For me this number says as much as the 23-20 final score. The Ravens converted 14 of 21 third down opportunities. Of those 14 third down conversions, all 14 came via Joe Flacco completions (Flacco completed his lone attempt on fourth down – a ten yard completion on fourth and one on the final drive of the game).
That the Steelers forced the Ravens into 21 third down plays is a testament to how good they were against the Ravens’ rushing attack. Baltimore attempted 27 rushes but averaged just 2.5 yards per. As a result Pittsburgh forced Baltimore into many difficult third and long situations but more often than not were unable to get the stop they needed. Flacco converted eight third downs of six yards or more which easily explains the four drives of ten plays or more the Ravens hung on the Steelers. Baltimore worked underneath to its less experienced receivers with quick timing plays to neutralize the Steeler blitz – a blitz that desparately missed Lamarr Woodley, even though James Harrison was brilliant. It was a great gameplan and even better execution by a much-maligned and inconsistent quarterback and his troupe of no-name receivers.
I’ve heard a bunch of complaints about the officiating on local radio today. The pass interference on Ike Taylor in the third quarter was pretty chintzy, but then again so was the holding call against Torrey Smith on Ray Rice’s opening-play touchdown run. The helmet-to-helmet call against Ryan Clark was probably the right call (how I wish that guy would learn how to tackle with something other than his skull) even if the refs failed to call the helmet-to-helmet hit by Ray Lewis on Hines Ward earlier in the game. Questionable calls impact every game. Sometimes they help your team, sometimes they hurt. But in this instance it makes no difference. It isn’t the officials’ fault that Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception directly to Terrell Suggs, who Ben didn’t recognize was lined up on the left side of the defense (the only play the entire game Suggs lined up on that side) in anticipation of that throw. It isn’t the officials’ fault the Steelers couldn’t convert a third and six with 2:30 remaining and the Ravens down to their last time out. And it most certainly isn’t the officials’ fault that the defense couldn’t keep Joe Flacco from marching 92 yards for (what could be) the division-winning touchdown in their backyard.
(I think it’s worth mentioning just how fantastic the Torrey Smith touchdown play was. Consider: it was third down and ten from the 26, there was around 14 seconds left, and the Ravens had one timeout. Baltimore put Boldin in the slot – because they knew Ike Taylor was going to line up on him – and put Torrey Smith on the outside where he was matched up with William Gay. Boldin ran a crossing route, and since all the Ravens really needed was a first down, Ryan Clark – who was supposed to be William Gay’s safety help deep – figured the pass was going to Boldin over the middle in an attempt to get the first. As a result, Clark’s first move on the play was to take two steps up to give Ike Taylor support which ultimately left Gay on an island with Smith (who the Steelers likely figured was not going to get the ball thrown his way after dropping a sure touchdown just a couple plays before). Flacco read this, and dropped in a perfect pass. It was a very bold call as an incompletion there would have left the Ravens with a fourth and ten from the 26 with only eight seconds and one time out. This would have required another do-or-die try into the end zone (which the Steelers would have been better able to defend as it would have been Baltimore’s only option), whereas a more conservative play for a first down would have allowed the Ravens to burn their time out, get prepared, and have time for two plays into the end zone from closer range.)
And that’s why this loss hurts so badly. Going in to last night’s contest the Steelers controlled their own destiny. Had they been able to take care of the Ravens the Steelers would have buried them deep enough to afford another loss or even two and still win the division and possibly clinch a first-round bye. The upcoming schedule for the Steelers – @CIN, BYE, @KC, vsCIN, vsCLE, @SF, vsSTL, @CLE – certainly doesn’t appear to have more than two losses on it. Now with the Steelers in third place in the AFC North and on the wrong side of the division tiebreaker combined with the Ravens’ schedule – @SEA, vsCIN, vsSF, @CLE, vsIND, @SD, vsCLE, @CIN – looking awfully cushy, it’s going to take another chokejob like the one against the Jaguars for the Ravens to let the Steelers back into this race. All this and I haven’t even mentioned the Bengals, who the Steelers play next week in what is now a must-win game.
The good news for Pittsburgh is they still control their own playoff destiny. If the season ended today they would be the second AFC wild-card team. They have the opportunity next week to take down the Bengals and reestablish themselves before the bye. As fans, all we can do is hope the Steelers learned enough from these Baltimore losses to keep from making the same mistakes again if – hopefully, when – these two teams meet in January.