Five thoughts on the Ravens' 26-23 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
This wasn't a game. It was an opera – a cascade of rising and falling emotions, pain and suffering, triumphs and injustices. There were times when you screamed with happiness and times when you fell to the floor like a 2-year-old on a tantrum. And you want me to make sense of it all? (Thanks a lot!) Well, here goes: It sounds like a classic, Steelers-Ravens, overtime. Given all the penalties, turnovers, injuries and botched replays, I'm not sure it qualifies as a classic. But it was an intense contest between rivals who desperately needed to win, and highly dramatic in that sense. Someone was going to make the decisive plays. The Ravens did. It looked bleak for them as they went from 10 points ahead to three down late, but they kept their poise and found a way. Marlon Humphrey forced a fumble in overtime and fell on it when the loose ball mysteriously bounced straight up instead of out of bounds – a truly karmic moment for those so inclined. Then it was left to Justin Tucker, the ultimate weapon in a close game (also, fittingly, an opera singer), to drill a game-winning kick into a whipping wind. Of such moments do seasons pivot, and the Ravens' season pivoted back in the right direction on this crazy afternoon.
After giving up more than 500 yards in back-to-back defeats, the Ravens overhauled their defense about as much as you can during a single week in the regular season. They cut Tim Williams, promoted Zach Sieler, signed inside linebackers L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes, scratched Kenny Young and Anthony Averett Sunday, started Bynes, moved Patrick Onwuasor back to weakside linebacker, and made Maurice Canady the starting outside corner opposite Humphrey. Got all that? The flurry of moves (and return of Brandon Williams) produced better results, as the defense allowed far fewer yards (269). Was the unit dominant? No. The pass rush was missing in action for long stretches, and the Steelers' offense definitely had the upper hand as Pittsburgh rallied to take the lead. But the run defense was much improved, allowing just 77 yards, and the unit was stout enough overall to allow field goals instead of touchdowns after a pair of Baltimore turnovers – key stops in hindsight. The switch to Canady was a winner. The Steelers naturally picked on him all afternoon, but he kept receivers in front him and led the team with seven total tackles. Pernell McPhee also had his best game of the season.
The Ravens' offense experienced an up and down day. It started impressively, with Lamar Jackson leading three scoring drives (two touchdowns and a field goal) in the first 20 minutes. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman ordered a run-heavy blueprint, and the Ravens had a 10-point lead and a big time of possession edge. But the Steelers' defense rose up, doing a better job against the Ravens' running game and then swarming Jackson with a fierce pass rush that produced five sacks and six quarterback hits. Although the Ravens won, they did so without scoring a touchdown in the final 40 minutes of regulation or overtime. The offensive line barely hung on, but give credit to Pittsburgh's athletic front. Other hiccups included a very-ill-advised pass from Jackson in the final minute of the first half; it was intercepted and produced a field goal for Pittsburgh when the Ravens could have run out the clock. The passing game as a whole was erratic, with Jackson tossing three interceptions overall. Still, the unit did move the chains enough to produce a 13-plus-minute time of possession advantage.
Readers of my columns know I'm not big on picking on the officials, who, in my opinion, have a tough job trying to uphold a rule book that is impossibly thick with various clauses and only gets thicker every year. But in my opinion, the crew working this game threw too many flags. And the replay machinery was equally off. I'm not going out on a limb with that. CBS' Gene Steratore agreed that a Pittsburgh interception in the third quarter, which turned the game around, should have been ruled incomplete on replay. Steratore also said a completion on the drive that gave the Steelers the lead also should have been ruled incomplete on replay. But hey, the Steelers also had gripes, starting with a phantom roughing the passer call that gave the Ravens' game-tying drive late in regulation a chance to get untracked. Bottom line, I might be wrong, but I don't think this crew's performance will earn many raves in the league office.
Quick Hits: The locker room was emotional about the news that safety Tony Jefferson is out for the season with a serious knee injury. He is a popular team leader who will be missed. It opens a window of opportunity for DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark. Three of the team's top five defensive backs have suffered major injuries, Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith being the other two … It was disturbing to see Marquise "Hollywood" Brown limping around and in and out of the game, but if there was any solace, it's that the injury was to his ankle and not the foot he worked so hard to rehabilitate during the offseason … My thoughts on Earl Thomas' hit that gave Mason Rudolph a concussion: It was an awful scene, but Thomas was just playing football, not headhunting … Final tally for the Ravens' offense: 40 rushes and 33 dropbacks … I'll end with my zillionth suggestion that you not take the amazing Tucker for granted.