Clutch Encounters: Week 4 BAL-PIT
by Scott Kacsmar
There was the close game we expected three times last year and never really got. For the fifth time since 2008, the Ravens and Steelers played to a 23-20 finish. In typical Thursday night fashion, the game balanced ugliness with excitement to keep your attention in only the way a Sarah Jessica Parker movie could rival. Both teams were within striking distance late, but the Ravens showed the value of having a good kicker.
We will cover the other close games in Week 4 in Clutch Encounters on Tuesday as usual, but this is a special Friday edition of the latest chapter in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. How was it special? This is the first time the Steelers blew a 13-point lead at home since 1964 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Baltimore Ravens 23 at Pittsburgh Steelers 20 (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (20-14)
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (15-31 at 4QC and 22-34 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Joe Flacco (15-30 at 4QC and 22-33 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Baltimore's last win was the wild-card triumph in Pittsburgh this past January. The Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger that night, but not Le'Veon Bell. On Thursday, the Steelers had Bell, but not Roethlisberger after he sprained his MCL and suffered a bone bruise on Sunday. Maybe if they had just used Bell a bit more in overtime, the Steelers would have dropped the Ravens, a preseason favorite, into a 0-4 hole.
This was a total gut check for the Ravens. Steve Smith twice left the game with injuries. Tight end Crockett Gillmore (calf) was already inactive. Breshad Perriman and Dennis Pitta are still out with injuries. Left tackle Eugene Monroe was out on a night Joe Flacco tied his career high by taking five sacks. Even slot receiver Michael Campanaro, who scored the game's first touchdown on a run, left on a cart in the fourth quarter. This was a bare-bones offense with Kamar Aiken and Darren Waller (who?) having to step up late. When Ross Cockrell came away with two ugly turnovers by Flacco and Darrius Heyward-Bey managed to hang on to a touchdown, Baltimore may have been thinking this just was not its night (or year).
No one tends to succeed in Pittsburgh when they are down 20-7 in the second half. I actually thought of the famous stat associated with that once the Steelers took the lead. When Bill Cowher was the head coach (1992-2006), the Steelers were 108-1-1 when leading by at least 11 points at any time in the game. The loss was in Cincinnati (2001) and the tie was actually at home against a Michael Vick-led Falcons team in 2002. This is one of those stats that have never been clearly defined for other coaches for comparison. For example, coming into the game Mike Tomlin was 59-1 when leading by at least 11 points. The only loss was a 13-point lead in Cincinnati in 2009. The Steelers in general are 167-3-1 since 1992 when leading by at least 11 points. Given what we know about 11-point comebacks (this was the NFL's eighth since the playoffs in January), these records are very impressive for Pittsburgh.
Cowher was actually in attendance last night to present Jerome Bettis with his Hall of Fame ring at halftime. Neither could be happy with what they saw in the second half. So much of that 108-1-1 record was built on strong defense and finishing off teams with a running game. This game was a grinder, but the Steelers were scoreless on their final seven drives.
Even if we judge him on a curve for it being his first start with a new team, Michael Vick's first start with the Steelers did not go well. Roethlisberger has now missed 17 starts since taking over the job in 2004, and amazingly seven of those games have been against the Ravens. So the Steelers are used to not having their starter in this rivalry, but Vick was expected to give a bigger spark to a talented offense than the 124 yards he passed for. Vick had 11 failed completions, which is extra alarming on a night where he was 19-of-26 passing. He also showed his usual poor pocket presence and took four sacks. Following his touchdown pass to Heyward-Bey with 10:41 left in the third quarter, Vick's success rate was just 3-of-17 (17.6 percent) the rest of the way.
Flacco quickly led the Ravens on an 80-yard touchdown drive to give this one some life at 20-14. A fake field goal by Baltimore was just the beginning of some very questionable decisions by both sides as the game moved into the fourth quarter. Down 20-17 with 4:20 left, Flacco tried a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 43. I loved the call of course, even if Flacco is a little below average on short-yardage runs (79.2 percent coming into 2015). The line did not get any push and Flacco was stuffed for no gain. The most troubling part was the Ravens had a second-and-2 and only were able to gain one yard on three runs. None of those carries were given to Justin Forsett, who was excellent on the night with 27 carries for 150 yards.
Pittsburgh had its first chance to really put the Ravens in a bind by converting a third-and-5. Baltimore played single man coverage on all the receivers, but Vick targeted rookie Sammie Coates, who only made his first career catch earlier in the game. Will Davis had the tight coverage and Coates was unable to squeeze the ball. The clock stopped with 2:29 left, which also saved Baltimore a timeout.
Pass to Coates was closer than I thought, but Will Hill all over it. pic.twitter.com/vPRKzmCqBI
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 2, 2015
Josh Scobee, Pittsburgh's third kicker after injuries to Shaun Suisham and Garrett Hartley, may have just kicked his way out of town. A 49-yard field goal is not easy in Heinz Field, but this is what the guy is paid to do. Scobee was wide left. It's not the worst miss ever since the Ravens are not going to be as aggressive if they were down six points, but field position is an issue with Flacco starting at his own 39.
