Wow, what a game. What a stretch of games. What a season so far. If there is just one thing we all can agree on, it's that we're getting our money's worth as fans this year - certainly at least in terms of drama. I have tons of thoughts, and I'm not sure how I want to present them, but I'll just get going and see where I end up.
* First of all, congratulations to the Baltimore Ravens for playing one hell of a hard fought football game. Joe Flacco made some mistakes, but he also made some amazing plays. That teams going to be just fine moving forward and I'll tell you one thing - I really hope we don't see them in the playoffs. I think Flacco might have similar struggles if we were to play again, but it's very, very hard to beat a team that solid three times in a row in a single season.
Thank you as well to the Baltimore fans that have joined us over here this past week and for most of the season in fact. I hate the Ravens more than anybody, believe me. But good people are good people, and football fans are football fans. If you're new here and are a bit slow on picking up that we try to avoid the same mudslinging and embarrassingly crude nonsense that is just lame and adds nothing, consider yourself informed now Gratuitous personal insults, profanity or not, just take the attention off what was a really great and entertaining game between two legit rivals. Remember that shot of Ed Reed and Ben Roethlisberger chatting it up cordially before the game? They want to destroy each other when they step on the field, but they're not so childish as to not be able to keep business and friendship or even basic civility separate. It's a no brainer in the first place, but if the actual competitors can, fans can. Period. While still wanting nothing but endless 0-16 seasons for their rivals of course. This is too special of a football team - let's keep the focus on the games.
ANOTHER 'BEAUTIFUL' TEAM WIN:
* Ok then. Where was I. Well to start, how about this list: Patrick Bailey, Keyaron Fox, Max Starks, Mitch Berger, William Gay. All made significant plays in this game as unheralded members of our team. Mitch Berger's tackle perhaps saved 7 points; same with Max Starks's takedown of Ed Reed after he scooped up Santonio Holmes's fumble. Keyaron Fox recovered yet another Holmes fumble, and made a huge tackle on special teams as well. Patrick Bailey emphatically took down Yamon Figurs after we kicked a FG to make it 9-6. And William Gay, in addition to playing solidly in coverage all game, sealed the game with an INT. We're a deep football team. And when Mike Tomlin says that these types of games are beautiful, it's because he asks an awful lot of each and every guy on the roster. Sometimes even more so of the less heralded and unestablished guys. The message: you never know when you're going to be the guy the team relies on to win a game. And it is quite beautiful when a team continues to get small but critical contributions from new guys each week.
MORE WINS...AND SOONER..THAN ANYONE TO COME BEFORE HIM
* The hero of course was Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben just won his 50th game as a starter in the National Football League. That's the most wins in the first five years of a career in league history. I believe it was his 25th come from behind victory as well. Enough said really.
Here are a few thoughts about Ben's performance that I'd like to touch on in more detail this week:
1) We're a lot better on offense when Ben runs a bit. It's important to remember that it's tough to scramble on 3 yard drop backs in the pocket that are designed to get rid of the ball quickly. There's just so little space between Ben and the congestion of offensive and defensive linemen that it makes surveying what's going on much tougher. And those visual obstacles happen to be 300 pounds and crashing into each other. It's hard to make composed decisions in that situation, but Ben is starting to get a bit more comfortable now and is making much better and quicker decisions about when to take off. He had 4 rushes for 21 yards.
2) Ben was really sharp, even to start the game. He just had it going on today, and if it weren't for a number of drops by our WRs early on and his late fumble in the redzone, that game might not have been nearly as close and his personal statistics might have looked even glossier than they were. Ben actually had some wobbly and not perfect throws late in the game that were still completed, whereas his passes were extremely crisp and accurate early on. But more importantly...
