In his half-ridiculous, half-brilliant weekly TMQ, ESPN Gregg Easterbrook often refers to "hidden plays of the game" – plays that are not flashy and do not stand out on a stat sheet, but that are key in helping sustain or stop drive ultimately resulting is something very significant.
I decided to take it a step further, and pin-point a "hidden-hidden" play of the game – that is a play that discreetly caused a play that discreetly led to something more obvious and important.
The problem is, both plays that are links to this chain, are nothing but discreet. One has temporarily sent Heinz Field into frenzy, the other one was a unique play that has been mentioned on BTSC more than once.
The first play is the Emmanuel Sanders kickoff return, for a touchdown, but blown dead after he apparently stepped out of bounds at the Steelers 37. The second one, that immediately preceded the big return, was Polamalu's offside penalty.
In respect of the final drive by the Steelers, everybody's talking about Suisham's clutch kick, and Brown's two big catches, as well as the Ravens' defensive penalty that gave Pittsburgh the first first down on that drive (it was big - had the Steelers gone 3-an-out, Tucker may have been the hero at the end). Nobody talks - at least, I didn't hear it in the broadcast, and I haven't seen it on any of the early recapts - about the biggest element of this drive - great starting position. Perhaps it paled in comparison with the apparent return TD, but it having to start at the 37 instead of the 20 meant that the Steelers had to drive only 30 yards or so to get into Suisham's range. Given that a good field position has been a rare luxury for the Steelers this season (not necessarily this game), it is hard to overstate the importance of this.
Now, how the Steelers got to the 37? In a weird way. Sanders took the ball 8 or 9 yards deep into the Pittsburgh end zone and I was certain he was going to kneel for a touchback. He had to go laterally even to field the ball, so any return was very dangerous in a sense that the Steelers could have been pinned within their own 10 or so. Yet, Sanders streaked down the sideline, with some great blocking, and had the field been half-inch wider (or had it been a reviewable play)... Well, you know.
This was also weird because the Ravens were kicking off from their 40-yard line, instead of the 35, because of the Polamalu ridiculous penalty on the extra point a snap earlier.
I honestly believe that that penalty was what caused the big return by Sanders.
Think about it: Harbaugh elected to enforce the 5-yarder on the kickoff, and not on the PAT (fraidy-cat, as Easterbrook would have written - he could have gone for the 2 points and win the game). But making this choice he clearly expected a touchback on the kick-off, with no chance of return and a spark, and long 50 yards to go for a chance at a field goal. It seemed that the Ravens special team on that kick expected the same and came out flat-footed - the kick was a low liner, and the coverage team was clearly slow getting upfield, not expecting a return from Sanders.
So there you have it - as BTSC had it, the offside on PAT of this kind would have made the "Sports Center Not Top Ten" list had it been anyone besides Polamalu. But Troy is Troy, and these kind of plays are his bread and butter. And even if he failed to block the PAT attempt, his effort paid off - big time.
So there's your hidden-hidden play of the game.