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 Harrison was going to overpower Hurst and sack Flacco in the third quarter in the Steelers' red zone, left offensive 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.
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.
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, in 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 as 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 his receivers.
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 five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith for a team-high 101 yards.
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.
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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 Marshal 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.
Although Zuttah struggled mightily throughout the game, getting repeatedy shoved into the Ravens backfield, including one play where he caused Flacco to be thrown for a five-yard loss in the first quarter, the offensive line overall turned in a strong performance.
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 former second-round draft pick from Iowa State had one of his best and most timely performances of th season. It helped propel the Ravens into the AFC divisional round where they'll play the New England Patriots next Saturday at Gillette Stadium.