AFC: Steelers-Ravens report card
As good as Joe Flacco was in the first half, he struggled mightily in the second half
In typical Big Ben fashion, the QB came up clutch when it mattered most late
Mike Tomlin got the Steelers to play playoff-caliber football in the second half
Grading out the performances from Pittsburgh's wild, turnover-filled 31-24 win over Baltimore in a Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field:
Quarterback: The Ravens put the game on the shoulders of Joe Flacco and the young quarterback came out firing -- 12-of-18 for 82 yards and a TD as Baltimore took a 21-7 lead at halftime. But Flacco and the Baltimore offensive fizzled badly in the third quarter, and Flacco's interception was one of the turning points in the game -- he overthrew Todd Heap, and safety Ryan Clark hauled in the errant pass. The turnover led to a short touchdown drive by the Steelers that tied the game at 21-21. Flacco also fumbled an exchange with center Matt Birk at the end of the third quarter (Pittsburgh recovered) and otherwise was utterly ineffective after intermission. Flacco completed 4-of-12 passes for 43 yards and an interception in the second half. Grade: D+
Running Backs: Ray Rice was Baltimore's top offensive weapon, which wasn't saying much. He ran 12 times for 32 yards and caught a game-high seven passes for 32 more. And, generally speaking, he found little room to run against Pittsburgh for the third time this year. He did strike, though, with a snaking 14-yard run through the middle of Pittsburgh's vaunted run defense for an equalizing 7-7 score in the first quarter. However, Rice committed what may have been the worst of several gaffes when he loosely carried the ball after a third-quarter reception and was stripped off the ball in his own territory. Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley recovered at Baltimore's 23. The Steelers quickly struck for a touchdown to close within 21-14. Rice had not fumbled once in the previous 404 touches this year, but this mistake proved a tremendous momentum changer. Grade: D
Receivers: Tight end Todd Heap caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, but the receiving corps was largely a non factor -- partly by design as Flacco repeatedly dumped underneath to Rice, and partly by pure ineffectiveness. Baltimore's high-profile receivers, the subject of so much offseason attention, simply failed to show up: T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin combined for four catches for 36 yards, the entirety of production out of Ravens wideouts. Boldin dropped what would have been a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Baltimore had to settle for a 24-yard field goal and a 24-24 tie. Houshmandzadeh should have hauled in a sure first down on Baltimore's final, desperate play in the fourth quarter, but simply dropped the ball. Grade: F
Offensive Line: Michael Oher & Co. simply got overrun by the league's top defensive front. The small handful of rush attempts by Rice and Willis McGahee (16 total) yielded just 36 yards, while linebacker James Harrison registered three of Pittsburgh's five sacks of Joe Flacco. The Ravens totaled just 126 yards of offense on 53 plays -- a dismal average of 2.4 yards per play largely due to the OL's ineffectiveness. If not for turnovers and big plays, Baltimore's offense might not have scored a single point. Grade: D
Defensive Line: Defensive end Cory Redding made high school coaches everywhere beam with pride when he "played the whistle" and returned a fumble 13 yards for a touchdown as virtually everyone else on the field, including all the Steelers, stood and watched, assuming the play was over. Pittsburgh struggled to generate any consistency on the ground against Baltimore's DL. But Terrence Cody basically handed Pittsburgh its game-winning touchdown when he was flagged for defensive holding, a rare call against a lineman. Instead of third-and-goal at the 3, Pittsburgh was handed a first-and-goal at the 1. Rashard Mendenhall punched in the winning touchdown three plays later. Grade: B-
Linebackers: Terrell Suggs was a beast, with three of Baltimore's six sacks of Ben Roethlisberger. He produced what looked like it would be one of the biggest plays of the game, stripping Roethlisberger of the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory, leading to Redding's fumble-return TD in the first half. Ray Lewis registered a quiet nine total tackles. All in all, not a bad day for Baltimore's linebacking corps. They were just put in difficult situations time and again and then ran out of game-changing plays in the second half. Grade: B
Defensive Backs: Cornerback Josh Wilson was flagged for a 37-yard pass interference penalty, the biggest play on Pittsburgh's first touchdown drive. He made up for it in the third quarter, stretching himself out to break up what looked like a sure 37-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders that could have tied the game at 21-21. However, Lardarius Webb was beaten deep by rookie WR Antonio Brown in the fourth quarter for a 58-yard gain -- the longest play by either team -- as Pittsburgh converted a 3rd-and-19 from its own 38 and set up the game-winning score. Grade: C
Special Teams: Sam Koch booted a career-best 61 yard punt early in the second quarter from his own 35. Coupled with a penalty on Pittsburgh's Keenan Lewis, it pinned the Steelers at their own 4 and ultimately helped set up a Todd Heap score that appeared to give the Ravens a commanding 21-7 lead. Marcus Smith blew a potential winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter, when his holding penalty nullified a 55-yard punt return score by Lardarius Webb. The Ravens settled for Cundiff's 24-yard field goal. Grade: C
Coaching: John Harbaugh fielded a team that raced out of the gates looking like the better and the hungrier of the two teams. But he had no answers when his Ravens were steamrolled in the second half. Two regular-season games against Pittsburgh proved that Baltimore could not run the ball on the Steelers (a total of 47 attempts, 113 yards, 2.4 YPA). Harbaugh showed no desire to belabor the point in a fruitless display of pride. So he put the game in the hands of his rising star quarterback. It seemed like the right game plan considering the results of the first two games. But Flacco and the offense simply could not deliver. Grade: C
Quarterback: In typical Roethlisberger fashion, Big Ben came up clutch when it mattered most: 3rd and 19 at his own 38, two minutes to play in the fourth quarter of a 24-24 battle -- and Roethlisberger fired a perfect strike to rookie Antonio Brown for 58 yards. It was the longest play of the game, and the biggest play in a game full of them. It came near the end of a day in which Roethlisberger was under pressure from the opening whistle and had that key first-quarter fumble.
