Ravens Three-and-Out: Week 16 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The latest installment of the epic Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry literally came down to inches. With just nine seconds remaining in regulation, Antonio Brown caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger at the one-yard line. The Steelers had zero timeouts left so the Ravens just needed to tackle Brown short of the goal line and they would have preserved an amazing 27-24 victory that would have put them in the AFC North driver's seat.
But even with C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle draped all over him, Brown gave a superhuman effort to stretch the ball out over the goal line. The gutsy Steelers' playcall to throw the ball short of the endzone worked in their favor and ultimately resulted in the game's final score. Despite trailing by 10 points in the second half, the Steelers came back to win 31-27 and clinch the AFC North title.
In a season that has been full of what-ifs for the Ravens, this was a game full of what-ifs. Their defense, which was ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed two weeks ago, allowed touchdowns on the Steelers' final three drives of the game. The Ravens' offense was repeatedly given great field possession and yet somehow, the team came away with just two touchdowns and had to settle for Justin Tucker field goals four times.
Even the usually strong special teams unit struggled some in this game. Tucker had a rare field goal attempt that he didn't convert, when Sam Koch couldn't gain control of an errant snap. That play instead resulted in Koch fumbling the ball and the Steelers recovering it.
In terms of regular season losses in franchise history, this is one of the most painful ones ever for the Ravens. The loss has eliminated them from playoff contention in 2016, making it the third time in four years that the Ravens have failed to qualify for the postseason. A win would have put them just one game away from clinching a division title and hosting a playoff game for the first time in 2012. Yet they just couldn't close it out and preserve their fifth consecutive win over the hated Steelers.
1. Defense has no answer for Bell, while Brown comes alive late after being quiet early.
In the Ravens' 21-14 win over the Steelers in Week 9, the Ravens' defense did an excellent job containing Pro bowl running back Le'Veon Bell. Bell had a total of 32 rushing yards in that game, a number that he eclipsed on the Steelers' first offensive drive this week, with 39 rushing yards on six attempts. Bell would finish the night with 20 carries for 122 rushing yards, three catches for 15 yards and two touchdowns.
He gained his rushing yards primarily by being patient and bouncing around, narrowly eluding tackles from Ravens' defenders. One of the shiftiest running backs in football, Bell took a few plays that looked like tackles for losses and instead made them into short gains.
While the Ravens had a surprisingly bad day defending the run, they actually did a great job defending the pass for the first three quarters. But just like in the Week 9 game, where the Steelers' passing offense helped them score 14 points in the fourth quarter, the Roethlisberger-Brown connection came alive late. The Ravens were doubling up on Brown earlier in the game, but late in the game he had one-on-one matchups that he was able to capitalize on. Rookie Tavon Young did an admirable job early on, but he simply couldn't keep up with Brown late and he also hurt the team badly with a 35-yard defensive pass interference penalty.
In addition to Brown's domination late in the game, the Ravens couldn't generate any pass rush on Roethlisberger on the final drive. Roethlisberger was actually 8-for-8 on attempted passes that drive, not counting his two spikes to stop the clock. The Ravens had zero sacks for the game, continuing their season long habit of struggling to get after the opposing quarterback. You can bet that a lot of talk in Baltimore this offseason will generate on finding a new pass rusher.
2. Juszczyk's amazing play doomed to be overlooked after Ravens blow lead.
Despite playing the position of fullback, Kyle Juszczyk has not ran the ball very often during his four-year career. Counting last night's game, he has totaled seven carries for 25 yards. "Juice" is more known for being a top checkdown target for Joe Flacco when he's looking to dump the ball off.
So that's why it seemed a little strange to see Juszczyk get two carries late in the game when the Ravens were trying to overcome a 24-20 deficit. His second carry at the time looked like the biggest play of the game at the time. During that third-and-one, play, Flacco handed the ball to Juszczyk out of the shotgun. Juszczyk than blocked a tackle by Mike Mitchell before falling into the endzone and giving the Ravens a three point lead with 1:18 left in regulation.
Sadly, his effort on that play will now be forgotten because of Brown's effort on the final play of the next drive. Kenneth Dixon also had some tough runs during a game where the Ravens actually did a good job running the ball. Dixon totaled 57 yards on 12 carries, while the Ravens' offense had a total of 122 rushing yards.
3. Ravens could be haunted by near misses for a long time.
This game came down to the final play, however there were many other plays that could have impacted the final outcome. As the losers of the game, the Ravens will feel the more acute pain in wondering what could have been had one or more of those plays gone in their favor.
Darren Waller has started to use his size to become a redzone threat. However he failed to catch a well-thrown pass by Flacco, while standing in the endzone in the second quarter. In the third quarter, the Ravens had a chance to take a 14-point lead over the Steelers. But that drive stalled after a foolish offensive holding penalty by Jeremy Zuttah on first down. The Ravens never reclaimed that yardage and instead settled for a field goal.
The Ravens also had two separate drives where they were gifted good field position when Chris Boswell kicked the ball out of bounds, allowing them to start at their 40-yard line. Both drives resulted in the Ravens punting, despite being very close to Tucker's field goal range.
And then of course, the final Steelers' offensive play could have very easily gone the Ravens' way. Mosley actually had a fine game, as he got 14 tackles and a crucial interception of Roethlisberger in the third quarter. Yet he instead has to wonder what could have been if he and Weddle could have somehow brought down Brown before the ball crossed the plain for the game-winning touchdown.
Flacco had a good game, throwing for 262 yards, a touchdown and an interception, which came on a desperate heave at the end of the game. Roethlisberger actually had two interceptions, one to Mosely and one to Zachary Orr. Yet despite the Ravens winning the turnover battle, they lost the game, a rarity in today's NFL.
Now eliminated from the playoffs, the Ravens' 2016 season will come to an end in Cincinnati next week. They will be facing the 5-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals in a game that is mostly just about draft positioning. If the Ravens win, they get the somewhat dubious distinction of finishing with a winning record and still missing the playoffs. If they lose, they will have the second 8-8 season under John Harbaugh and will likely draft several spots higher in the first round.
In addition to this being the final meaningful game for the Ravens this season, this game might have also seen the final touchdown of Steve Smith Sr.'s illustrious career. Smith was again Flacco's top target last night with seven catches for 79 yards, a touchdown and a two-point conversion. He has been the heartbeat of the Ravens' offense this season, despite critics giving him very little chance of coming back from a torn ACL at age 37.
The oldest wide receiver in the NFL has indicated that he wants to retire after this season. So Week 17 against the Bengals could be an emotional day for #89 and with no playoffs happening this year, you have to think the Ravens will do their best to send him out on a high note. Though now it's looking like Smith will not get the elusive Super Bowl win, he has had a Hall of Fame-worthy career and Sunday's game showed that he is going to keep on fighting right up till he takes off his cleats for the final time. In a game that is lacking for storylines, expect a lot of attention to be on Smith for what could be the final game of his career.
James Reagan writes for the Baltimore Ravens on Pro Football Spot and can be followed on Twitter @james__reagan.