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How the Steelers defense may have saved season with 4th-quarter three-and-out against Ravens

Early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers held the Ravens to a three-and-out. Was that their season’s pivotal moment?

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

If you wrote all of the plays from the Steelers-Ravens game Christmas evening at Heinz Field on slips of paper, then drew one of them at random, you would be likely to pull a play that could be considered pivotal to the game. In a tense rivalry, under the high-pressure stakes of a winner-take-all matchup, it seemed like any play could have shifted the outcome, had it gone the other way.

The first half was almost entirely about defense, while the second half was all about offense and capitalizing on the other team’s mistakes. The fourth quarter alone had three lead changes.

Every second mattered.

If that sounds cliche, then consider the lone three-and-out in the fourth quarter.

Moments after the Steelers had cut the lead to 20-17, scoring their first touchdown since their first drive of the game, the Ravens got the ball at their own 40-yard line, when a second bad kickoff by the normally-steady Steelers kicker Chris Boswell sailed out of bounds. The three plays that followed may have been the most crucial of all to the Ravens’ loss.

4th Quarter, 11:41 Remaining, 1st & 10

At times throughout the game, the Steelers had struggled to stop the two-headed monster in Baltimore’s backfield of Kenneth Dixon and Terrence West. In particular, they struggled with inside runs, as the Pittsburgh defensive line lately has been ravaged by injury.

Fortunately, the Ravens opted for an outside run on first down. The off-tackle rush by Dixon looks to be stopped after a short gain by cornerback Ross Cockrell, but Cockrell is unable to get close enough to Dixon to wrap him up. Fortunately, safety Sean Davis, who had crashed down on the tight end right at the snap, was able to shed the block and come back at Dixon from behind. Had Dixon gotten away from Cockrell, inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons were there, but the play could have gained an additional two-to-four yards. Those yards ended up being very important.

4th Quarter, 11:01 Remaining, 2nd & 7

On second down, the Ravens opted to stay on the ground, trying to drain time while gaining yards. The play begins to the offensive right, just like the previous play, but this time Dixon cuts upfield behind the center, where a huge hole was opening. It looked at first as if linebacker James Harrison had overrun the play in the backfield, but he somehow manages to get a hand on Dixon and, even more miraculously, managed to hold on. This was enough to slow Dixon down, allowing Timmons to work through some traffic and clean up the tackle. What could have gone for a decent gain was held to four yards.

4th Quarter, 10:16 Remaining, 3rd & 3

On third down, the Steelers went with an interesting wrinkle in their nickel defense: the defensive tackles were shifted to the strong side so that Javon Hargrave was lined up directly over the nose tackle, while L.T. Walton was shaded just to the inside shoulder of the right tackle, Harrison was lined up on the outside shoulder of the left guard, and fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree was next to Harrison, well outside of the left tackle. Cornerback William Gay was over the strong-side slot receiver.

At the snap, Gay comes on a cornerback blitz while Harrison stunts around both tackles. On a deeper pass, this would have been brilliant play design, as Walton drew the guard while Gay pulled the tackle completely out of the play. That left Harrison an enormous hole. But, because the play call was a quick slant to receiver Kamar Aiken on the left side of the field, it had no effect.

Dupree, though, may have made the hidden play of the year.

Initially, he shows rush, but then sees Flacco looking for the slant in his direction. After a single step toward the line, he drops back, just as Flacco winds up for the throw. Flacco never saw him in the passing lane, and Dupree gets a fingertip on the ball and alters the trajectory just enough to make the ball deflect off Aiken’s hands. The end result was an incomplete pass.

After the ensuing punt, the Steelers would again drive down the field to score, taking their first lead since the Ravens converted an interception into the go-ahead points early in the third quarter. The Ravens would retake the lead, but did so with 1:18 left on the clock. The Steelers scored the winning points with nine seconds remaining in the game. A single first down instead of a three-and-out very well would have taken enough time off the clock to keep the Steelers out of the end zone that final time.

In the end, it might have been the difference between the Steelers going home and having the third seed in the NFL playoffs. Of course, it’s all what-ifs at this point, and what really matters is what-is. But wondering what might have been is much like trying to figure out how many licks it takes to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop: the world may never know.