Prior to the second half commencing, I wrote in the second half open thread that there were three reasons for Steeler Nation to not panic just yet despite Pittsburgh trailing by two touchdowns at half, 21-14. Those reasons were.
We get the ball to start the second half. Points there and it's a game. The Ravens haven't done too much offensively outside of accumulate penalty yards. Baltimore has just 98 yards offensively.
Hopefully Pittsburgh goes to the no-huddle early and often in the second half to help Ben and the offensive line better diagnose what look the Ravens are showing.
As it turned out, only the second reason really came into play thanks to a barrage of gaffes by the Baltimore Ravens to start half number two. The Steelers actually punted the ball away on their first offensive series after picking up a quick first down through the air. A sack by some no-name they call Nakamura on 3rd and 12 and the collective anxiety level of Steeler Nation rose once again.
Then, just moments later, the first of several fortuitous breaks presented itself when Ray Rice inexcusably coughed up the ball on a check down by Flacco on 3rd and 14. Let's rewind two plays though to the Ravens' first down play on that series. I read in the gameday thread that some thought the Ravens went too conservative in the second half. Not exactly. The Ravens dropped back to pass on that first down play up 14. Thankfully, James Harrison provided a foretaste of the feast to come for the Steelers defense in the second half when he willed his way to Flacco for the sack.
Back to the fumble though. Smart decision by Flacco to take the check down to Rice and not risk forcing the ball into tight coverage down the field. Ray Rice doesn't really fumble the ball. As in, zero fumbles for the third-year back out of Rutgers in 370 touches this year. Remarkable. But Rice sure picked an inopportune time to cough it up, as Ryan Clark managed to get a hand on the ball while taking down Rice. It squirted into the air, caromed off a Steelers helmet I believe, and ultimately wound up in the hands of LaMarr Woodley.
Here's where the Steelers offense -- from Bruce Arians, to Ben Roethlisberger, to every last member of the line, and all the skill position players --- deserves a lot of credit. The Steelers wasted no time capitalizing on the break. Rashard Mendenhall took the ball inside the Ravens' 10 with a 14-yard run, then a gorgeous 9-yard pass to Heath Miller cut the deficit to seven at, 21-14, and sent the Heinz Field faithful into a frenzy.
The Steelers defense rose up again on the Ravens' next possession, forcing a three-and-out thanks to yet another sack by James 'Deebo' Harrison. The Ravens at least turned the field thanks to a 57-yard punt by Sam Koch, who definitely deserves a tip of the cap for a job well done all night. (Koch averaged 53.8 yards per punt on four kicks, with a long of 61 and two of the four landing inside the 20.)
A 12-yard punt return by Antonio Brown did set up the Steelers at the Ravens 33 yard line. At that point, memories of the sloppy first half had long since been replaced by high hopes amongst Steeler Nation. And for good reason. All the momentum in the world had shifted to Pittsburgh's side, and not even eight minutes had gone by in the third quarter. A 17-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders put the Steelers at mid-field, then another first down reception by Sanders, this one for 10 yards, put Pittsburgh close to within field goal range at the Baltimore 37. After an incompletion, Arians relayed in what I thought was one of his only one or two poor calls on the evening, a reverse to Mike Wallace that the Ravens ate up for a 6-yard loss on 2nd and 10. The Steelers' momentum was temporarily halted as they were forced to punt it away. The Ravens then got another mini-break when Kapinos' perfect punt inside the 5 was negated by a penalty. Thankfully, a holding call on Baltimore on the subsequent punt pushed them back to their own 10-yard line.
Baltimore stayed aggressive, throwing on the first play of the series. Flacco's throw was reminiscent of the passes he successfully converted in the second regular season game -- a high trajectory, lob over the top of the Steelers' secondary. Only this time, Ryan Clark had stayed at home, and thanks to Flacco sailing the ball ever so slightly in his attempt to Todd Heap, Clark was able to play a perfect center field and haul in the interception. Boom! After a 17-yard return by Clark, the Steelers were back in business deep inside Ravens' territory.
