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FROM BEDLAM COMES COMPOSURE AND A WINNING TOUCHDOWN
I marvel at what happened in the final 68 seconds at Heinz Field in last Sunday's 17-14 victory.
The Ravens, after our defense impressively forced a three-and-out from the Steelers, had the ball on the Pittsburgh 40 with no timeouts.
I was in our bench area. The noise from the crowd, along with speakers blaring music, was deafening. It was bedlam. I heard only two phrases from Ravens players and coaches. Ray Lewis yelled: "We have time!" Offensive Line Coach John Matsko walked past me and shouted: "This is fun!"
Here's how CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco described the situation in his post-game report:
*"All that stood in front of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and a career-defining moment were 40 yards and 11 players on the NFL's top-rated defense, many of them ready to pin their ears back with the desire to slam him violently to the ground and end the game…Oh, and his team trailed by four, there was just 1:08 left in the game, and Flacco had no timeouts to use.
"Four pass plays later, with the ball never touching the ground, the Ravens were in the end zone – courtesy of an 18-yard shot from Flacco to T.J. Houshmandzadeh – for a stunning 17-14 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field."
*With so little time left in the game, Flacco has a couple of rules that dominate his thought process: 1) Throw a touchdown pass; 2) Throw a completion to someone who can get out of bounds; or 3) Throw an incompletion.
"Our mindset is that we have to play for the all-out blitz, because that's what they do," Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron said. "But, you have to be ready for a three-man rush with eight back in coverage, because they do that too. That means you have to have a play that works against a variety of defenses. Pittsburgh is very good at disguising all of this, and our players have to almost instantly read what they're doing. That will dictate what Joe does. The players have a lot to read, and there are no absolutes."
Whew! And everyone has to keep his composure so he can perform like a pro athlete.
"We called the same play the last two plays of the game, and the Steelers played it differently each time," Cameron added. "Our players had to be on the same page, and they were."
Coaching Video - Touchdown Set-Up
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On the play before the touchdown, Flacco completed a 10-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh to the Pittsburgh 18. Here's the coaching video of the play. Note that Todd Heap went in motion to his left, but settled back to a right halfback spot next to Flacco, who is flanked on the left by Ray Rice. The Steelers showed six men at the line of scrimmage, indicating a blitz of some sort. At the snap, they dropped two into coverage, which allowed Heap and Rice to release as receivers.
"We were able to huddle after the first completion to T.J.," Flacco explained. "I felt good with the play call from Cam. I also felt secure, because we called a 'max protect,' which has seven guys protecting me. If they all came, Matt [Birk], Todd [Heap] and Ray [Rice] would have to take care of it. If they blocked it up – and they did – running the play becomes easy."
Sure…and, unlike the previous play, the Steelers attacked.
"We point, and we have signals you have to use when the noise is like that. I knew Todd and Ray were aware the Steelers were coming," Birk explained. "They sent the big three to my side," Rice added, describing how Pro Bowlers Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, along with standout Lawrence Timmons, "cheated" to the left side of the Ravens' offensive set.
Coaching Video - Game Winning TD
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"I heard Ray yell 'Todd, one up,'" Heap said. (Rice said he didn't want to point, despite the noise. "I didn't want them to know I saw it coming, and I have a big enough voice," Rice said.) Heap, however, still had to worry about the linebacker on his side coming, too. "I saw my guy take a step to his left (my right), but I was also aware of Polamalu moving and coming left. That hair made him easier to find." Rice blocked Timmons. Heap, sliding to his left in front of the retreating Flacco, stoned the Head and Shoulders commercial star. Michael Oher controlled Harrison.
On the left side downfield, Derrick Mason, who was open deep on the second-to-last play, knew the final wouldn't be coming to him. "After getting open on the play before, I saw the safety inching over to help the corner on me. I knew Anquan [Boldin] was going to attract attention in the middle. I still ran my route, but snuck a look across the field to T.J., because he was going to be singled," Mason described.
"I tried to take as many people with me as I could," Boldin added. "I had a corner on top and a linebacker underneath, and I ran at the safety to get him committed to me."
"I knew it would be simple for me," Houshmandzadeh explained. "Once I saw Polamalu moving away from my side, I was going to get single coverage, just like the play before. I had the option of going outside like I did on the previous play, or go out and up. I rushed the route, and rather than running outside again, I turned my shoulders, the corner bit, and I was gone without breaking stride. If I ran the route to the outside, I would have collided with the corner. What's better with 30 seconds to go? A pass interference, or a touchdown?" T.J. smiled.
Flacco knew he had a touchdown pass right away. "I recognized the coverage, saw two safeties in the back, even with Troy [Polamalu] starting to move up. The rest is easy. I'm protected on the backside where the pressure is coming and saw the single [coverage] on T.J. All you do then is throw the ball," Joe said. When I asked him if he got nervous about the throw, he replied: "No, you just throw it. How many times have I done that in my life? Been doing that since playing in the backyard when I was a kid."
NFLN - Anatomy of a Play: Houshmandzadeh Game Winner
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Easy for him to say. Here's a look at the coaching video of the winning touchdown.
*T.J. PREDICTED WINNING TOUCHDOWN *During pre-game warm-ups at Pittsburgh, a fan behind the Ravens' bench kept yelling out to Houshmandzadeh: "You got cut!" – referring, of course, to T.J.'s departure from Seattle last month. Finally T.J. had enough and answered back: "Hey, I guarantee I'm going to score the winning touchdown today."
After T.J. scored, he came back to the bench and pointed at the loud Steelerite and said: "Told you." The guy held up a ball and asked the Ravens' hero to sign it. T.J. nodded, and security brought the ball over to him.
Here's hoping T.J., Joe and the rest of the Ravens have another big day Sunday. Let's beat those Broncos at our place. Talk to you next week.
Kevin Byrne, a Ravens senior vice president, has worked in the NFL for 32 years. Byrne has been with the Ravens since the start of the franchise in 1996. Earlier in his career, Byrne was the sports information director at Marquette University, his alma mater, when they won the 1977 NCAA basketball championship under coach Al McGuire.