PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison was barreling toward Joe Flacco on Saturday night with bad intentions, taking aim at the Ravens quarterback while undrafted rookie offensive tackle James Hurst tried to hold the veteran pass rusher at bay.
Just when it appeared that Harrison was going to overpower Hurst and sack Flacco in the third quarter in the Steelers red zone, left guard Kelechi Osemele peeled back to deliver a powerful block that knocked Harrison to the ground. That bought Flacco the time he needed to escape the pressure and find wide receiver Torrey Smith in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass during the Ravens' 30-17 AFC wild-card playoff win at Heinz Field.
"I told K.O. he saved my life," Hurst said. "Obviously it was a touchdown, so it was even bigger. Harrison made a really good move, but K.O. helped me out and gave Joe just enough time to make that pass. You have to have each others' backs."
The score was pivotal because it provided the Ravens with a 20-9 lead over their AFC North rivals. Without that big block from Osemele on third down, Flacco probably wouldn't have had the extra second and unobstructed passing lane required to connect with Smith.
"That was just something we actually practice every day, free man to hit, guy drops and be ready to help somebody out," Osemele said. "I saw my rookie left tackle struggling out there so I just went out to help him. I was a rookie tackle myself, so I understand how that is going against a veteran."
It was among the top moments for an offensive line that struggled mightily during a 43-23 blowout loss to the Steelers here in November, during which Flacco was under siege. He was sacked four times and hit 10 times in that game, with Harrison dominating left tackle Eugene Monroe for a pair of sacks.
Despite being without both starting offensive tackles — Monroe was out with an ankle injury and right tackle Rick Wagner was ruled out for the season with a Lisfranc foot sprain that required surgery to repair the damage — the Ravens offensive line held up well Saturday night while starting two rookies in Hurst and right guard John Urschel.
Competing against Harrison and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his signature zone-blitz schemes, the Ravens only surrendered one sack. Flacco was hit four times, but generally had clear pathways to go through his progressions and locate receivers.
"I did see one time James Hurst happened to get beat inside and K.O. came over and just clocked the guy, that kind of helping each other out," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "[Offensive line coach] Juan Castillo did a great job. Those guys played really well."
Flacco had a quiet first half, completing only 5 of 11 passes for 74 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 68.0 quarterback rating.
However, Flacco was noticeably more energized in the second half and finished the game having completed 18 of 29 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 114.0 quarterback rating. Five of his completions went to Steve Smith for a team-high 101 yards.
Playing in his first playoff game, Hurst had a lot at stake as he tried to keep pace with the Ravens' veteran linemen.
"I'm a rookie, so I'm still figuring it out," Hurst said. "It's great to learn from the guys that we have. A guy like Marshal Yanda, he does everything the right way. Urschel and myself learning from him, it's a great experience. This is going to be a great win in my career, and I'm excited to say I got it.
"It was real nerve-wracking. A rivalry, a playoff game, everything is a first for me. There were certainly a lot of nerves for me before the game. You just have to get into a groove and realize you are playing football."
As the Ravens blockers kept Flacco afoot, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was under major duress.
Roethlisberger was sacked five times and intercepted twice. And the Steelers rushed for only 68 yards on 19 carries.
In the fourth quarter, Flacco's underrated mobility and elusiveness was on display when he rolled out to his right and threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore. Again, Flacco had the time he needed to throw as the Steelers pass rushers looked tired.
The Ravens rushed for a touchdown in the first half when Osemele executed an unusual but effective block on Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward.
Ravens backup running back Bernard Pierce patiently waited for the cutback lane to develop on the 5-yard touchdown, his first score since an October win over the Atlanta Falcons, as center Jeremy Zuttah, Urschel and right tackle Yanda opened up holes.
The last block Pierce got was from Osemele, who made contact with Heyward and then spun around his body to place his back between the defensive lineman and the running back. That allowed Osemele to wall off Heyward while Pierce burst into the end zone. It resembled a basketball player boxing out for a rebound.
"Yeah, basically, it's just one of those things where you have a guy running and you kind of get to the point where you know your running back and you have awareness about you," Osemele said. "I knew he was going to cut back, so I just kind of stopped my feet."
Zuttah struggled noticeably at times, getting repeatedly shoved into the Ravens backfield by nose tackle Steve McClendon, including one play where he caused Flacco to be thrown for a 5-yard loss in the first quarter, the offensive line overall turned in a strong performance.
"We had a tough matchup inside," Harbaugh said. "Jeremy Zuttah is going against a heck of a nose guard there. He made a couple plays that knocked us back early, but Jeremy evened that thing out towards the end.
"I thought [offensive coordinator] Gary Kubiak called a great game. He kept them off-balance. We picked up a lot of the middle dog crosses, the middle 'backer stuff and the loaded pressures throughout the course of the game. We did not get them all, but we got a lot of them."
Zuttah said McClendon might be the toughest nose tackle he's faced all season.
"He might be the best nose guard definitely I've played in the league," Zuttah said. "He was all up on me. He was tough, man. He's one of the better ones."
Overshadowed by Yanda, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, Osemele showed why he's regarded as one of the top young interior blockers in the NFL.
The 6-foot-5, 330-pound 2012 second-round draft pick from Iowa State had one of his best and most timely performances of the season.
"I wouldn't necessarily call it a statement game," Osemele said. "We've played these guys so many times. You know where the mistakes are and you know what to do to correct them. I feel like everybody did that."
The performance by the offensive line helped propel the Ravens into the AFC divisional round, where they'll play the New England Patriots on Saturday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defense line is headlined by defensive end Chandler Jones and nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
"I'm sure it's going to be tough to go up to New England," Zuttah said. "They've been top of the league every year. They have guys like Vince Wilfork and Chandler Jones. It will be a tough matchup, but we have to fight and find a way to win."firstname.lastname@example.org