The Steelers capitalized on the opportunity thanks to a just perfect TD strike by Big Ben to the savvy veteran, Hines Ward. The future Hall of Famer had been quiet for much of the ballgame, but No. 86 delivered an incredible catch in traffic on a huge 3rd down play. Whereas veterans T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin dropped catchable balls in big spots, Ward rose up and made an extraordinarily tough catch when his team needed it most.
It can't be overstated how good the Steelers were in the redzone on Saturday night. Pittsburgh converted its first three RZ trips into touchdowns. Outside of the pivotal turnovers the defense created to start the second half, there was no bigger factor in the Steelers' win than the offense's redzone efficiency. That said, the Steelers actually missed out an opportunity to really seize control of the game when Joe Flacco mishandled the snap on the Ravens' very first play on the next series. Pittsburgh was back in business at the Ravens 23 after the fumble -- Baltimore's third in the quarter. However, the Steelers finally were slowed down inside the RZ and had to settle for a Suisham 35-yard field goal that made the score 24-21. It was Pittsburgh's first lead since scoring the initial seven points early on in the first quarter.
The Steelers defense then came up with another huge stop largely because Deebo registered his third sack of the evening, a nine-yard loss on 3rd and 10 where Harrison initially fell just short of sacking Flacco, only to get up and chase him to the sidelines where Flacco flaccidly ran out of bounds. With just under eight minutes to play, things were looking great, but I don't think anybody felt too, too comfortable just yet.
The Steelers failed to muster much on their next series and were forced to punt from their own 15 with about 6:30 remaining after a quick three-and-out. Oh no! Special teams didn't do their part as Lardarius Webb returned the low trajectory punt for 55-yards and the go-ahead score. Wait, penalty marker is down! Holding during the return wipes the score off the board. I have to say my friends, that holding call was questionable at best. It wasn't the only questionable call on the evening -- some went in each team's favor. But that was a big one. I'll just leave it at that.
The Ravens shrug off the call and take it inside the Steelers' 10 on their first offensive play, a gorgeous 21 yarder to Todd Heap that fell into the husky tight end's hands right before Troy Polamalu could get there and deliver a disruptive hit. Impressive throw and catch by Flacco and Heap. But Baltimore's offense couldn't punch it in. They were close, mind you. But unlike the Steelers who benefited from a clutch catch by Ward in traffic, A. Boldin muffed a would-be go-ahead touchdown reception on third down. Incredible. Still, the Ravens had tied the game with just under 4:00 minutes to play.
No reason to panic. The Steelers had been in this situation countless times before, and Ben Roethlisberger had delivered time and time again. After two straight incompletions to start the drive, Hines Ward came up with yet another massive third-down reception. The Steelers were out near mid-field with a fresh set of downs and plenty of time to operate. Things got tense in a hurry after Roethlisberger got sacked for a nine-yard loss on first down. After an incompletion on second down, the Steelers faced a 3rd and 19 -- never a good position to be in, especially not with the score tied and just over 2 minutes remaining. Then, one of the truly legendary plays in Steelers history put the black and gold in position to close the deal. Let's take a look.
Sick throw by Roethlisberger. Who says No. 7 can't throw the deep ball? Gorgeous throw, but what was really awesome was the trust he had to give Antonio Brown a chance to make a play in such an important moment. More on that this week, but suffice it to say, the Steelers wouldn't be where they are had Coach Tomlin, Bruce Arians, and Ben Roethlisberger all found a way to bring along Emmanuel Sanders and A. Brown slowly but surely in the passing game. Awesome catch by the rookie out of Central Michigan.
The Steelers then went ahead for good on a 3rd and 2 from the 2-yard line behind a run by Mendenhall that symbolized the entire night for the Steelers. Mendenhall willed his way to the goal line after being initially stood up. He simply refused to be denied, much like the Steelers did after uncharacteristically shooting themselves in the foot earlier in the game. The touchdown marked the fourth RZ score for the Steelers, by far their best RZ showing on the year.
More soon on some of the great individual efforts throughout the game, but I wanted to provide a linear recap for those that might not have had the chance to watch one of the truly great NFL playoff games I can ever remember witnessing.