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News & Notes: John Harbaugh Looks Back on Steelers Play-Calling With 20/20 Hindsight

Posted Dec 11, 2017

Head Coach John Harbaugh talked about the Ravens’ decision to throw instead of run to start a key drive late in the fourth quarter. He also shed light on the coverage of Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

As is often the case after a tough, narrow loss at the end, fans and pundits have picked apart the play-calling, especially late in the game, to see what they think could have been tweaked to produce a different result.

Head Coach John Harbaugh was asked about three such decisions after the Ravens’ 39-38 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football.

Here’s his take:

Ravens’ Decision to Throw Late in Game

The Steelers had just pulled to within two points after an 11-yard Le’Veon Bell touchdown with three minutes, 29 seconds left. 

This was an opportunity for the Ravens offense to put the game away, but they would need at least two first downs to do it. The question is whether to run it or throw it. The Ravens threw it twice on first and third downs, and ended up quickly punting.

Conventional wisdom would be to run considering running back Alex Collins was having a strong day (6.7 yards per carry), and the Ravens wanted to ideally milk the clock.

However, the Steelers had five defenders on the line of scrimmage, two inside linebackers and dropped a safety just 8 yards off the ball on first down. They were in single coverage on both wide receivers, Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin.

Flacco faked a handoff with play-action and threw it to the sticks for Maclin, but his pass sailed over the receiver’s head, leaving the Ravens with a 2nd-and-10.

The Ravens gave Collins the ball on the next play and he took it on the right side for 7 yards, setting up a third-and-3 to again give Baltimore a run-pass option. This time, Baltimore broke out a wrinkle in a key situation.

Flacco ran a run-option in which he would read the Steelers defense after the snap and decide in the moment whether to hand the ball off or throw it. He decided to throw it.

It should have worked, as Maclin immediately popped open and likely would have had an easy catch, except the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage, throwing the flight of the ball off track and leaving Maclin decked by a Steelers defender.

“We could have run it. You can pass it,” Harbaugh said. “You do whatever you can to try to get yards. If it works, it’s a good call, and if it doesn’t work, it’s not a good call.”

Coverage of Steelers WR Antonio Brown

Considering that Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown went off for 213 yards on 11 catches, there’s been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about what the Ravens should have done to slow him down.

One question was about why the Ravens didn’t provide more over-the-top safety help for their cornerbacks.

The play fans and media are specifically pointing to was Brown’s game-changing 34-yard catch down the right sideline, which set up Chris Boswell’s game-winning 46-yard field goal. Brown zoomed by cornerback Brandon Carr in one-on-one coverage.

Harbaugh was asked whether, after watching the tape, he wishes the Ravens had given Brown more attention.

“Sure, that’s what you do,” Harbaugh said. “I’m sure baseball pitchers wish they hadn’t thrown a fastball when they threw a fastball or a curveball when they hung one in there for a home run. You always look at it that way.”

Another idea for slowing Brown that fans and media have talked about is using first-round rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey to shadow Brown.

Humphrey had a strong game and held Brown to two catches on five targets for 7 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Humphrey hit him once for a 5-yard loss.

“There’s always a discussion like that, but that’s not our game plan,” Harbaugh said.

“We have to basically lock into man coverage at that point, and Ben [Roethlisberger] knows you’re doing that. Those are kind of easy fixes from an outside perspective, but we’re playing multiple defenses and trying to keep them off balance. That doesn’t really work when you start chasing a receiver all around the field; it exposes your coverage.”

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