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Posted: Sunday January 18, 2009 11:17PM; Updated: Monday January 19, 2009 1:16PM
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INSIDE THE NFL

AFC Championship Report Card: Ravens-Steelers

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Troy Polamalu's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the Steelers' win.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI
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Grading out the performances during the Steelers' 23-14 conference championship win over the Ravens on Sunday...

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Quarterbacks: Hard to fault Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu's game-clinching interception (great read by the Steelers safety), but the Ravens rookie quarterback should shoulder much of the burden for Baltimore's offensive struggles for most of the night. Flacco completed only three passes on 14 attempts in the first half and was only able to move the ball significantly on one drive all night. Grade: D+

Running Backs: Willis McGahee was the Ravens MVP on offense, not so much for his two touchdowns but rather for his ability to pick up blitz after blitz after blitz by the Steelers front. But the yards were hard to come by for McGahee, who carried the bulk of the load with Le'Ron McClain limited by injury. McGahee himself left the game late in the fourth quarter on a stretcher after a scary collision with Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark. Grade: B

Receivers: The Ravens' receivers were non-existent early, making only one catch in the first half (the other two by running backs). Derrick Mason and Todd Heap both made a couple first-down grabs in the second half but could never break free from the suffocating Steelers secondary. Grade: D

Offensive Line: Not a banner day. Aside from the two 1-yard touchdown runs, Baltimore's front never was able to get much push against the Steelers. They averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per rush and were constantly confused by Pittsburgh's blitzes, allowing Flacco to get sacked three times. Grade: D

Defensive Line: Haloti Ngata notched two sacks of Ben Roethlisberger as the Ravens were able to collapse the pocket pretty much all night. Roethlisberger, though, was able to sidestep the pressure on multiple occasions, almost always leading to a first down. Grade: B+

Linebackers: Stop me if you've heard this before: The Ravens linebackers forced fumbles, de-cleated running backs, punished the quarterback and caused general mayhem throughout the game. Business as usual for Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs. Grade: A

Defensive Backs: This scotch-taped unit did a respectable job, considering injuries hampered them all night. Frank Walker played well subbing for starting corner Samari Rolle and safety Jim Leonhard was Johnny-on-the-spot on Parker's first-quarter fumble. They did get lucky on a couple drops and bad throws by the Steelers and big-play safety Ed Reed was unusually quiet. Grade: C+

Special Teams: The good? Leonhard's 45-yard punt return late in the second-quarter led to the Ravens first touchdown. The bad? Daren Stone's stupid personal foul penalty on the sidelines during a fourth-quarter punt cost the Ravens 25 yards in field position. Grade: C

Coaching: Rookie coach John Harbaugh was personally responsible for a four-point swing in his team's favor in the first quarter, correctly challenging Santonio Holmes' non-catch on the goal line (Pittsburgh eventually settled for a FG). Using timeouts carelessly in the second half wasn't smart, though, and neither was not finding a way to get Heap and Mason more involved in the first half. The result was more pressure on Flacco in the second half, which proved to be too much for the rookie QB. Grade: C+

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Quarterbacks: Although he was sacked four times, Roethlisberger did a great job keeping plays alive with his feet. He did that on the Steelers first touchdown, eluding the rush long enough to heave the ball to Holmes. Roethlisberger also spread the ball around well, hitting eight receivers total and connecting on four passes of 20 yards or more. Big Ben gets downgraded, though, for his decision to throw over the middle with no timeouts and his team in FG range with under 10 seconds left in the first half. Lucky for him it didn't cost them. Grade: B-

Running Backs: Willie Parker had zero room to run (24 carries, 47 yards) and was to blame for carrying the ball too loosely in traffic on his first-half fumble. Grade: D

Receivers: Hines Ward made two first-down grabs before being lost for the game midway through the first quarter. Holmes helped pick up the slack with his TD and tight end Heath Miller had three big catches for 62 yards. Limas Sweed's HUGE drop just before halftime hurt what was otherwise a solid performance by the unit. Grade: B-

Offensive Line: Like their counterparts on the Ravens, the Steelers O-line didn't have much to hang their hat on, either on the ground or in pass protection. Willie Colon made matters worse with a couple false start penalties. Grade: D

Defensive Line: The Steelers front did a great job of making Flacco throw before he was ready, which directly led to his first-quarter interception. Aaron Smith did wrap up Flacco in the second quarter. Grade: B

Linebackers: LaMarr Woodley continued his playoff dominance, following up last week's two-sack performance with another pair Sunday night. He and 'backer buddy James Harrison were all over the field, combining for 13 unofficial tackles on the night. Grade: A

Defensive Backs: Polamalu was his usual game-changing self, stopping Flacco on a fourth-down QB sneak in the first half and sealing the win with his pick-six in the fourth quarter. Ike Taylor, DeShea Townsend, William Gay, Ryan Parker and Bryant McFadden all made plays that warranted mention, proving this unit is far from a one-man show. (Anyone else jacked to see the Steelers secondary against Larry Fitzgerald and Friends?) Grade: A+

Special Teams: Jeff Reed manned up, going sans sleeves on a 25-degree day and connecting on all three field-goal attempts on the evening. Mitch Berger made a nice tackle on Leonhard's long return, but later shanked a punt that left the Ravens with a short field. Grade: B+

Coaching: Good game plan from Mike Tomlin. The Steelers offense was able to move the ball effectively early and the defense did its typically solid job. Defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau's blitz schemes were as advertised, which is to say the Ravens never really seemed to know where they were coming from. Though the offense stalled in the second half and the lead subsequently dwindled, Tomlin never panicked and let his bread and butter, the defense, win the game. Grade: A

MORE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

RECAP: Steelers' 'D' stifles Ravens 23-14

VIDEO: AFC title game highlights

GALLERY: Pittsburgh's road to the Super Bowl

LAYDEN: Steelers survive another bloodbath

BROOKS: Tale of the Tape: Arizona vs. Pittsburgh

 
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