Joe Flacco did not sound like a man who had just led his team to its biggest victory of the season.
Standing at the podium late Thursday night -- or was it early Friday morning? -- Flacco harped on missed opportunities against the Pittsburgh Steelers and repeatedly said how frustrated he was that the Ravens had to settle for five field goals despite moving the ball into Steelers territory seven times on eight drives. He talked about concentration lapses and failed conversions and the need to correct the little things.
Finally, at one point, the quarterback conceded that he was "pretty happy with how we played tonight."
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He should be. More than anything, it was the steady play of Flacco that allowed the Ravens to beat their bitter rivals, 22-20, and move into prime position in the race for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Flacco out-dueled Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had a fine game himself, as most of America watched on Thanksgiving night before eventually nodding off into a turkey-induced coma.
What a difference a couple of days and a couple of deep balls make.
In the days after Sunday’s win over the New York Jets, Flacco was ripped both locally and nationally for criticizing the team’s use of a two-quarterback offense that stuck him on the sideline as backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor ran the offense. It was just five plays, but Flacco made it clear those snaps would have been better spent with himself under center instead of keeping his hands warm on the sideline.
Flacco backed up his big talk -- and temporarily silenced his critics, who slinked back to their lairs to regroup before next weekend -- by starting Thursday’s game on a roll. He completed four of his first five attempts for 74 yards and a touchdown. After misfiring on one deep ball at the start of that drive, Flacco lofted a beauty to wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 54-yard gain. Smith was tackled at the 1-yard line, but three plays later, Flacco found him again to give the Ravens a 7-0 lead.
That statement drive and the ensuing success clearly convinced coach John Harbaugh to park Taylor and the nameless two-quarterback offense for the night.
Instead, the Ravens stuck with their up-tempo, three-receiving passing attack and Flacco rewarded them for it. He often evaded pressure and got the ball to one of his receivers in a spot where they could make a play. He was great on third downs, helping the Ravens convert 10 times on 17 chances. And he completed 24 of his 35 attempts for 251 yards, that touchdown pass to Smith and a 98.6 passer rating.
By doing so, Flacco once again showed that he is at his best when all the chips are on the table -- in case anyone watching forgot about his heroics last postseason.
Yet, you can understand why Flacco was upbeat but frustrated after the game. While the Ravens were efficient, at least through the air, and had six scoring drives, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Flacco senses that, but it seems as if he legitimately believes this offense is really close to busting out in a big way.
Flacco can’t do it all by himself. The offensive line must be better and a running game would help. But with two strong games in a row, Flacco appears to be peaking at the right time. And if he continues to play sharp, mistake-free football, a one-quarterback offense will be all the Ravens need to get back to the playoffs.
One thing that I learned
The Ravens defense is one of the NFL’s stingiest in the first three quarters and one of its flimsiest when the game is on the line. For three quarters, the Ravens put the clamps on Roethlisberger and the Steelers, holding them to seven points and 185 yards. But in the fourth quarter, the Ravens could not get off the field against the Steelers, continuing a troubling trend that has cost them at least a couple of games this season. Sure, they survived this time because of cornerback Chykie Brown’s tight coverage on that final two-point attempt, but it should have never come to that. Roethlisberger picked apart the Ravens defense and rookie back Le’Veon Bell bowled over them on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to nearly rally from a 12-point deficit. If this defense had a killer instinct, though, there would be no thrilling ending and most of America would have succumbed to a turkey-induced coma as the Ravens rolled to a relatively easy victory, at least by this rivalry’s standards.
Handing out game balls
The offensive game ball goes to Flacco for reasons previously stated. The defensive game ball goes to cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, who limited the damage done by Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. And Justin Tucker gets one, too, for single-handedly destroying one of my fantasy teams with five field goals and an extra point.
This week’s head-scratcher
This one goes to the Mike Tomlin play, obviously. In the third quarter, kickoff returner Jacoby Jones streaked through the Steelers defense and down the Pittsburgh sideline. The only Steeler standing between him and the end zone was Tomlin. Wait, what? Tomlin had part of his foot on the playing field and his presence was enough to make Jones weave around him. Slowed slightly, Jones was tackled from behind. Instead of scoring a touchdown, they kicked a field goal. After the game, Tomlin said he lost track of where he was because he was watching the return on the stadium’s massive video boards. But if that was the case, surely he would have seen that he had ventured to somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be. Tomlin was not penalized on that odd play, but don’t be surprised if he hears from the league office in the coming days.
They said it (or tweeted it)
“I took some flack kind of joking around at the Super Bowl saying that I was going to run out onto the field and tackle somebody if this guy breaks it. I caught some flack for that; that's exactly what he just did. He was looking at the big screen the whole entire time. He knew where he was. He knew where Jacoby was. He pulled my move." -- Flacco on the Tomlin play.
The stat that stands out
zero -- snaps played by backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, days after Flacco made national headlines by criticizing the team’s use of a two-quarterback offense on Sunday.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. Bell has not been piling up big numbers this season as the Steelers, just like the Ravens, have not been able to establish a consistent running game. But he has had two of the best games of his young career against the Ravens. Bell rushed for 93 yards on 19 carries back in Week 7. On Thursday night, he rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and had seven catches for 63 yards. He appeared to have scored a second touchdown late in the game, but he got knocked out by strong-side linebacker Courtney Upshaw and lost his helmet before the ball broke the plane. Still, it was an impressive effort for the second-round pick out of Michigan State, who entered the game averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Those numbers don’t do him justice, though, and his impressive, physical performance on Thursday night suggests that Bell is going to be a thorn in the side of the Baltimore defense over the next few years.
2. Right tackle Michael Oher had one of his worst games of the season -- and it’s not as if he has been stacking positive performances on top of each other over the past three months. He got called for three false starts, which has to be a record for him. He also got beaten for a pair of sacks by Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds. It has been a rough season for Oher, and we may be witnessing his final games with the Ravens in the coming weeks. Oher will be a free agent, and while he is well liked and respected in the locker room and has never complained about getting his position switched every year, it seems likely he will be playing somewhere else next year. Left tackle Eugene Monroe, who has been the team’s best offensive lineman since he was acquired in a trade last month, is also a free agent and should be the priority. Solid left tackles are tough to find, especially when you draft in the 20s or 30s every year. As for Oher, he of “Blind Side” fame, I’m sure some desperate team will pay him to play left tackle next season.
3. The Ravens are essentially playing two strong safeties right now. And while James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam haven’t been overexposed in coverage this year, it is clear that Elam is playing out of position. He has often been doing the best he can in that Ed Reed role, lining up deep as a single-high safety, but he doesn’t have great range and hasn’t been a factor, at least in a good way, in pass coverage. On Thursday, there were a couple of plays where Elam was not able to get to the sideline in time to support a cornerback, though they were tough plays for most free safeties to make. I think the Ravens would be better off playing Elam as a strong safety closer to the line and asking him to blitz and make plays against the run. But Ihedigbo, who has played well overall and will be a free agent after the season, has less range and would be out of place there, too. The Ravens should be able to get by for now because of their pass rush and the improved play of their cornerbacks, but it will be interesting to see what they do next season.