Clark's devastating hit on McGahee captures spirit of brute-force rivals
Ryan Clark's shoulder-first blow was the seminal moment in a game full of big hits
Pittsburgh keeps on fighting, despite the taxing encounters with Baltimore
The Steelers can expect a more finesse game in their seventh Super Bowl
PITTSBURGH -- Sometimes a single play defines a game, a season, a team. Late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's brutal match to decide the AFC's Super Bowl representative, Steelers free safety Ryan Clark saw the Ravens line up in a formation that he had seen before. Just less than four minutes remained in the game and the Steelers had taken a 23-14 lead on Troy Polamalu's 40-yard interception return.
Now the Ravens, desperate, faced 2nd-and-6 on their own 27. Tight end Todd Heap broke the huddle and lined up just outside the right offensive tackle, with tailback Willis McGahee in the backfield. As rookie quarterback Joe Flacco called signals, Heap and McGahee traded positions. The light bulb went on inside Clark's black helmet. "The Chargers did that last week with Darren Sproles and completed a pass right up the middle. I was thinking they might try to throw it to McGahee.''
The game had been a contest of inefficiencies, of fierce opponents who know and dislike each other all too well and struggle to perform effectively. A contest -- like all of their games -- that would be decided by isolated bursts of performance and execution, peppered with violence at a level even higher than the NFL norm. As the play unfolded, Steelers linebacker Larry Foote watched from the sideline, off the field in a situational defensive switch. He watched McGahee loop out of the backfield into open space, and he watched Flacco deliver a touch pass on McGahee's fingertips.
"A dangerous play,'' Foote recalled after the game. "A lot of open field and lot of defensive players watching the ball.''
Clark was closest. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Clark is a prototypical modern Cover Two free safety, a human missile whose frequent assignment is to launch himself from the hashmarks at receivers right after the ball contacts their hands, discouraging them from catching it the next time. He ran at McGahee and exploded with his right shoulder into the front and left side of McGahee's helmet, drilling him backward into the worn earth of Heinz Field. The ball dropped out and was recovered by Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Clark fell backward, stunned. He was later told he had been knocked cold. (On the bench, doctors gave him three words to remember: Ball, Car, Maroon; he took pride in reciting them 40 minutes later in the locker room). Ten minutes after the hit, McGahee was driven from the field in a medical flatbed cart, with movement in his upper and lower extremities, but neck pain.
It can be misleading to reduce a championship football game to a single play, whether that play is a touchdown, a turnover or a concussive hit. Yet the Steelers and the Ravens have a rivalry that tests the bounds of normal analysis. Pittsburgh finished off its 23-14 win (Recap | Box) not long after McGahee was driven into the tunnels beneath the stands at Heinz, and they will play now in their seventh Super Bowl. But surely that game will be nothing like this one, or the previous two bloodbaths played this year against the Ravens.
"Two physical teams that don't like each other,'' said Foote. "You go into a game like this knowing that our offense isn't going to score 30 points because they've got a good defense. Not as good as ours, but good. So you know the game is going to come down to a few plays.''
Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, a man who craves contact like food at dinnertime, slowly pulled on clothes in the losing locker room and said, "It's always physical. Every game.''
Clark's hit on McGahee was the biggest of the night, but not by a wide margin. With one minute left in the first half and the Steelers trying to extend a 13-7 lead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a perfect ball down the right sideline to Limas Sweed, who dropped the pass, wide open inside the Baltimore 10-yard-line. Two plays later, aided by a roughing the kicker call, Roethlisberger completed a sideline pass to tight end Heath Miller, who turned upfield, pursued by Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy. Sweed, back on the field and getting snaps because of a knee injury suffered by Hines Ward, reeled back up field on Ivy and leveled him with a shoulder to his facemask.
"You could tell there was a little emotion in that hit,'' said Steelers linebacker James Farrior.
"Well, I was pissed, I won't lie about that,'' said Sweed.
The margin between these rivals is almost immeasurably small. Their Dec. 14 game, a 13-9 Steelers' victory, was decided by a Ravens' non-touchdown pass that is still being debated after countless replays from every imaginable angle. That came almost two months after the Steelers won in overtime, 23-20.
When teams are so close and so emotional, games turn not on prolonged work, but on moments of brilliance or failure.
The contrasting play of quarterbacks Roethlisberger and Flacco is a microcosm of the rivalry.
Roethlisberger's work is not always easily judged. (Although on Sunday he passed for 255 yards, which is like 400 in a normal game). He is brilliant athlete, but almost never artistic. The Ravens attacked him often enough to sack him four times, knock him down on several other occasions and leave him with a sore back that had backup Byron Leftwich warming up in the second quarter. Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan also tried to change up by dropping as many as eight defenders on other plays.
On the second play of the second quarter, with the Steelers facing 3rd-and-9 from their own 35, Roethlisberger was pressured inside by the Ravens' pass rush. He drifted left away from the pressure, ran back to the right and toward the line of scrimmage and threw into the deep right flat off his back foot. It looked like a prayer, but Santonio Holmes came down with the ball and then worked across the width of the field to complete a 65-yard touchdown. "I felt like Ben was throwing it away,'' Holmes would say after the game.
Flacco, meanwhile, completed only 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards and threw three interceptions. In the fourth quarter, while trailing just 16-14 and trying to mount a game-winning drive, he was picked by Polamalu, who -- much like Clark would do later -- was lying in wait for Flacco's pass to Derrick Mason. When Polamalu reached the end zone, the game was effectively finished.
But Clark's hit was the valedictory, a blow that surely reverberated across the continent to Arizona. A farewell to the Ravens. A symbol of what awaits the Cardinals.
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