Dissecting the Ravens' Statement Win in Pittsburgh
How we feeling today, Ravens Flock?
The Ravens did what few pundits predicted and emerged victorious after a topsy-turvy contest in Pittsburgh, 26-14. Though every win is equal in the standings, this one is easily the sweetest of 2018 thus far (and maybe much longer).
"The Ravens? They might be real," NBC Sports' Cris Collinsworth said as the Ravens kneeled out the clock to win the game.
Through just a quarter of the season, the Ravens have plenty more to prove, though Russell Street Report's Todd Karpovich believes, "It could be a season-defining win for the Ravens."
The Ravens simply outplayed the Steelers last night.
It's a very different outcome than the one Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller expected to see.
"The Ravens have scored more points than the Steelers, but 47 of their 97 points came in the win over the Bills," Beller wrote in his NFL game predictions for Week 4. "The Steelers, on the other hand, are one of six teams with at least two 30-point games this year. The other five are the Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Falcons and Bengals. These are evenly matched teams? Hardly."
There's always next week, Mr. Beller.
Here are a few takeaways that pundits had from last night's victory:
Defense Clamps Down: The last two seasons, the Ravens saw leads in Pittsburgh disappear in the fourth quarter.
Last night, the Ravens once again had a lead entering the fourth quarter. This go around, the Ravens built on their 17-14 advantage via three Justin Tucker field goals. The Steelers were forced to punt on their first four drives of the second half, and followed that with an interception from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to safety Anthony Levine Sr.
"This time, however, one of the least hospitable road stops in the NFL did not prove to be a chamber of horrors," The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote. "The Ravens defense discovered its own inner iron."
It was a continuation of how the defense has performed in the second half so far this season. The Ravens have allowed just three field goals in the second half in their first four games – not a single touchdown conceded. The Ravens are the first defense to accomplish this since 2006, according to ESPN.
"The Ravens second half defense is almost unrecognizable from what we've seen at Heinz Field the last couple of trips," WBAL's Pete Gilbert wrote. "Total lock down."
Secondary Shines: Baltimore's coverage in the second half really stood out. The Ravens didn't get a sack until outside linebacker Tim Williams brought down Roethlisberger during Pittsburgh's final possession of the game. That means Baltimore's secondary was able to hang with Pittsburgh's various playmakers, including wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, as well as tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James.
The entire starting secondary, comprised of cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr and safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle, produced outstanding games.
Humphrey excelled despite spending the majority of the game with the difficult assignment of covering Brown. Brown managed to score a touchdown in the second quarter against Humphrey on a play The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec called a "pretty perfect throw and catch," but after that, Brown didn't make much noise. He finished with five catches for 62 yards, including just one in the second half.
Jefferson and Weddle both caught Collinsworth's attention. Jefferson had six tackles, and forced a turnover when he stripped McDonald early in the first quarter. Weddle finished with four tackles.
"The two safeties tonight, they're just so smart," Collinsworth said. "I mean, Eric Weddle is a coach on the field.… And then Tony Jefferson, with that play in the first quarter, really turned things early in this game."
NBC Sports' Peter King also noticed Jefferson's early turnover, and named him first among his NFL Defensive Players of the Week in his weekly "Football Morning In America" article.
"Jefferson just ripped the ball out of tight end's muscular grasp," King wrote. "With a purring offense, the Ravens scored on the ensuing possession, and it was 14-0 before all the fans were in the stadium."
Meanwhile, Carr enjoyed a terrific bounce back effort at Heinz Field after a difficult performance there in 2017 in which he struggled to cover Brown.
"Carr was spectacular under the bright lights," Baltimore Beatdown's Logan Levy wrote. "He recorded two pass breakups, but his performance was much better than the stats may suggest."
All Hands on Deck Approach Pays Dividends for Offense: It seemed like the Ravens got all of their offensive players on the roster involved against the Steelers. By the end of the game, the Ravens had employed seven different running backs, and 11 different receivers had caught passes.
"Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is getting the most out of all his resources," PressBox's Bo Smolka wrote.
Lots of credit goes to quarterback Joe Flacco, who had an excellent game, going 28-for-42 for 363 yards. He got started early by connecting with wide receiver John Brown on a 33-yard touchdown on Baltimore's first possession.
Brown was at it again in the second quarter when Flacco connected with him a 71-yard bomb. Though that was the last big play completion of the night for Brown, it caught Pittsburgh's cornerbacks' attention, and forced them to play deep. That adjustment created plenty of room for other playmakers like wide receiver Willie Snead IV to get involved, and he finished with six catches for 56 yards.
"I've been loving this Flacco-Snead connection, as this offense finally has a reliable slot receiver," Russell Street Report's Mitchell Wolfman wrote. "Snead had a couple of first down catches tonight, including one where he was completely draped by Joe Haden to make the tough catch in the red zone."
The tight ends had a big night, finishing with 10 catches for 99 yards (reminder that first-round pick Hayden Hurst did not play last night, but is expected to return to this group soon). Maxx Williams led the way for the group by catching all five of his targets for 51 yards (more on him later).
Wide receiver Tim White and running back De'Lance Turner came through too by contributing their first career offensive touches. White's 14-yard reception was particularly crucial, as it came on a third-and-ten with cornerbacks firmly covering him. The impressive grab extended the drive, that led to Tucker's go-ahead field goal.
About the only thing the Ravens didn't do on offense was use defensive tackle Michael Pierce as a fullback in a Refrigerator William Perry type role. Maybe Mornhinweg is saving that one for next week.
Ravens Overcome Early Missed Opportunities: The Ravens jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, but they could've had a bigger advantage.
First, Flacco overthrew an open Michael Crabtree on 3rd-and-8 with acres of space in front of him, though it came on a successful Steelers blitz. After the play, Collinsworth noted that "Flacco didn't have quite enough time to hold that football. That would've been another touchdown."
The Ravens ended up punting, and Pittsburgh responded with a drive that finished with a Chris Boswell field goal.
On the Ravens' next possession, running back Alex Collins fumbled on the Steelers' 1-yard line. It was the first time the Ravens didn't score a touchdown after making it to the red zone and doing so on their first 13 trips of the season.
Pittsburgh promptly drove down the field for another Boswell field goal. As many pointed out, the Ravens went from being one yard away from being up 21-3, to now leading, 14-6.
No question, the mishaps gave the Steelers life in a contest that they'd been second best in thus far. Though they'll need to avoid them in the future, the Ravens displayed excellent character by not letting them snowball.
"The way the game played out revealed the mental toughness of this Ravens team," The Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck wrote.
Offensive Line Keeps Talented Pittsburgh Pass Rush Quiet
For the second straight game, Baltimore's offensive line was up against a dynamic pass rush. In Week 3, the Ravens had to contend with the Denver Broncos, led by superstar outside linebacker Von Miller. Last night, the Ravens squared off with Pittsburgh, which entered the game tied for the second-most sacks in the NFL.
In both games, the offensive line allowed just two sacks, which Pro Football Focus listed as Baltimore's key to the game.
"The Ravens' offensive line handled the Steelers' pass-rush," PFF wrote. "Part of the reason Flacco was at a high level was due to the fact he was able to sit back in the pocket calmly and take whatever the coverages gave him, as he was in no threat."
Though the offensive line did do an excellent job, it was aided by Pittsburgh's strategy. With the Ravens passing game firing on all cylinders, the Steelers tried to limit the space afforded to Baltimore's receivers by dropping more men into coverage.
"The Ravens' offensive line is playing really well but also because the Steelers chose not to blitz. He [Flacco] was sacked just twice," CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson wrote. "We understand Pittsburgh's game plan -- their secondary has been exposed all season and to mitigate that eventuality, defensive coordinator Keith Butler decided to drop seven and eight guys into coverage. Turns out, it didn't matter."
