The Baltimore Ravens’ realistic playoff hopes for 2015 were but one Josh Scobee made field goal from fading on Oct. 1. Somehow, they dodged that fate and escaped Pittsburgh with a 23–20 overtime win, their first of the season.
Their rivals instead will spend the weekend trying to figure out exactly how they let a very winnable game slip from their grasp. With Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Ryan Shazier all out with injuries and receiver Martavis Bryant suspended through this game, the Steelers nevertheless managed to put themselves — several times — in position to win.
Their failure to finish the job cracked open the door for the Ravens, who walked it off on a Justin Tucker overtime field goal.
Three thoughts on the outcome:
1. The play calling ...
My word. From the Ravens’ ill-fated fake field goal to the Steelers twice abandoning Le'Veon Bell in overtime, there will be plenty for fans on both sides to second guess in the aftermath of Baltimore’s victory.
Bell rushed for 129 yards on 22 carries, the latest outstanding performance from one of the league’s best running backs. Twice in overtime, though, the Steelers opted to go elsewhere on fourth downs in Baltimore territory — Mike Vick kept it on a designed QB run the first time, gaining nothing on fourth-and-2; Vick then overthrew an available Antonio Brown on fourth-and-1 to stuff Pittsburgh’s next possession.
Making matters worse for the Steelers, offensive coordinator Todd Haley also bypassed Bell on third-and-2 during that initial overtime drive. Instead, Vick misfired, again in Brown’s direction.
Pittsburgh could not trust its kicker, Scobee, by that point considering he had missed two field goals leading to overtime in the first place. Going for it, from the Ravens’ 39 and then from the 33, was the right decision. But there’s really no excuse for not turning to Bell on the ground.
The Ravens’ own miscues may not be quite as memorable since they pulled off the dramatic victory. Had they lost, however, head coach John Harbaugh would have had no luck escaping his fake field goal call in the third quarter. With his team down by six at that point, but riding a wave of momentum, Harbaugh opted for a little trickery. It flopped — Nick Boyle was taken down shy of the first-down marker on an inside pass.
We’ve come to expect a certain level of slop in the Thursday night games. Usually, the miscues are of the players’ doing. They weren’t alone here.
2. Joe Flacco saved his best for last
Cards on the table, up until the point that Scobee yanked his second field goal wide left, this space was reserved for a critique of Flacco’s unforced errors Thursday.
The Ravens quarterback had several factors contributing to his malaise — the short turnaround from Sunday to Thursday, an offensive line that continues to have pass-blocking issues under new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, and a shorthanded receiving corps. Flacco still would like to have a few plays back that were of his own doing, though.
The two costliest mistakes were a muffed snap that halted a potential touchdown drive and a lazy fumble to open the third quarter. The latter handed Pittsburgh the ball deep in Baltimore territory, which it cashed into a touchdown.
There also was Flacco’s interception, which came on what appeared to be a misread of the Steelers’ defense, with pressure coming. Flacco simply lobbed one right into the bread basket of cornerback Ross Cockrell, a mistake that led to a Pittsburgh field goal just before halftime.
And yet, given extra life by the Steelers’ aforementioned play-calling and kicking slip-ups, Flacco eventually showed up. Arguably the most important, non-Scobee related play of the night was a 20-yard pass from Flacco to Kamar Aiken on a third-and-10 in the final minute. Flacco got rid of the ball just before being decked by a blitzing William Gay, and he delivered a perfect strike to Aiken along the sideline.
Those two hooked up again in OT, with Flacco finding Aiken for 11 yards into Steelers territory. Four plays later, Tucker nailed the game-winning kick.
3. Vick’s start followed a familiar pattern
Luke McCown started out hot for the Buccaneers on Sunday, then cooled off. Brandon Weeden and the Cowboys came out absolutely on fire against Atlanta, only to fade badly in the second half. So it was for Vick and the Steelers, as well.
The offense was far from explosive in the first half, but Pittsburgh did manage to take a 13–7 lead to the break. Following the aforementioned Flacco fumble, Vick hit Darrius Heyward-Bey on a touchdown pass to push that cushion to 20–7.
From there until the end of regulation, the Steelers did little. Counting their short 26-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, the hosts mustered fewer than 70 yards of offense in the second half, with Vick taking five sacks. Haley permitted Vick few opportunities to stretch the field and when he did, Vick either failed to connect or took off running because his receivers were covered initially. (One play that does not fall in either category: a deep ball dropped by Brown in the end zone.)
The lack of pop from the passing attack made it all the harder to figure why Pittsburgh did not just put the ball in Bell’s hands once OT rolled around. Vick did find Brown for five passes, but they totaled just 42 yards. No other Steelers receiver topped 31 yards through the air.
Vick’s first snap of the night foretold the play calling to come: an inside screen to tight end Heath Miller. Vick overthrew that pass, then rebounded to connect on 11 of 13 first-half attempts overall, the Brown drop resulting in his second incompletion. However, those 11 completions resulted in all of 75 yards.
A full week practicing with the first team might give Vick more confidence to open it up, and might help build more trust on Haley’s end that Vick can do it. Thursday, Vick looked like a backup, albeit a fairly capable one, guiding a limited offense.