Eisenberg: This Time Ravens Got That One Extra Play


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Flacco's 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left won the game for the Ravens and cast the most silent pall over a stadium I have ever heard.

The Flacco-to-Smith touchdown will haunt the Steelers all year, just as Troy Polamalu's sack-strip of Flacco and Antonio Brown's 58-yard third-down reception haunted the Ravens a year ago. It goes without saying that life is better when the other guys are seeing ghosts.

The genesis of that one play, the instant-classic final touchdown, is worth investigating. It wasn't just happenstance.

Back in January, after their second playoff loss to the Steelers in three years, the Ravens performed a self-exam with some soul-searching mixed in. They wondered what the Steelers had that they didn't.

"They are what you all say they are, the gold standard," owner Steve Bisciotti told reporters in January. "They make the extra play. That's what championship teams do. We're not there yet."

Ten months later, the Ravens made the extra play. What enabled them to do so?

During their January self-exam, they decided they lacked a crucial ingredient on offense – speed. They just didn't have enough. While they had their share of playmakers, they didn't have any who could blow by opposing defenses, challenge and frighten them.

When I asked Ozzie Newsome that day how the Ravens could catch the Steelers, he replied that it would be nice if the Ravens could occasionally score an easy touchdown instead of just constantly grinding for scraps.

That thinking led them to draft Torrey Smith in the second round in April, and trade for Lee Evans in August – a pair of fast guys.

An injury has sidelined Evans, throwing Smith into the fray. He has experienced his ups and downs, but his speed has made a huge difference. His deep catches blew away the Rams and set up the winning field goal against the Cardinals before Sunday's big moment. Flacco is constantly trying to hit him deep, constantly looking for that easy score.

With the game on the line Sunday night, Smith blew by Steelers cornerback William Gay at the line. The fastest man on the field got open deep. The Steelers' safety was late reacting.

Speed killed, just as the Ravens hoped it would. And Flacco put the throw right on the receiver. The quarterback made the extra play.

During that self-exam in January, the Ravens didn't spend much time on Flacco. They recognized they had cast their lot with a young guy with obvious talents and more growing to do. They didn't expect him to become an elite quarterback just like that. They just expected he would keep climbing his learning curve.

"I think he will continue to improve," Newsome said.

Like Smith, Flacco has experienced his ups and downs in 2011. He might never be "elite," whatever that is. But he is already a good quarterback, certainly capable of taking the Ravens where they need to go.

If you can't see him growing into a leader, reading the field and his progressions more naturally, gaining command and confidence, you're either in denial or you aren't watching.

Sunday night was, in a way, the icing on his developmental cake. He won by driving his offense 92 yards in 13 plays on the road against a legendary defense. He overcame the drops that doomed him in January.

He made that one extra play, the one that turns darkness into light.

It's just a few seconds out of the thousands in a game, but goodness, what a difference.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*

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