Behind the Steel Curtain AFC Championship Game Content
Moving on with some quicker hitting thoughts about the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-13 victory over Baltimore in the AFC Championship game. Catch yourself up with the links above to prior posts if you haven't already done so.
* One of the key plays of the game came late in the 4th quarter, with the Steelers clinging to a slim 2 point lead and set to punt it to Baltimore at about the 7:00 mark. Baltimore had more than enough time at their disposal to run whatever they wanted on offense. Adding to the tension of the moment for Steelers fans was the fact that P Mitch Berger had absolutely shanked his previous punt. In fact, he almost whiffed it and it traveled only 21 short yards.
On this punt, Berger 'boomed' it 38 yards. That pesky Leonhard dude for Baltimore ran under it at the Baltimore 28 and returned it 11 yards to about the Baltimore 40 yard line. But wait. There's a flag. Baltimore was flagged for an absolutely bone-headed unnecessary roughness penalty along the sidelines. Int stead of needing just 2-3 first downs to give Matt Stover a shot at taking the lead, the Ravens instead found themselves starting out at their own 14 yard line. Brutal, brutal mistake.
* Here's one important difference in the game - Pittsburgh: 7/18 on 3rd down; Baltimore: 3/13.
* Here's an even bigger one: Pittsburgh: 1 turnover; Baltimore: 4 turnovers
* Even though our offense started to get a bit stagnate with the lead (didn't help that Hines was out), I still wasn't too concerned about our defense giving up that big play that Baltimore has relied so heavily on in recent weeks. Part of that was the pressure we were getting; part though was because by that point in the game, I felt Troy Polamalu was playing too well to let that happen. That and these comments were what I had to say about how we was playing:
1. Wow - polamalu's got amazing closing speed
2. Wowzers - Polamlau playing so amazing
3. yeah!!!!!!!!! Figured Polamalu might have a say in this one at the end!!!! He’s been playing so well all game
Those aren't great deep insights (and they're certainly not well written!) but they nevertheless highlight just how much of a visible difference maker #43 is out there when he's healthy and in the zone like he was against Baltimore. I was hardly the only one taking notice either. All of us commenting on the game as we watched it unfold were singing the same sweet tune about #43's impact Sunday.
* By days end though, the numbers confirmed how little success Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron had crafting up enough big plays to seriously threaten the Steelers #1 ranked pass and scoring defense. The Ravens had just two 'big' plays in the passing game - a 22 yarder by Ray Rice and a 20 yarder from Todd Heap. Hardly game changing chunks of yardage.
The Steelers on the other hand, had passing plays of 65, 40, 30 and 20 yards. And that's with Sweed's drop and Santonio's near TD catch that was overturned near the goal line.
* It appears Hines Ward's knee injury is not overly serious. Ward called it a 'little sprain' and insists he'll be ready to go in Tampa. We'll see. As painful as it might be for us waiting anxiously for the Super Bowl, it's certainly a blessing that the Steelers will have two weeks to get Hines, Justin Hartwig, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark all a bit more healthy. Stay tuned for more news on the injury front as it becomes available.
* If you get a chance to watch the replay of Polamalu's INT return for a TD, see if you notice who is sprinting down field to give him the last block(s) necessary to pave the way to the end zone. Hint: He's a guy on our D that's frequently referred to as underrated.
* The performance of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison against Baltimore's starting Tackles was exactly why I wanted this match up so badly. Just like Baltimore's defense is too good most of the time for our offensive line - so too is our defensive line too much for Baltimore to handle. Woodley had two sacks on the day and Harrison would have had himself one or two himself had Baltimore's linemen been forced to adopt new techniques to slow him down other than blatantly holding him.
* Ryan Clark is a fantastic football player and an integral part of the 2007 and 2008 Steelers defenses being so stout. Clark led all Steelers with 8 tackles, including of course, his devastatingly violent hit on Willis McGahee late in the 4th quarter with Baltimore down 9 points. It was a good clean hit by Clark. Let's be clear about that first of all. I'd contend Clark's hit on Wes Welker earlier in the year was also clean, but that's up for debate I suppose considering the ball was nowhere near in Welker's possession when Clark brought the thunder then. In his hit of McGahee, possession had been made by the Ravens RB and he had already started to turn up field with the ball.
As ecstatic as we all were at the time (not yet 5 minutes or so removed of non-game time removed from P's TD), it was sobering and unfortunate to see McGahee be carted off the field like that. The good news is that McGahee has full movement and function of all his extremities and has been deemed 'neurologically in tact' by Baltimore team doctors.
I suppose I'll share a couple more thoughts about the incident - which thankfully appears to not be career or life altering. I could probably just skip it altogether and certainly would if there was lingering uncertainty about his neurological faculties; but since there fortunately appear not to be any (like Big Ben the previous week, the decision to use the stretcher appears to have been more precautionary than anything else) and since in my mind I know this is not about reveling in the misfortune of a member of a team I admittedly am not fond of, I will proceed anyway. Delicately and as honestly and objectively as possible.
- It's interesting how fine a line it is between us fans embracing the violent nature of the sport as we marvel at world class athletes colliding at breakneck speeds and shuddering with horror at just how violently unnatural and dangerous playing in the National Football League can be for the human body.
- Plays like this should also serve as reminders as to how difficult is to execute with the kind of precision and consistency that fans sometimes unrealistically expect to see from their favorite team's offense. With heat seeking missiles like Ryan Clark waiting to unload at all times, it's important to remember just how difficult it is for football players at the highest level to shut off their brains to that stark looming reality and instead focus solely on executing his specific job. It's tough and scary out there, and while these guys are grown men paid tons of money to do just that, it's still plainly obvious to me why A) offenses sometimes get out of sync throughout the course of the season and B) why guys like Limas Sweed are struggling at times with simple execution as they deal with making the transition to the far more violent and fast-paced NFL game.
- Because Willis McGahee appears to be ok, at least in terms of him not having his life permanently altered due to the actions that took place on the football field, I feel more than comfortable saying that the Ravens are going to elicit very little sympathy from me when something unfortunate like this happens. When you publicly state that your favorite hit of the year was the one that shattered the shoulder of Rashard Mendenhall, as Ray Lewis recently did, then why should one expect any sort of reciprocal concern about a fallen teammate of his? Again, if we were talking about McGahee being faced with future paralysis or a career ending injury of any sort, I wouldn't dare say a word.
- I know this is 'show business' and entertainment, something that often gets lost amongst the corporate and very stoic nature of the NFL; and I know that guys like Ray Lewis are partly filling a self-promotional role as entertainers with their mid-week comments. But man, that particular group of players - Lewis, Suggs, Ivy et al - they always want to take it to the extreme, particularly when talking about taking out a Steelers player. Each time, the Steelers seem to get the last laugh. I'm not laughing about one man's misfortune - not in the slightest - but I can't help but shake my head and think 'karma's a bitch' for a group of players with such a long track record of talking about things like bounties and using words like 'kill' when referencing guys like Hines Ward.