Harbaugh's latest gamble backfires, Ravens speed it up and more from Sunday's loss

The Baltimore Sun

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was getting tired of seeing the Steelers offense on the field. His team was playing a solid game on both sides of the ball, but with the clock winding down at a rapid pace, he figured possessions were at a premium.

So Harbaugh made one of the most aggressive calls of his coaching career, asking kicker Justin Tucker to not only attempt, but also recover, an onside kick he thought the Steelers would never see coming.

“The idea there was to grab another possession,” Harbaugh said. “They had some long drives and we were struggling to get possessions and get our offense on the field, especially once we were in a situation where a field goal would have been the same either way. We would have needed a touchdown either way.”

Like some of Harbaugh’s other gambles the past couple of weeks, the roll of the dice came up snake eyes, and the three points the Ravens gifted the Steelers loomed large after the game. Harbaugh will surely be second-guessed in the coming days, but he again showed that he has total faith in his players to execute.

“We thought we could get it,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to try it because we think we can get it. We thought we had a great shot at getting it. The guy made a nice play there, made a great play. He covered a lot of ground quickly to get to that ball.”

When he isn’t booming footballs through the uprights, Tucker spends time in practice working on an array of kickoffs. This particular onside kick is called a bunt kick. Tucker runs up like he is kicking it deep then taps the football forward, preferably 10 or more yards, where he or a teammate can pounce on it in the middle of the field.

"It was one of those calculated risk plays," he said.

Presumably, since it was in the game plan, the Ravens worked on this one in practice last week, trying to make sure they had it down pat if they busted it out on the Steelers.

But this one would be a triple whammy of failure.

For starters, the Ravens had a player offside. Tucker’s kick only traveled eight yards before he touched it. And Steelers linebacker Vince Williams recovered the football.

The offsides penalty irritated Harbaugh the most.

“That’s the unforgivable part of the whole thing,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t want to see a guy offside when we do a surprise onside kick. We talk about it every time we do it. It’s all moot. If you’re offsides, you’re not going to get it.”

They did not get it either way, and the gamble gave the Steelers a short field. The Steelers kicked a field goal to expand their lead to seven points, and after a long touchdown drive by the Ravens, the Steelers won the game on Shaun Suisham’s buzzer-beating field goal.

Had the execution been better and the Ravens had recovered the onside kick, Harbaugh would have been praised for the bold move after the game. It wasn’t and they didn’t, so Harbaugh is going to feel the heat this week. But not in the locker room. That roll of the dice was a vote of confidence in the special-teams unit, the kind of gamble that players often appreciate.

"No one is going to question our stones, ever,” said Tucker, his left ear bloodied after he got hit while trying to recover the onside kick. “We're playing to win the game.”

One thing that I learned

The Ravens are still at their best when they are spreading out opponents and tiring out defenders with their no-huddle offense. Obviously, they can’t do it every single game and certainly not every single possession. But they are most effective and quarterback Joe Flacco appears to be most comfortable when they use three wide receivers and a single running back to attack defenses. Against the Steelers, fourth-ranked pass defense, the Ravens were able to move the football into Pittsburgh territory on six of their seven possessions. And while the pace didn’t appear to leave the Steelers sucking wind, it did seem to give Flacco and the struggling Ravens offense a spark.

Handing out game balls

Flacco didn't put up huge numbers, but he played mistake-free football and spread the ball around to nine different receivers. He even looked a little like Ben Roethlisberger -- minus the neck beard -- while improvising outside of the pocket on a couple of plays. The defensive game ball goes to middle linebacker Daryl Smith, who led the Ravens with nine tackles and forced the game’s only turnover by stripping the football from Steelers tight end Heath Miller, setting up a field goal.

This week’s head-scratcher

Facing 3rd and 6 on the first drive of the third quarter, the Ravens took a timeout as the play clock ticked toward zero. Following the timeout, though, Flacco let the play clock run out and the Ravens were flagged for delay of game. It didn't cost the Ravens as they converted on 3rd and 11, but how can that happen after calling a timeout?

The stat that stands out

2:48 -- the total time of Sunday’s game. There were only 15 possessions between the two teams and just four punts. Somebody wanted to get home to watch Broncos-Colts.

They said it (or tweeted it)

“I’m very concerned. It’s been very rare with this franchise that we’ve been under .500. This happened at a perfect time for us to address everything. We can’t kid ourselves anymore. We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do.” -- Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Three (thoughts) and out

1. He is too professional to publicly make a stink about it, but fullback Vonta Leach didn’t look too pleased when I asked him about being parked on the bench for much of the game. With the Ravens going three-wide on 55 of their 61 offensive snaps, Leach might have just played a dozen or so offensive snaps. Obviously, I already said that I liked that the Ravens spread out the Steelers, but it is strange to think that in what has been one of the NFL’s hardest-hitting rivalries, Leach was mostly a spectator. When he did get a few carries late in the fourth quarter, Leach ran like he was ticked off, sought out contact at the end of his runs and was actually their most productive running back, though that isn’t really saying much.

2. The Steelers apparently pulled out all the stops in this one, doing all they could to catch the Ravens, who are very familiar with who they are and what they do, off guard. After the game, Suggs remarked that the Steelers did some things Sunday that he had never seen them do. They probably included the use of the Wildcat, the formation that is seemingly near extinction but still clinging to life. The Steelers put Roethlisberger out wide on four snaps and did a direct snap to a running back or wide-out. The Ravens were disciplined enough to not allow big gains, but the Steelers did pick up two first downs with those trick plays. I’m curious to see if they bust out the Wildcat -- and add new wrinkles -- on Thanksgiving.

3. Looking for something to feel good about after a painful, last-second loss to the hated Steelers? How about the return of weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain, who started and made six tackles in the loss? McClain suffered a spinal cord contusion last December and was told by one doctor that he would never play again. He never gave up hope, was always upbeat when discussing it with reporters and made sure he was physically ready for the day when he would be cleared. He got the green light this week and ended up playing a significant role for the Ravens with starting weak-side linebacker Josh Bynes sidelined. I’m not sure what his role will be going forward, but he has already written an inspiring story of perseverance.

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