As he does each week, Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from the Ravens' 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round at Heinz Field on Saturday.
1. John Harbaugh has a remarkable gift for getting the Ravens ready in the playoffs.
What other conclusion can you come to when a coach has made the playoffs in six of his seven seasons and won at least one postseason game every time out?
But it was really startling to see how this team transformed itself over just one week.
I’m guessing most of the national audience watching NBC’s broadcast had little idea how bad the Ravens looked over the last three weeks of the regular season. But that team, which couldn’t pull its feet out of the mud against opponents well below Pittsburgh’s level, was nowhere to be seen Saturday night.
Though they came in with 19 players on injured reserve, these were the Ravens we saw early in the year, when they looked like real Super Bowl contenders.
They established their running game early, pressured Ben Roethlisberger out of his comfort zone while protecting Flacco on the other end and made fewer dumb mistakes than their opponent (albeit a few more than they would have liked).
As soon as they sneaked into the playoffs with a come-from-behind win over the Browns, the Ravens spoke of how they’d earned a clean slate. It’d be easy to dismiss that as typical athlete talk. But I kind of believe it with these players and this coach.
In 2012, after all, they lost four of their last five, and Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator with the playoffs looming. What did the Ravens do but beat a bunch of favored opponents on their way to a Super Bowl title?
Harbaugh often says he’s only concerned about the next practice, the next game, the next opportunity. And somehow, he gets his players to buy into that mindset year after year.
Whatever happens from here, this performance was a credit to the coach and his team leaders, who held the Ravens together through obstacle after obstacle this season.
2. Joe Flacco turned in another uncannily-clean playoff performance.
Flacco talked about it himself in the postgame interview. Aside from Justin Forsett’s fumble in the fourth, the Ravens avoided disastrous mistakes. They were penalized for just 14 yards compared to 114 for the Steelers.
In his last seven postseason games, Flacco has thrown 17 touchdown passes and one interception. Roethlisberger threw two picks on Saturday alone.
I don’t much believe in clutch genes or playoff halos. But that’s an awfully impressive record. Flacco was lucky when center Jeremy Zuttah recovered a second-half fumble. Otherwise, he played a confident game that would’ve fit right in with his untouchable run of two years ago. He just missed another touchdown pass on a gutsy third-and-1 bomb to Torrey Smith.
As always with Flacco, it was amazing to think this was the same guy who’d looked like a third stringer two weeks earlier in Houston. He could have been rattled early, when he tripped near his own goal line or when James Harrison pressed closer and closer. Instead, Flacco played better in the second quarter and better still in the third.
It’s not the same show every weekend folks, but it ain’t boring.
3. Despite missing both starting tackles, the Ravens’ offensive line performed admirably.
With rookies filling in at two spots and Marshal Yanda playing out of position at right tackle, the offensive line seemed ripe to be victimized
But after the Steelers had the ball for 12 minutes in the first quarter, the line stepped up its performance on the Ravens’ 80-yard touchdown drive to start the second.
It helped that this wasn’t a classic Steelers defensive front. Forsett had averaged seven yards a carry against Pittsburgh way back in Week 2. So it wasn’t a complete shock when he had room to run on that key early drive.
Rookie left tackle James Hurst looked iffy trying to hold off James Harrison early in the game. But Flacco generally had time and room to throw. He was sacked just once.
Left guard Kelechi Osemele made a terrific play in the third quarter, throwing a late shoulder to knock Harrison off balance after the veteran linebacker had gotten past Hurst. Osemele’s instinctive block bought Flacco enough time to throw the touchdown pass that put the Ravens up 20-9.
Forsett also did a nice job picking up Pittsburgh’s blitzers coming up the middle.
All was not perfect. On the Ravens’ first drive, Pittsburgh nose tackle Steve McLendon pushed Zuttah into Flacco, causing Flacco to fall down inside his own 5-yard line. McLendon did it again in the third quarter. Zuttah struggled late in the year after playing a large part in the line’s improvement from 2013. So his performance will be something to keep an eye on next week when the Ravens face the New England Patriots’ stout interior defense.
Overall, the offensive line exceeded expectations in Pittsburgh.
4. The patched-together secondary was pretty good as well.
No unit came into the game with a bigger bullseye on it after the Ravens allowed Roethlisberger six touchdown passes in a 43-23 loss on Nov. 2.
The blowout in Pittsburgh was part of a stretch in which the Ravens were torched by every top quarterback they faced. And honestly, I believed the secondary’s inability to handle Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown would be the story of this game.
That wasn’t the case.
You can’t say the Ravens shut down Roethlisberger, who completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 334 yards. Brown also hurt them with nine catches, including a 44-yarder to set up a touchdown when the result of the game was still very much in question. Linebacker Daryl Smith somehow ended up covering Brown on that play, which couldn’t have been what the Ravens wanted.
Aside from that lapse, however, the Ravens’ defensive backs did a fine job of keeping Pittsburgh’s receivers from getting open deep. Roethlisberger tried to attack down the field a few other times, to no avail. And with the Ravens’ defensive front hounding him steadily, he never looked entirely comfortable, despite his production.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb got off to a shaky start, with a missed tackle on Pittsburgh’s first possession. As the game progressed, however, he played aggressively and well when matched with Brown. Meanwhile, the Ravens had to be relieved when Rashaan Melvin, who has locked down the other cornerback spot, returned to the field after leaving with a possible head injury.
It’s also worth mentioning that safeties Jeromy Miles and Will Hill have grown into underappreciated cogs in the defense. Both players finished the season with positive grades from the analysts at Pro Football Focus.
The front seven will always be the lead story with this team. But if the secondary can play as soundly as it has over the last month, the Ravens will be a tough out for anyone.
5. The Patriots can’t be happy to see the Ravens coming to Foxboro.
I don’t put too much stock in the history between the teams. But we at least know the Ravens won’t be disconcerted by going to Foxboro, Mass., for a playoff game. They handled the Patriots there in 2013 and came painfully close the year before.
Brady does a brilliant job getting rid of the ball quickly, so the key match-up will be the future Hall of Famer vs. the Baltimore pass rush. If anyone can make Brady uncomfortable, Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are the guys.
For his part, Brady will attack the middle of the Ravens’ defense with incomparable tight end Rob Gronkowski. That’s a scary matchup if you’re a Ravens fan.
Actually, the New England defense might present a tougher challenge than the offense. The Patriots don’t rush the passer like the Ravens, but they’re among the best in the league in coverage and defending the run. They’ll challenge Flacco in very different ways than the Steelers did.
It should be fun.