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Flacco went to the "if you are going to be bad, do it as quickly as possible" strategy. He threw three straight incompletions as Pittsburgh kept blitzing a defensive back, not afraid of the Baltimore receiving options. Any short completion here probably would have moved the game to the two-minute warning, but Flacco faced a fourth-and-10 after burning just 13 seconds. Flacco held the ball for nearly five seconds, but he did not pull the trigger and was sacked by James Harrison. Usually the sack looks like a horrible outcome here instead of giving someone a chance on a throw, but the clock again saved Flacco. Time was correctly changed back to 2:04, basically saving the Ravens a timeout. Pittsburgh conservatively ran Bell three times, which is probably the right call with your backup quarterback in the game.
Scobee tried to redeem himself with a 41-yard field goal, but that too was wide left with 1:01 to play. What in the name of Kris Brown is going on here? This is already the second game with two misses this year by Scobee, who also has a missed extra point. If he is still on the team by the time this is posted I will be surprised. Back in August, I just knew these kicker injuries would cost the Steelers this year, though Scobee has been a much bigger disappointment than expected.
Flacco had 1:01 left from his own 31. Pittsburgh kept blitzing defensive backs, but Flacco hung in there to deliver one of his best passes: a 20-yard grab by Aiken in front of Antwon Blake with 23 seconds left. In a 20-17 game, it's not surprising to see the trailing team just play for the field goal. Baltimore ran Forsett for eight yards and Flacco spiked the ball to set up Justin Tucker, a kicker you can trust. Tucker was good from 42 yards away and overtime was inevitable.
Through 55 modified overtime games, the team receiving first is now 27-25-3 (.518). Both teams have touched the ball in 46 of the 55 games (83.6 percent). From 1974 to 2011, both teams had a possession in 70.7 percent of overtime games. This is good to see for competitive balance.
Pittsburgh received first and Bell turned what looked like a 1-yard gain into a 22-yard run into Baltimore territory. The Ravens had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 30 games according to the CBS broadcast, but Bell broke through with 129 yards. He could have used a few more when Vick missed an open Antonio Brown on a third-and-2 pass. That is the first time I mentioned Antonio Brown, who had been on some record-setting streaks of receiving consistency. Sure enough it took just one game with Vick to end most of those streaks.
Brown finished with 42 receiving yards, his fewest since he had 22 yards against Cleveland to end the 2012 season. Over his next 35 games Brown had at least 50 receiving yards in each of them, though the Ravens were the defense to hold him to 50 and the last to hold him under 60 (59 in 2013). Brown had 14 straight games with at least seven catches and 70 yards, which is obviously also over.
The streak of five-catch games continues, but this night also showed the importance of Roethlisberger to that streak. In fact, many of the names on these lists played with top-tier quarterbacks. The ball still has to get there first and Vick missed some big throws to Brown.
You have to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 39 or else it was a waste to receive first. Speaking of wastes, the Steelers went with just about one of the worst play calls we'll see this season: a quarterback sweep. Backup tackle Alejandro Villanueva lined up out wide as an eligible receiver, so he was not even a factor in blocking for Vick. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum blocked only air on the play, and Vick had no chance. If you want to run the ball on fourth-and-2, there's this Bell guy who might actually have a better shot.
After a Baltimore three-and-out, Brown returned a punt 29 yards. He started the drive with a 17-yard catch too, and it was painfully obvious either Brown or Bell had to make the decisive play for this offense to win. On a third-and-2, Bell was stopped a yard short after a good tackle by Hill. Now this is where the two Scobee misses hurt the most, because now there's just no confidence in the kicker. Most teams would go for the 51-yard game-winning field goal here. Yes, even at Heinz Field where long field goals are notoriously difficult since the stadium opened in 2001.
In the regular season, all kickers are just 8-of-28 (28.6 percent) on 50-plus yard field goals at Heinz Field. All 28 attempts are from 50-56 yards, so there aren't even any outliers worth removing. Since 2001, the league average is 57.2 percent on 50-plus yard field goals, and the success rate has been above 60 percent in each year since 2011. Pittsburgh kickers are 2-of-11 at home, but 11-of-16 on the road. So the mystique of Heinz Field is real.
That's why there was no way Tomlin could put Scobee out there again to miss from 51 yards and give the Ravens great field position. If he had Tucker, then that's a different story. However, is Vick the guy you want to put the ball in the hands of on fourth-and-1? The design of the play was solid and Brown was open again, but the throw needed to be much better and Vick missed it again. The Steelers are the only team to turn the ball over twice on downs in modified overtime. In all the other games combined there are only two drives total where a team turned the ball over on downs while tied.
Forsett delivered with a short-yardage conversion and Flacco only needed to complete one pass to Aiken for 11 yards before he kept handing the ball off. It's easy to criticize the Ravens for not trying to get closer, but Tucker really is that good. In fact, Flacco even told John Harbaugh to "just let him [Tucker] win the game" instead of trying to get the Steelers to jump offsides.
Tucker nailed the 52-yard field goal, tying the Heinz Field record for longest field goal. Tucker is now 14-of-14 on clutch field goals (down 1-3 points or tied in fourth quarter/overtime) in his career. If the Ravens manage to salvage 2015, this escape is the start of it all. Tomlin stuck with his usual "we take responsibility for that" mantra after a defeat, but he really could have borrowed a line from Denny Green here.
Let them off the hook.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 13
Game-winning drives: 12 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 28/49 (57.1 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 9
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.