We also saw the indecisive worst out of the unorthodox but hugely successful quarterback: his repeated pump fakes as he searched for his best options down field only served to heighten the effectiveness of Baltimore's intense pass rush. At the end of the day, though, he produced winning numbers: 19-of-32 for 226 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 101.8 passer rating, a perfect strike on the most important throw of the year -- and a fourth AFC title-game appearance in seven NFL seasons. Grade: B+
Running Backs: Rashard Mendenhall fumbled deep in his own territory, handing the Ravens the ball at the Pittsburgh 16 midway through the second quarter, which they quickly converted for a 21-7 lead. But he scored two touchdowns, including a hard-fought 2-yard struggle for the winning points with 1:39 to play. He posted game highs of 20 attempts and 46 yards on what was a very tough night for running backs. Grade: B-
Receivers: Hines Ward was flagged for unnecessary roughness on Pittsburgh's very first offensive play, and did not touch the ball once in the first half. But Ward hauled in a difficult 12-yard reception late in the fourth quarter, to help Pittsburgh convert a big 3rd-and-10. Two plays later, rookie Emmanuel Sanders failed to hold on to what would have a been a big first-down reception when hit by a pair of Baltimore defenders. Rookie Antonio Brown made up for what was otherwise a tough day with his highlight-reel reception. Grade: B
Offensive Line: The entire line, misled by guard Ramon Foster did nothing as Baltimore's Cory Redding picked up the ball and ran in for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 14-7 lead. It was one of many low-lights for a unit that gave up six sacks and struggled to open up running lanes (31 rushes, 71 yards, 2.3 YPA).
Flozell Adams left the game with a mysterious reported "illness". Jonathan Scott went down later, replaced by guard Doug Legursky as Pittsburgh patch-worked together its offensive front. A few plays later, on 4th-and-1 deep in Baltimore territory, Roethlisberger ran behind Legursky, who jacked up 350-pound defensive end Brandon McKinney, allowing the quarterback to fight forward for a huge first down. The line also buckled down to give Mendenhall enough room to squeeze out a 2-yard run for the game's winning score. Grade: B-
Defensive Line: You might say that Pittsburgh's defensive front helped win this game back during the regular season, holding the Ravens to 113 rushing yards on 47 attempts over two games. As a result, Baltimore barely even tried to run Saturday night, and rarely succeeded when it did run. Defensive end Brett Keisel recovered a fumbled Baltimore snap and Ziggy Hood was a force up front (five total tackles and a sack). Grade: A-
Linebackers: James Harrison came up with a big-time play at a critical moment of the game, overpowering Willis McGahee and sacking Flacco in the third quarter. It was Pittsburgh's very first defensive play after a Heath Miller touchdown brought the Steelers to within 21-14 and ignited the Heinz Field faithful. Harrison's sack fueled a big three and-out that helped change the tenor of the game. He ended the day with a team-high three sacks. LaMarr Woodley added another, while Lawrence Timmons led the team with nine total tackles. Grade: A
Defensive Backs: Safety Ryan Clark might have been Pittsburgh's top defensive star. They Steelers were on the ropes in the third quarter, when Clark forced Rice to fumble in his own territory. His play led to Miller's touchdown on the next possession and changed the course of the game. He picked off Flacco later in the quarter, setting up Big Ben & Co. at the Baltimore 25. Hines Ward hauled in an 8-yard TD pass four plays later to knot the game at 21-21. Grade: B-
Special Teams: Poor special teams have tortured the Steelers in big games for years, and it looked like more of the same when Pittsburgh surrendered what appeared to be a 55-yard punt-return touchdown by Lardarius Webb. But the Steelers were saved thanks to a holding penalty on Marcus Smith. (Baltimore took over instead at Pittsburgh's 29 and had to settle for a field goal and a 24-24 tie instead of a 28-24 lead.) Pittsburgh's well-traveled kicker, Shaun Suisham, missed his first postseason attempt at the kicker's hell of Heinz Field -- a 43-yard effort late in the first half when the Steelers trailed 21-7 and desperately needed points before the break. He hit a 35-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter as Pittsburgh fought back to take a 24-21 lead. Grade: C+
Coaching: Mike Tomlin's Steelers scored first, but otherwise looked ill-prepared for playoff football, with numerous first-half mental mistakes and turnovers. Tomlin took a chance when he successfully challenged the opening kickoff -- a decision that worked out in his favor, but netted his team only 14 yards (the ball was moved from the Baltimore 49 to the 35). He also challenged Roethlisberger's fumble in the first quarter and lost. Pittsburgh was unable to challenge a call for the final three quarters -- not that it mattered. Tomlin's crew clearly came out a different team in the second half and stormed back for a memorable victory and another appearance in the AFC title game. Grade: B
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