3) His decision making was very, very good. I think he could have decided quicker to get rid of the ball on that play that he fumbled, but other than that, I thought he did a very good job getting rid of the ball and doing so accurately and confidently. And when things weren't there, he still made safe throws for incompletions. Earlier in the year when we were overhauling our offense to account for pass protection issues, Ben committed to getting rid of the ball for the most part, but he wasn't entirely comfortable doing so. Not only has his decision making and risk taking improved, we're now seeing him feel comfortable enough to sense pressure in the same remarkable way that he was able to do on slower developing pass plays that featured him dropping back 5 or 7 steps rather than the 3 he's doing more frequently now.
4) I've gotten numerous emails already about why we don't use the no-huddle more often. It's a good question. I really think we should be, at least more than only when it's full-on hurry-up mode. You have to give credit to Bruce Arians for making some substantial adjustments on the fly this year, so it's not impossible to think he's still willing to throw some new wrinkles into our strategy as the season winds down, but we'll just have to see.We've been waiting for nearly three years now so I guess I'd say don't hold your breath, at least not until the playoffs.
Much more on Ben and his late game heroics, but let's move on for now.
* Somebody needs to make sure that Fast Willie Parker gets some recognition for his efforts. No his stat line was not impressive - 14 carries for 47 yards and 2 receptions for 9 yards - but those were some hard fought yards. And they were crucial yards. Parker had not much at all to show for his first quarter (just two carries for 3 yards I believe), but he made subtle contributions for the remainder of the game. Down 9-3 with just 13 minutes left, we got the ball back on our own 34 yard line. Parker's 10 yard run to start the drive kick started our offense for the remainder of the game. We got just 3 that possession, but after being in a lull for most of the 3rd quarter, it was the jump start we needed for a 130+ yard 4th quarter. If you're going to go to the media like he did earlier this week, you better play really hard the following week, and fight and scrape for every last inch for your team when called upon. He did just that. It was not his best game by any means, but it was one of the better efforts he's ever had against that intimidating Ravens rush defense.
* Wow, Lawrence Timmons just absolutely terrorized the Ravens offense on Sunday. His physical prowess was on full display, but he showed his increased undertsanding of his assignments in the passing game. He was isolated with Willis McGahee on a 3rd down play following the nearly devastating Santonio Holmes fumble in the 3rd quarter, but stuck with him and gave Flacco no window to fit the ball into. More importantly though, we needed his sheer athleticism today. Timmons has had other nice moments this year for sure, but to me, this was his breakout game in terms of leaving an impact on a game and determining its outcome. The stats might not yet be gawdy in year two as they have been for Woodley, but having him in the rotation, over guys like Clark Hagans and Clint Kriewaldt is a huge difference, even on plays that don't wind up in the stat sheet for him.
The biggest play of course was his sack of Joe Flacco late in the 4th quarter. Who knows what would have happened if Matt Stover had been able to kick his 4th FG of the game in the 4th quarter at the end of the Ravens' extremely impressive and tension inducing 6+ minute drive following Pittsburgh's FG that had cut it to 9-6. Instead they were forced to punt, which did pin us deeper than we might have otherwise been following a kick return, but nevertheless, it was a huge play. Phill Simms was too busy talking about James Harrison being bottled up to mention that all the attention he got was freeing things up for Timmons. But that's what we're going to see more and more of in the future with the Linebacking trio of Timmons, Woodley and Harrison. Pick your poison.
One final play though that might have been forgotten. On 3rd and 4 at about the 14:00 minute mark of the 4th quarter, the Ravens faced a 3rd and 4 from their own 28. The score was still 9-3. Remember how Derrick Mason killed us in the first meeting? Seems like everybody in the world knew Flacco was going to look his way every time, but he still managed to be open just enough to make a play and keep a drive alive. That's mostly because good offense beats good defense every day of the week. The way a defense can counter that is by just punishing players each and every time they catch the ball. Timmons did just that. He body slammed Mason on that 3rd down play, jarring the ball free on impact that almost led to an INT. As it was, it still forced the Ravens to punt and we proceeded to march down the field on our ensuing possession. He's going to be a game changing type of player and I think our jaws are going to hit the floor on multiple occasions as we watch what he's able to do.
