Players coming off the COVID list at the 11th hour. Guys signing off of other team’s practice squads and suiting up. Injury forcing a 4th string guard into action. 26 fourth quarter points. Two 2-point conversion attempts within a span of 92 seconds.
- Yes, it was the Steelers vs. the Ravens at their best.
The Steelers came out ahead by a nose, winning 20-19. The victory improved the Steelers record to 6-5-1 and kept their playoff hopes alive. But the victory also delivered something more.
Down, But Not Like This Before?
The Mike Tomlin era has seen the Steelers suffer their share of down swings. While some of those might have been mathematically worse, think the 5 game skid in 2009, this one felt different.
After clawing their way back from a 1-3 record, the Steelers won 4 games in a row, working themselves into the thick of the AFC North race. But those wins were all barn burners, each seemingly closer than the one before.
Then came the comedy of errors that led to the tie against the winless Detroit Lions. Then came the dramatic comeback against the Chargers that fell short due to a total offensive line collapse. But with the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like the other shoe had dropped.
The Steelers didn’t just lose 41-10 in a game that was over at half time, they were manhandled on both sides of scrimmage. Veterans from both Steelers Super Bowl eras, Rocky Bleier and Ryan Clark, piled on.
Bleier charged that the Steelers lacked “pride and self-esteem.” Clark condemned the Steelers defense for “not being able to stop a nosebleed” and four days later called for Ben Roethlisberger to be benched.
- The worse part about it?
Even the most naïve homer would have had a difficult time telling either man that he was wrong.
Treading Water Instead of Suffocating
Stats have always formed part of NFL’s narrative, but with a rise of analytics this tendency has gone on steroids. Today we can’t watch a game without seeing AWS-sponsored graphics telling us what plays the coaches should call next.
- And the half time stats painted a pretty grim picture for Pittsburgh.
The Ravens had 13 first downs to the Steelers 4. Not surprisingly, Baltimore had gone 4 for 8 on 3rd down conversions while the Steelers were 0 for 4. Worse yet, the Ravens held a 23:30 to 6:30 advantage in time of possession.
- Those types of numbers typically indicate one thing: One offense is suffocating the other.
The fact that the Ravens bridged the first and 2nd quarters with a 16 play, 99 yard drive that lasted 10:27 and culminated with a touchdown would seem to confirm this.
But there was something a typical afoot. Thanks to Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Ravens had come up with nothing after burning off nearly ½ of the first quarter on an 11 play 65 yard drive.
There’s no question that the Ravens offense held the upper hand, but even if the Steelers defense failed to get off the field on 3rd down, Baltimore wasn’t running at will on Pittsburgh as other teams had.
- Fantasy football owners started players from the Steelers this week doubtlessly felt bummed beyond belief.
But the key stat from the first half was this: Despite dominating in every category possible, the Baltimore Ravens held a meager 7-3 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Instead of being suffocated, the Steelers were treading water.
Steelers Dig Deep as Roethlisberger Leads 51st Comeback
When story tellers chronicle games like this they’re wont to fall back on phrases like, (feel free to imagine John Facenda’s voice), “Times like these force players to dig deep, finding something a little extra that they didn’t know they had.”
This is certainly true. The “usual suspects” authored plenty of big plays to either keep the Steelers in the game or push them ahead:
- Cam Heyward sacked Jackson, ending a drive and allowing the Steelers to score
- Najee Harris ripping off a pair of 8 yard runs and a 13er on the Steelers touchdown drives
- Diontae Johnson came up big, with 2 touchdown catches
- Pat Freiermuth made a difficult 2 point conversion catch look easy
- T.J. Watt sacked Lamarr Jackson three and a half times
While those players and perhaps some of those plays will live on forever via NFL Films, Mike Tomlin got critical contributions from unknown and/or forgotten players from deep within his roster.
- Montravius Adams a practice squad poachee played nearly ½ the snaps, improving the defensive line
- Steelers practice squader and 4th string guard John Leglue stepped in making an immediate impact
Chris Wormley had a had in 3 sacks, two of which shut down drives
- Ahkello Witherspoon battled away a pass on 3rd and 15, setting up the Steelers final scoring drive
- Benny Snell ripped off 5 and 8 yard runs on the final touchdown drive
Beyond these splash plays, on both sides of the ball the Steelers played physical football with discipline. They stopped runners at the line of scrimmage, pressured Lamarr Jackson without allowing him to run wild, and gave up only 5 penalties to the Ravens 10.
But if forced to name a single hero, you’d have to name Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers defense managed just 3 points during the first 45 minutes. Ben Roethlisberger remained cool throughout, and then led an offensive explosion for 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a 2-point conversion.
The effort marked Ben Roethlisberger’s 51st comeback win. If the Steelers could hold…
Too Much Time? And Perhaps Too Much Time to Think
When Ben Roethlisberger hit Pat Freiermuth with 1:48 left to play, the response of my friend and rabid Ravens fan Bill W. after the Steelers-Ravens 2016 Christmas classic came to mind, “We left too much time on the clock.”
- Indeed, the Ravens had gone ahead with 1:18 left to play, and Ben Roethlisberger made them pay.
Could Lamarr Jackson return the favor? Well, when Chris Boswell’s well placed mortar kick rolled out of bounds, it seemed like that might happen. When Jackson moved down the field with clock-work precision (minus the strip sack that went out of bounds) “might happen” became “was happening.”
- When Jackson connected with Sammy Watkins with 16 seconds left, the worst had come true.
Surely, Justin Tucker, the best place kicker there is, was or will ever be, would send it to over time. But John Harbaugh chose the cerebral approach and went with what his analytics told him: He went for the 2-point conversion.
Harbaugh got the look he wanted. Mark Andrews was open in the flat. A walk off 2 pointer was there for the taking…. And yet, T.J. Watt charged in, forcing the throw a millisecond too soon. It hit Andrews’ finger tips, and then bounced to the Heinz Field turf.
- The Steelers recovered the on-sides kick and then took a knee.
With the victory, the Steelers earned a new lease on their playoff life.
But they also earned something more important: After a week where fans, pundits and even franchise legends gave up on them, the Steelers steeled their faith in themselves and they prevailed. That earned them far greater than a single win, it earned them Redemption.