The entire unit performed at a high level, though right tackle James Hurst stood out to the NBC broadcasting crew during the game.
"Big matchup on the outside with right tackle James Hurst, a very good pass blocker, going up against [Steelers linebacker] T.J. Watt, and Hurst has done a pretty good number on him," Collinsworth said. "You'll see, time after time, Flacco really being able to step up in the pocket and take that extra second or so."
Indeed, it was a standout game for Hurst, who had been locked in a battle with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. all summer to earn the starting right tackle job. After an outstanding preseason by Brown, many pundits questioned why Hurst became the starter. However, Hurst has "done a fine job at right tackle these first four weeks," according to Baltimore Beatdown's Kyle Barber.
"Much of the praise will shift to Flacco and understandably so, but the Ravens' offensive line kept him clean nearly all game and allowed him the time to carve up the Steelers' defense," PFF wrote.
Creativity Pays Off for Offense, and Baffles NBC's Broadcast Team
One of the main criticisms facing the Ravens' offense in past years was that it was predictable, making it easy for opposing defenses to prepare for.
In the first three weeks of the season, the Ravens showed those descriptions are no longer apt for their offense. Then, during a primetime game, Mornhinweg took it to a whole other level in a play-calling display that baffled the Steelers for much of the game, and probably made numerous defensive coordinators around the league take notice.
"Mornhinweg again caught an opponent off-balance with his inventive game planning," Walker wrote.
Throughout the game, the Ravens frequently utilized rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson with solid results, which Pittsburgh struggled to account for at times.
The most notably creative play Mornhinweg dialed up though came in the fourth quarter, and involved tight end Maxx Williams. On third-and-one, Williams caught a slant from Flacco, and turned upfield for a 22-yard gain. The crazy part? Williams lined up just next to center Matt Skura on the offensive line, as a fake guard.
It immediately became a talking point during NBC's television broadcast, as both play-by-play announcer Al Michaels and Collinsworth said they couldn't recall the last time (if ever) they'd seen a play design like that. Collinsworth went on to remark, "very, very clever play design by Marty Mornhinweg."
"That was a heck of a play," Collinsworth said. "Did you see that? Williams was lined up right next to the center but just off the ball, making him an eligible receiver."
Minutes after the Ravens concluded their drive with a Tucker field, the NBC broadcast again revisited the Williams play with rules expert and former NFL referee Terry McAuley, who ultimately felt the play should've been a penalty.
"For this play to be legal, this player cannot be breaking the waistline of the snapper with any part of his body," McAuley said. "This is really close."
"That's a difficult play to notice in real time," SB Nation's Charles McDonals wrote. "It was a fun play to watch, even if Baltimore might've pulled a fast one on the refs and the Steelers."
PFF Offense and Defense Rankings
· Flacco led the way for the offense with a 3.9 PFF score. Williams was second with a 2.4 mark, while right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley tied for third with a 2.0 rating.
· Tight end Nick Boyle scored a -4.3, while left guard Alex Lewis finished with -2.4 rating. Right tackle James Hurst registered a -1.8 mark.
· Carr paced the defense with a 4.0 rating. Levine was next with a 3.4 mark, while outside linebacker Tim Williams scored a 1.5.
· Humphrey finished with a -3.5 mark. Defensive end Brent Urban scored a -1.1, while outside linebacker Matthew Judon was given a -0.9 rating.
· For the second straight week, kicker Justin Tucker was included in King's Special Teams Players of the Week. "He hit on field goals of 47, 49, 28 and 31 yards after halftime. Now he has a streak of 17 straight at Heinz Field, and the most accurate field-goal kicker of all time stretched his lead over Dan Bailey to almost two full percentage points. Tucker, number one, has made 90.2 percent of his kicks. Bailey, number two, is at 88.3 percent. That seems like a wow to me," King wrote.
· Olympian Michael Phelps made sure to support his hometown Ravens last night.