* Hines Ward is the man. He may not have the same speed he had at age 25, but I know I wasn't imagining things when I saw him make would-be tacklers miss and even sprint free on slants over the middle on several occasions. Ward is such a beast against the Ravens. I love it. You know how badly they want to deliver a knockout blow to him out there, yet each time we play them, he seems to get the last laugh. So sweet. Ward finished with 8 catches for 107 yards, including 3 for 36 on the game's deciding and lone TD drive.
* I can't say I entirely blame him after watching just how physical and impressive Baltimore's defense was for most of the game, but Nate Washington was a bit rattled for most of the game. I felt he was pushed around a bit too much. He dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball from Big Ben early in the game, and I didn't think he fought particularly hard for one ball that was up for grabs between him and a Ravens defender on a deep out. But to his credit, he delivered down the stretch. Washington had 3 huge catches for 49 yards on the final drive. What we decide to do with him will be very interesting to me in the future.
* I can't emphasize how impressed I was by James Farrior and Larry Foote. On a day when LeRon McClain had more individual success running the ball than any single opposing RB all year, that might sound a bit strange. But after McClain ripped off 3 straight runs for a total of 20 yards in the 2nd quarter, Foote and Farrior were just warriors against the run. The Ravens still had some success for the remainder of the game, but the two veterans definitely turned what were 8 yard runs earlier in the game to just 3 or 4 yard totes for much of the second half. On the 10 runs following his runs of 6,5,9 yards on Baltimore's 2nd FG drive near halftime, McClain gained just 36 yards. Farrior in particular is just unbelievable. That dude just gives up his body each and every week. Farrior's consistency is one of his most admirable qualities of course - he rarely has a bad game. On Sunday though, I felt Farrior found a way to take his game to an even higher level, particularly after that series. We were the most violent team for the remainder of the game and in my estimation, it started with those two guys standing up to the challenge of taking on McClain in the hole with reckless and unrelenting abandon.
* On a day when I highlighted the hopeful but still sad story that Aaron Smith and his family are dealing with, Smith went out and had 7 tackles and 1 sack. He pressured Flacco on another occasion and nearly had a 2nd, but anyway, it was vintage Smith. He and Hampton clogged gaps just well enough so that LeBeau didn't have to spend any extra defensive capital stopping the run. Smith better be in the Pro Bowl this year, or I'm going to my very best to never mention the word again on my site.
* I am not worried about Santonio Holmes. I said as much to anyone who will listen. I haven a more detailed explanation as to why I think he struggled today that I'd like to get your feedback on. That's later, but I would like to say two things about that game-winning play after all those mental miscues: 1) That was a tough, tough catch after doing a great job working with his quarterback who was scrambling. It'd be one thing if he made the routine play after those mistakes. It was not at all a routine play though. 2) What made it even more impressive was that Ed Reed was on him. Ed Reed's um really good at football. I I'm just proud Holmes kept his head in the game. Now he just needs to learn from Hines how to be a Ravens killer and be fired up to play against them without trying too hard and playing a step ahead of himself.
* Mitch Berger somehow averaged 42 yards per punt, but I'll tell you what, I'd be perfectly content if he sacrificed 5-10 yards if it meant that he didn't keep punting the ball with a low enough trajectory that makes it hard for our gunners to get down there quicker. Berger had some nice punts with acceptable hang-time, but there's going to be a time in the playoffs where a game could hinge late on a field position. Of course, as we all said during the game, Berger gets a Get Out Of Jail Free Card for quite some time for his tackle in the open field.
* As for the miscue on punt return coverage, GO GET THE GUY WITH THE BALL! For the first time, our guys got caught up in watching. That wasn't the only decent sized return we surrendered either. Special teams now on notice for the first time this year.
