It was almost as if Baltimore wasn't even there. The Steelers defense shut them down for the first 30 minutes, but the offense, outside a big-play start, got in its own way. Baltimore led 10-7 on a fumble and a special teams touchdown.
It's bizarre how much better the Steelers defense performed than its offense. It's really as if the Ravens are simply watching the Steelers scrimmage offense vs. defense. Baltimore isn't moving the ball for anything, and their defense is simply watching the Steelers implode. Not a great first half in review.
Let's get into the action...
It was hard not to get excited early. A great playcall to start the game (a backside screen worked in with a deep pass option which was predicated on how Baltimore covered Wallace). Someone will have to explain to me why they'd leave cornerback Cary Williams in 1-on-1 coverage with Mike Wallace on the first play of the game.
It obviously didn't go for as many yards, but the end-around to David Gilreath was also an outstanding play call. The guy on the field with no professional stats goes in motion, as the Steelers' often use a low priority in motion to find the defense's intentions. A great backside block by fullback Will Johnson, and a perfect (and legal) cut block by Willie Colon spring him to the outside, where he simply follows Emmanuel Sanders' aggressive blocking for a seven yard gain.
Great effort run by Leftwich and Emmanuel Sanders on his touchdown. It's easy to savage Bernard Pollard for his missed arm tackle of Leftwich, but defensive players have to hold up when a quarterback is running toward the sideline. I honestly think Leftwich just simply forgot to go out of bounds. Sanders ran great interference, Pollard whiffed and Leftwich just chugged the rest of the way.
Broadcaster Cris Collinsworth mentioned the Steelers defense using Ryan Clark underneath quite a bit in this game, and I think that was in direct response to the amazing rate of third down conversions Baltimore put up in last year's Heinz Field version of this game.
We see it right away, as Clark and Lawrence Timmons converge to smack Dennis Pitta just as he makes the catch on their first third down attempt. Flacco never looked anywhere else, and it was the exact area of the field he attacked last year and had a huge amount of success.
Flacco sees Clark come up on the stacked tight ends to his left, and basically has a high-to-low read. Clark hasn't cleared the high target - Ed Dickson - so Flacco immediately goes for the low - Dennis Pitta. Clark never stopped running toward Pitta. It's a combination of a deceptive defense and a lack of patience by Flacco. He could have had Pitta on an out at 10 yards if he waited for Clark to commit.
Alright, let's just get it on the table now about Flacco. The Week 11 game shows really the kind of quarterback he is. If that deep option is not there, he doesn't really do anything. If the running game isn't there, he doesn't really do anything. He's a one-read-and-go guy (something I'll illustrate in a few more plays coming up). It boils down to this; he is a much stronger quarterback physically than he is mentally. He has great tools, and threw some great passes last night. His mechanics were all over the place and threw some poor passes last night. But without that one big bailout throw, he's pretty much ineffective.
How smart was Baltimore to draft Torrey Smith? They tried to do it with the tight ends, Pitta and Dickson (probably the poorest blocking tight ends in football), but in reality, he needs a big vertical receiver to make his game work.
He didn't have it, and simply was a non-contributor to their win.
Back to the action...not quite sure about the gym class approach to the running game (each back gets one carry before moving to the back of the line), but if Willie Colon isn't called for holding, we're analyzing a phenomenal job by the offensive line. Huge push off the left side, Jonathan Dwyer had no choice but to run for eight yards.
Rashard Mendenhall got three yards in his first carry. Not bad. Can't complain. The argument usually ensues over which one of the Steelers' three backs is the best. Many, including myself, say it's Mendenhall. But judging by last night and other performances this season, the blocks are there for Dwyer.
How can we argue that any longer? Sometimes there's no reason, but last night, Jonathan Dwyer ran far more like the first round draft pick than Mendenhall did. Call it an injury, fine, but Haley needs to get him 18-22 carries a game from now on. The debate is over.
While we're still fired up over the explosive way the game started, and the three-and-out the Ravens followed it up with, we failed to notice the impact of Colon's holding penalty. Suddenly, Wallace fumbles after what would have been a third down conversion. Completely inexcusable, Mike. Inexcusable. He did the same thing Antonio Brown did against Oakland - failed to protect the ball while in the middle of the field. Did he assume cornerback Chris Johnson just gave up and wasn't trailing him?
On third and 10 from your own 14-yard line in the first quarter, the first down is enough. Catch the ball, protect it, see if you can escape outside and if not, just get down. Who isn't happy with 14 yards on third and 10?? Who??
