Exorcising the Ghost of Meetings Past: Steelers vs. Ravens
The game began with a mistake and also ended with one. But they were very different mistakes.
Given that Steelers-Ravens games generally come down to a field goal’s worth of points, sending the kickoff for the Ravens’ first drive out of bounds was sub-optimal on the part of Chris Boswell. In fact, the Ravens appear to be Boswell’s kryptonite, as the botched rabona-style kick he attempted in the previous Steelers-Ravens match will presumably live on for years on YouTube. Fortunately, in this instance the Ravens were not able to take advantage of the good field position as they went four-and-out.
The final mistake of the game was perhaps more serious. Admittedly there were only four seconds left in the game. But this is Steelers-Ravens, and anything can happen. The Ravens still had a time out, and we’ve seen the patented Joe Flacco heave-‘n-pray offense too often to not have flashbacks as they lined up. And indeed Flacco completed what turned out to be his last pass, but it was to Ryan Shazier, so that was all right. At least if you are a Steelers fan.
But should it have ever come down to this? Good question. The Steelers’ opening drive, featuring Le’Veon Bell rushing for more yards than he managed for the entire previous game against what has become the league’s best run defense and a quick pass for a touchdown to none other than Xavier Grimble made it look like this should be one of those rare but oh-so-welcome peaceful Steelers games, in which they lead early, score often, and never leave the outcome in any doubt.
Alas, it was not to be. By the end of the third quarter it was Looking as if the outcome wasn’t in doubt, but it was going to be the same tired script in which the Ravens come into the Steelers’ house and steal a win, rather like one of those old-fashioned panty raids the frat boys used to indulge in, back in simpler, happier times.
But let’s return to the question of why the game would turn out to be so fraught and so suspenseful that at least one national commentator is calling it his Game of the Year. So let’s ask a few more questions.
Would anyone imagine that Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton would be introduced as part of the staring lineup? How bizarre is it that the quality and depth of the receiving he corps, considered by most everyone prior to the season as one of the greatest strengths of the team, has been hit the hardest in a year featuring various serious, or potentially serious, injuries? The receivers on the field lacked a certain pedigree:
- Antonio Brown: 6th round, 2010
- Eli Rogers: UDFA, 2015 (spent 2015 on IR)
- Cobi Hamilton: 6th round, 2013. Cut by five teams before being signed by Steelers in 2016
- DeMarkus Ayers: 7th round pick, 2016. Signed off the practice squad two weeks ago
- Jesse James: 5th round, 2015
- Xavier Grimble: UDFA, 2014; spent time on four different practice squads before signing with the Steelers
Okay, putting AB in this list is rather silly, as he is one of the top receivers in the NFL. But looking at the rest of the list makes you wonder. The most highly drafted player on it was drafted a year ago as a blocking tight end.
The Steelers are fortunate, of course, to also have a back who is more than ordinarily competent in the passing game. But had you given any of us this list of receivers in the preseason and noted that they would be Ben’s receiver corps in a December game upon which their playoff hopes most likely hinged, I’m not sure any of us would have felt confident about the outcome. AB is tremendous when teams can’t just put a ton of guys on him, but given the alternatives it would have looked rather bleak.
And how bizarre is it that the other position on the team which seemed to feature a great deal of quality depth, namely defensive linemen, would be so decimated that Johnny Maxey, Man from Mars, who was on the practice squad until last Friday, would be playing in a game with this sort of significance? And not just playing but playing a lot of snaps—21, to be precise.
The problem, though, really wasn’t the lack of quality depth, although the Ravens managed a great deal more running yards than they typically have. As you might suspect, there were more mistakes than just the two first mentioned. Another mistake began the opening drive in the second half— Ben threw a pick deep in his own territory. It wouldn’t be his last, either. The Ravens naturally capitalized on this with a touchdown, and very fortunately the Steelers’ defense managed to hold them to a field goal on the second one.
Chris Boswell wasn’t done with mistakes, either, as he kicked it out of bounds on another kickoff. This was only the third time all season he had done so. No one was particularly happy with him at that juncture. I suspect he was more unhappy with himself even than everyone else.
But fortunately the Ravens made another mistake. After Ben’s second touchdown within a span of about four minutes, Kyle Juzczyk made the lives of the Steelers defenders miserable. With 1:25 left on the clock Joe Flacco handed him the ball and an exhausted Steelers D couldn’t stop him. Really, though, he probably should have stopped himself, because he scored and left 1:18 on the clock. Had he stopped short the Ravens would have had four downs in which to use up the Steelers’ timeouts, run the clock down, and most likely score with only a few seconds left on the clock.
You can’t blame him for wanting to score, though, and you can’t blame the Ravens for taking the bird in the hand. But just as I thought to myself when the Steelers scored in the Dallas game, leaving 48 seconds on the clock, that they probably should have run down more clock first, the Ravens left open the possibility of a Transcendent Ben drive, and he delivered. Merry Christmas, Steeler Nation.
There was plenty not to like about the game, but there was a lot to be happy about besides the final score.
Bell had more yards on the first drive than he got the entire previous Ravens game. He also had negative yardage, something he almost never does, more times than he has had all year, practically. But in the end he had 137 yards from scrimmage, about 30 yards lower than his season average.
It took AB a while to get going, but he finally did, and his touchdown late in the fourth quarter which gave the Steelers back the lead for the first time in the second half, was sheer want-to and willpower. How he ever managed to get the ball over the goal line with four guys on him I’ll never know.
And how wonderful is it that the Steelers’ top-rated player in the game according to Pro Football Focus is decorated Army veteran and converted defensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva? Considering everything, perhaps the offensive line as a unit should win this year’s team MVP award. Once again, against the dreaded Ravens and Ben-killer Terrell Suggs, Ben didn’t take a single sack.
And a defense filled with young guys and last-minute substitutes did just enough to hold the Ravens to few enough points that the offense could mount a comeback.
I’m sure we will all be dissecting the game at our leisure, but for the moment, let’s all say it together: The Steelers won the AFC North. Feels pretty good to say that, doesn’t it?