Packers 19, Ravens 17
STRATEGY: A gambling approach backfired offensively in the red zone. Blockers didn't create enough holes and Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce failed to break tackles as a once-formidable running game was silenced again. Unable to build a fast start, the passing game didn't take off until the fourth quarter when shotgun formations, no-huddle schemes and bunch receiver sets proved effective. They used the shotgun 35 times with 20 no-huddles. Nothing solved third-down woes, though, converting just 2 of 14 for a 14-percent success rate. The defense didn't blitz much, primarily using a four-man rush with plenty of man-to-man coverage techniques against a deep receiving corps. The breakdowns didn't come until late against Aaron Rodgers, but were both costly mistakes.
PERSONNEL: Torrey Smith, wasn't involved nearly enough, catching one pass on four targets. Three receiver looks were in vogue with Tandon Doss and Marlon Brown contributing more than usual, but Jacoby Jones was used sparingly in his first game back with just 17 offensive snaps. Dallas Clark's workload was increased to 41 snaps. Curiously, Ed Dickson was downgraded to 21 snaps one week after his best game. Fullback Vonta Leach was reduced to 15 snaps. The defensive ironmen were defensive backs James Ihedigbo, Matt Elam, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb and middle linebacker Daryl Smith followed by Terrell Suggs (91 percent). Strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil went up to 53 snaps while Courtney Upshaw dipped to 15 snaps. Operating as the nickel back, Corey Graham got 40 snaps.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Dumervil bull-rushed Don Barclay for a pair of sacks and forced fumbles, displaying impressive power and speed. In a sign of progress, Jimmy Smith showed an improved ability to track the football for an end-zone interception. Jones injected speed into the offense and special teams. Arthur Jones continues to penetrate the backfield. Clark registered a slick one-handed touchdown catch. Doss showed a knack for finding seams in zone coverage and Brown runs well after the catch. Joe Flacco picked up the tempo and timing when necessary.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Webb hesitated on a long touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson, but clearly expected safety assistance that never arrived as they overreacted to Rodgers' play-action fake. Elam has to get better leverage to stop big tight ends like Jermichael Finley. Left tackle Eugene Monroe's decent debut was overshadowed by Nick Perry dashing past him for a key sack and forced fumble. There wasn't enough push inside from center Gino Gradkowski and guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele with too many penalties, a recurring theme. They were vulnerable to A.J. Hawk, who racked up three sacks on fire blitzes. Rice lacked open-field elusiveness. Daryl Smith and Josh Bynes got stuck in traffic and Haloti Ngata didn't escape blocks as imposing rookie runner Eddie Lacy pounded the defense. Two blocked punts in six games reveals substandard protection, and Sam Koch needs to accelerate his internal clock.
TURNING POINT: One of the most demoralizing moments of an up-and-down season unfolded in the second quarter when Rice and Pierce gained only three yards on four carries despite thudding lead blocks from Leach. The line didn't get the job done and the backs were unable to plow ahead as the fourth-down roll of the dice cost the Ravens three points in a narrow defeat.
X-FACTOR: The Steelers have a dreadful running game, but the defense will need to concentrate on shadowing wide receiver Antonio Brown. Targeted 53 times, he already has 41 catches, 498 yards and two touchdowns.
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