If I watched that play five more times, I'd probably wig out and start throwing things.
Ya know what really disappointed me? Whenever Casey Hampton makes a 1-on-1 play in the backfield, and he starts yelling, this defense hits another level, and the team never loses. Never. Hampton makes that play, and with it, ensured Matt Birk will not be playing in the NFL next season, he was horrible against Oakland and got destroyed last night. There's some fodder for all of you who have to put up with Baltimore fans the rest of the way, there is absolutely no way Baltimore is beating a good defensive team with Matt Birk at center.
p.s. They didn't even block Harrison on the backside of that run. Didn't even put a guy on him. I trust the judgement of NFL offensive coordinators enough to give them the benefit of the doubt 100 percent of the time, but some cases it just seems so ridiculously dumb, you have to rip into them. But please, Mr. Cam Cameron, sir, by all means, leave Harrison unblocked or stick one of your wide receivers posing as tight ends on him in Week 13. Thanks in advance.
The Steelers force the field goal, and while still agitated by Wallace's moronic fumble, the Steelers are still fully in control of this game.
After Leftwich throws a laser to a wide open Emmanuel Sanders down the middle of the field, a feeling of comfort began to return, but frustration stormed back in control after seeing Wallace attempt to avoid press coverage by taking a step backward off the line. Williams got his jam on Wallace anyway, and matched Wallace stride-for-stride down the sideline.
Wallace gave up on the route, and didn't even compete for the pass, which bounced off Williams' back. It's a back shoulder throw, so it's not as if Wallace is in the wrong spot or anything, but he knows Williams' back is to the ball. Wallace has a big advantage to either get to the ball or draw interference. His lack of effort showed up a few times in this game, and it's very disappointing.
After the punt, there's a graphic showing Flacco's struggles on the road vs. his huge numbers at home. This could be my favorite part of the game. It's a running video of Flacco just staring at the camera.
"Hey Joe, stare right at the camera, we're going to put up a graphic showing how terrible of a quarterback you are on the road, along with how great of a quarterback you are at home, so just sit still and look calm, ok?"
The converse of Wallace's fumble is Ike Taylor's play on the deep pass to Torrey Smith. It's a perfectly thrown pass from Flacco from a clean pocket. It's right on the money (notice how Smith brought his hands up to catch the ball, Wallace?). Taylor needs to make a sensational play, as defensive backs often do to beat good throws. He had the ball for a split second pinned on his helmet and shoulder pad.
Lost in Harrison's JUUUUUUUSToffsides penalty was the fact Larry Foote made a great read and break on that pass. Probably should have had an interception, too. The larger point is how well this pass defense is playing. They were great last year with few sacks and turnovers, and now they're even better with few sacks and turnovers. It's the opposite of today's trend of loading up on sacks artists and big play defensive backs, neither of whom can cover or tackle particularly well. This defense is old school, technically sound and outstanding as a team.
Paul Kruger had the easiest game of his career. Mike Adams looked lost in pass protection. I wonder if some of that is due to what seemed like a far less vocal Leftwich in comparison with Roethlisberger. On a third and 10, Adams is conferring with right guard Ramon Foster just before the snap. Kruger rushes straight on, in more of a contain angle than a hard rush. Adams, for whatever reason, looks over to his left. Kruger notices this, and takes a hard step toward him. Adams is now out of position, and Kruger just makes a simple outside-in move that leaves Adams flat-footed and off-balance.
Leftwich steps up and avoids him, but Kruger's second effort brings him back to Leftwich, and if the officials in the Giants/Steelers game in Week 9 were in charge of this one, that would have been ruled a fumble.
We'll get after the punt coverage team, and rightly so, but it really is an outstanding return. Great blocking both up front and on the back side. Great one-cut by Jacoby Jones. He's the AFC's Pro Bowl return man this year.
Gotta be the stupidest end zone dance in history, though. Right up there with the time Vernon Davis tried to dunk over the cross bar and got bricked.
Baltimore simply stopped trying to get the ball down the field. Their third down play selection seems largely rooted in run-after-catch opportunities - which the Steelers never allowed. The Steelers defense seems a step faster than Baltimore on nearly every play. Excellent preparation this week from the defensive staff.
Still, the offense can do next to nothing. A blazing fast start ended as quickly as it started, and it stagnated for the rest of the half.
Stay tuned for the second half.