* I don't want to get into the officiating really. I thought the refs let them play pretty consistently on both sides of the ball. The 3rd down measurement was questionable, and I've yet to get a conclusive explanation about the rules about a TD catch. I know the ball has to break the plane for a TD to count - but does that apply when BOTH feet are in the end zone with possession of the ball? I want THAT clarified but regardless, I think the word 'controversy' is a stretch to say the least, because it wasn't even clear that the ball even failed to cross the plane in the first place.
* The lack of holding calls of course continues to befuddle, but at least for a day, the calls in this regard were fairly consistent.
* The one piece of officiating I will comment on is the 15 yarder on Jeff Reed after our go-ahead TD. Are you freaking serious? The inertia generated from Reed's comically Spikey-esque attempts at 'roughness' doesn't even begin to move the Ravens player and he gets flagged? And ahem, there was pushing, jawing and other extracurricular stuff going on all game. THAT'S what finally draws a foul? Could it have been something he said? Haha, that'd be funny if Jeff Reed managed to talk more flagrant and unacceptable trash than Ray Lewis. Anyway..
STILL TO COME:
* We've focused on the defense here so much this season - and rightfully so - so I don't want to go into all of my thoughts about the defense as a whole in this post, but I will say that this still remains the most incredible Steelers defense in my lifetime. We watch and love the games every year, regardless of what we're seeing is necessarily 'special', but I personally feel it's important to spend AT LEAST as much energy, if not much much more, appreciating this historically amazing performance rather than harping on the admittedly frustrating inconsistencies of the offense. There's time to talk about both of course, but it's funny how we're literally able to take for granted being given opportunity after opportunity by our defense to hang around and then win ball games late. What a season-long virtuoso performance by LeBeau and his players.
For the record, we continued our streak of holding opponents under 300 yards each game this season. The Ravens had just 202 yards on 61 plays. The 3.3 yards per play will lower our already historically impressive 3.9 yards per play allowed even lower. 2 more INTs as well, including a momentum-halting pick by Ryan Clark. We did give up 116 yards on the ground, but only 3.6 yards per rush. McClain is a bulldozer, but the defense manned up and kept violently meeting him head on.
Bottom line is the resolve of this defense can not be cracked. Not by injuries, poor play by the offense, compromised field position, a mysteriously absurd lack of holding calls. Nothing. And there hasn't even been ONE SINGLE outlier where we we forced to say 'ah well, can't play perfectly every time.' Apparently we can, actually.
* Post devoted solely to the offensive line coming this week, but for now I'll just say that they played much, much better this week than last. It's tough sledding in the run game for all teams against Baltimore, but we had a few moments. More importantly, the pass protection was great. The Ravens had three sacks, but two of them were on very well designed stunts involving Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. And frankly, the Reed sack was on Mewelde Moore, who instead of being the last line of defense simply just hid behind the offensive line, who had done just fine holding back the initial wave of Ravens pass rushers. A solid game for the unit all in all. And oh yeah, those Cowboys pass rushers are pretty good. They recorded 8 sacks against the highly regarded Giants offensive line.
That's more than enough for now. This was such a great game to watch and comment on with many of y'all in the open threads. The stakes were so high. So much pressure and tension. And like we have three of the previous four weeks, we made just enough plays to win at the very last minute of the game. Our first road win in Baltimore since 2002. In addition to retaining hegemony over the AFC North for at least another year, we secured a 1st round bye in the playoffs and at least the #2 seed.
With so much accomplished already, it's scary to think we may still have yet to see the best of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. I wrote that I thought we were Super Bowl bound two weeks ago, before these gutty wins. It hasn't been pretty and anything can still happen, but with just two games to go, we continue to get more healthy. With a guaranteed spot in the Divisional Round, the biggest of goals for this team remains on the table.
I suppose the guys might need to rest their aching bodies, but man, I can't wait for the next heart-stopping game. Go Steelers!