We knew the defense could not continue to pitch shutout in perpetuity. We knew the Steelers could not continue to both win and fail to transform turnovers into touchdowns.
We knew the Steelers would face stiffer tests.
The Steelers began the day with a 3-0 record and dreams of sugar plums like a 4-0 start in their heads. They ended it by giving the Ravens their first win at Heinz Field since 2006.
The operative question is "why?"
Unable to Even the Odds
The last time these two teams faced off, it was at PSI.net Stadium (or M&T Bank Field, or whatever they call it now) and the Steelers forced the game into OT despite not having Roethlisberger, Polamalu or Aaron Smith.
Today Polamalu and Smith played, and the Raven’s Ed Reed was in street clothes.
What was the difference?
Let's begin by doing away with the easy answers.
This past off season saw the Ravens acquire T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin while the Bengals picked up Terrell Owens. Someone on the Steelers, whose name escapes me, attributed the moves to a desire to stockpile the firepower needed to overcome the Steelers defense.
- Houshmandzadeh, Boldin, and Derrick Mason all made key plays today, but those three did not decide the outcome.
A Ravens season ticket holder who is one of my (not so near) but very dear friends explained the victory this way:
“Joe Flacco grew up a lot today. Winning in Heinz Field from behind in the last 1:08 of the game isn't something a lot of QBs can do.”
- Credit Flacco fully for staying sharp down the stretch. This game is a big step forward for him but, with all due respect to my buddy, Flacco’s play was not the determining factor.
You can attribute one simple reason to the Raven’s victory.
Winning and losing a football game starts with controlling the line of scrimmage. And while Baltimore didn’t necessarily dominate those battles, they won the key battles at the moments when those battles were important.
Cowher’s Fine Line Just Got Fatter
If Bill Cowher had a more oft-repeated line in his cliché repertoire than “There’s a fine line between winning and losing” then someone please inform me.
On the surface, today’s game would seem to serve as a testament to The Chin’s world view.
- After all, if Jeff Reed gets just a half-inch less of a hook on his second kick, we go to OT.
- A slightly greater adjustment to his first kick sees the Ravens struggling to recover an on-sides kick.
- If only Keyron Fox doesn’t get flagged for holding, the Raven’s have 10 more yards to go – a big deal when you have no a timeouts and the clock as at 0:55.
A day when you can seemingly map a three point difference on the scoreboard to three plays would seem to paint a very fine line between victory and defeat.
A closer look at the box score strengthens the case.
- Time of possession? Baltimore 30:31, Pittsburgh 29:29.
- Rushing averages: Baltimore 2.6, Pittsburgh 3.1.
- Longest run from scrimmage: Baltimore, Willis McGahee 10 yards, Pittsburgh, 11 yards.
All of this paints a picture of a race that was neck and neck. And in some ways it was.
Don’t be deceived, however, this one was not as close as it looked.
No, this was no blowout in disguise because even the key statistic the one area that the Ravens dominated doesn’t seem that impressive
- Sacks: Ravens 2, Steelers 1.
I was surprised when I looked that up, because I expected the Raven’s advantage to be much higher. Numbers aside, the Ravens were in Charlie Batch’s face all day, whereas Joe Flacco had ample time to throw.
In a nutshell, that was the difference. The Raven’s protected their quarterback; in contrast, the Steelers allowed theirs to be hurried.
Look at each of the plays highlighted above, and it comes down to an inability to control the line of scrimmage.
Too Many "Ifs"
If the Steelers can give Batch a little time to throw they can probably convert turnovers into points.
If, on their penultimate possession, the Steelers have enough confidence to risk a thow, then perhaps they can get a first down. And one first down probably means they can run out the clock.
Is it fair to say that the Raven's "dominated the line of scrimmage?" No, it is not. Both teams played the run very well, but even there the Ravens got the better of the stalemate simply because they could move the ball through the air and the Steelers couldn't.
The Steelers hurt themselves with costly penalties committed by the offensive line at inopportune times, and those kinds of mistakes so late in the game frequently occur when an offensive line is frustrated it has lost more many battles up front than it has won.
Tip your hat to John (don't call him Jim) Harbaugh, Cam Cameron, and Greg Mattison - they came with a better game plan. Tip your hats to to John Flacco and Ray Lewis and the men they led, as they executed those plans better than the Steelers players executed theirs.
But the roots of the Ravens victory, and all of the heroics that went into it, can be traced back to their simple ability to win the battles up front when it counted the most.