, and a ton of upside.
It is clear that they can beat the Ravens, though they didn't. In January, Pittsburgh is going to be a tough out!