As October turned into November last year, Ben Roethlisberger was on the kind of hot streak few quarterbacks ever see. In back-to-back games against the Colts and Ravens, Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback threw 12 total touchdown passes, six in each game, setting a record that might never be broken. Saturday's wild-card game was the first time since a 43-23 Week 9 loss to the Steelers that Baltimore had a chance for revenge, as one of the NFL's most compelling recent rivalries renewed itself.
And this time, with a spot in the divisional round on the line, the Ravens completely flipped the script with their outstanding front seven and a pass defense that surprised just about everyone, allowing 310 passing yards from Roethlisberger but picking him off twice, and severely limiting his options when it was time to score. In the end, Baltimore checkmated Pittsburgh's one-dimensional offense en route to a 30-17 wild-card win.
The Ravens boasted the league's best red-zone defense in 2014, allowing just 43 percent of drives to be converted, and registering a -42.4% DVOA in that regard, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. But in that Week 9 loss, Baltimore allowed the Steelers to convert all three of their red-zone opportunities for touchdowns. This time around, it was the Ravens who put things back in place, limiting Pittsburgh to three field goals in the first half, and just one touchdown overall. Baltimore needed help in Week 17 just to get in the tournament, but they appear to be peaking at the right time.
Three thoughts from the game:
1. The Steelers missed Le'Veon Bell -- in every possible way.
When the Steelers lost second-year running back Le'Veon Bell to a knee injury in the regular-season finale against the Bengals, they had to know they were in trouble. Bell ended the regular season with 2,215 yards from scrimmage, and as much as people want to talk about Pittsburgh's passing game, Bell was the force multiplier.
Even during that aforementioned and historic two-week stretch, Roethlisberger relied on Bell for several different things. Bell ran for 92 yards against the Colts and just 20 against the Ravens, but he allowed Pittsburgh to sell play action effectively, the running threat forcing defenses to cheat up, and Bell's blocking acumen helped Roethlisberger's pass protection immeasurably.
Saturday, with Bell out, the plan had to change. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley directed Roethlisberger to use passes as runs to a large degree, with frequent quick targets out of no-huddle and empty-set looks. It worked to a degree, but when the Steelers got near the end zone, things slowed down. And Roethlisberger was limited in his ability to throw deep, for one simple reason -- deep throws take time, and Big Ben didn't have it. The combination of edge-rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, and underrated defensive tackle Brandon Williams (who really stepped up when Haloti Ngata missed the final four games of the regular season with a PED suspension), kept Roethlisberger on his toes -- and out of his element -- more than he would have liked.
That worked once in a while, like on this amazing 40-yard completion to Heath Miller in the second quarter, when Roethlisberger seemingly evaded the Ravens' entire front seven to make the play ...
... but in the end, the Steelers' offense is based on repetition, consistency and the explosive plays those positive characteristics create over time. It wasn't going to work with the recently signed Ben Tate and a cast of unknowns. The play that clinched the game for Baltimore, Terrell Suggs' diving interception with 8:10 left in the game, happened as a result of Tate missing a Roethlisberger escape throw.
2. Gary Kubiak has redeemed himself as an offensive play-designer.
When the Houston Texans fired Kubiak as their head coach in 2013, it was the end of a tenure in which the team was bogged down in iffy offensive line play, questionable and predictable route concepts, and a complete lack of dynamism. Little did anybody know that when he took over Baltimore's offense -- the worst rushing unit in the league in 2013 -- he would turn everything around. With Kubiak's zone blocking, talented linemen like Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele have really thrived, and left tackle James Hurst -- the first undrafted rookie at his position ever to start a playoff game -- kept up surprisingly well. Joe Flacco, who's more mobile than people think, has used Kubiak's boot-action concepts to expand his game, and running back Justin Forsett has seen a career rebirth in this system.
Against the Steelers, Flacco didn't do everything, but he didn't have to -- he completed 18-of-29 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and no picks, while Forsett also did just enough, gaining 36 yards on 16 carries, but availing himself very well on Baltimore's first touchdown drive and providing several key blocks against Pittsburgh's pressure-happy (but woefully inconsistent) defense.
3. Baltimore's secondary exceeded all expectations.
The Ravens have seen 10 different players line up at cornerback for them this season due to a fairly awful injury run, and seven of those players allowed an opponent passer rating of over 100 in the regular season. Everyone expected Roethlisberger to take advantage of a secondary that was clearly leaking all season, as even cornerback Lardarius Webb, often the star of that secondary, has been easier to beat in 2014. But when things really counted, the Baltimore secondary stepped up in ways that few expected they'd be able to. Opposite Webb, who allowed a 96.3 opponent passer rating and gave up 47 catches on 73 targets for 650 yards in the regular season, the Ravens put Rashaan Melvin. Melvin started the last two weeks of the regular season, but had amassed just 94 total snaps in the regular season. Still, Melvin allowed just five catches on 15 targets for 67 yards and a 48.5 opposing passer rating in the regular season, and that's about what the Steelers were dealing with on Saturday night.
Yes, the Tampa-2 coverage on the long pass to Antonio Brown in the fourth quarter that set up Pittsburgh's first touchdown of the game was a no-no, but really, that's more on defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
If you want one of your linebackers to run a vertical route with Brown, it's probably on you. But those plays were few and far between enough for the Ravens to advance to the divisional round, where they'll meet the Patriots at Gillette Stadium next weekend.