Steelers notebook: Sanders delivers with kickoff return


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Moments after Baltimore scored the game-tying touchdown with 1:58 remaining Sunday night at Heinz Field, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Emmanuel Sanders he was going to field a kickoff for the first time this season.

The receiver then walked over to special teams coach Danny Smith to see if he had the green light to return the kickoff if it was deep into the end zone. The answer was yes.

So when Justin Tucker skipped his kickoff seven yards deep into the end zone there was no hesitation on Sanders' part. He fielded the kick on one bounce and made a beeline up the sideline and raced 107 yards for an apparent touchdown.

It wasn't until Sanders had reached the end zone that he heard an official had ruled him out of bounds at the Steelers 37-yard line.

Sanders did not get the storybook ending that he wanted, but his go-for-broke decision to bring the ball out of the end zone was a big reason the Steelers got into position to kick the winning field goal as time expired.

"Nothing was going to stop me from bringing that ball out unless he kicked it out," Sanders said. "I had it in my mind that I was going to return it. I had a good feeling about it."

Most of the kickoff returns this season have been fielded by reserve running back Felix Jones, but Tomlin rolled the dice and put Sanders in position to make a big play when his team needed it.

"He's got a skill set," Tomlin said. "When called upon, he's capable of delivering. Obviously, he's a starting receiver for us and it's not something we want to do all the time. But at the appropriate time we'll dial his number, and I thought he delivered."

Tucker had an opportunity to kick the ball out of the end zone. He was kicking off from the 45-yard line because Troy Polamalu was penalized for encroachment on the extra point after the Ravens tied the score.

Tucker's kick was three yards shy of becoming a touchback, and Sanders had no intentions of giving him one by kneeling. He was going to bring it out no matter where it landed.

The gamble paid off with the longest kickoff return of the season, 44 yards.

"At the end of the day, he put me back there to return it," Sanders said. "High risk, high reward. I did what I had to do."

And the Baltimore kickoff coverage unit did not.

"Our contain guy, that's just unforgiveable to let the ball get outside of you right there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There's absolutely no reason for that. The ball's bouncing around down there. It's not like they've got that schemed up with the ball bouncing like that. That should have never happened."

Gay's big plays

Cornerback Willie Gay was in coverage in November 2011 when Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining to lift the Ravens to a 23-20 victory at Heinz Field. After spending last season in Arizona, Gay got his revenge Sunday against the Ravens when he broke up two potential touchdown passes in the second half.

On Baltimore's first drive of the third quarter, Gay was beaten by Jacoby Jones on a post pattern, but the ball was underthrown and Gay recovered in time to break up the pass in the end zone. The Ravens were forced to punt on the next play.

On Baltimore's next drive, Flacco scrambled and appeared to have Tandon Doss open at the pylon, but Gay broke on the ball and forced another incomplete pass.

"What Willie was able to do in cover zero with no help, it showed his veteran moxie and his experience not panicking," safety Ryan Clark said. "That was a great play. And then, getting to someone else's guy to save a touchdown on Joe Flacco's scramble ... Those are the things that we knew Willie would bring to the team this year. He's been highly scrutinized here in Pittsburgh -- I think unfairly -- and it was good to see him have a night like this and be recognized."

Whimper fills in for Gilbert

Veteran offensive lineman Guy Whimper received his most extensive playing time of the season after starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert aggravated a quadriceps injury and had to take himself out of the game on the first series.

Whimper, signed during the offseason after spending the previous three seasons in Jacksonville, did not miss a beat as the line paved the way for 141 rushing yards.

"We worked so hard on it this week," said Whimper, who had prepared to start because Gilbert missed two days of practice. "We had goals set in our mind that we were going to run the ball. We knew it was going to be a ground and pound game and that's what it was."

State of emergency

The Ravens are in 3-4 going into their bye week and searching for answers after dropping their second in a row by a field goal or less.

The defending Super Bowl champions lost last Sunday to the Packers, 19-17, in Baltimore before falling to the Steelers Sunday.

"We're in a state of emergency now," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "No more losing by two then losing by three. We have got to have these games.

"It's very rare for this franchise to be under five hundred. It [the bye week] happened at the perfect time for us to address everything. We have a tremendous amount of work to do."

Harbaugh said the bye week will be a time for some introspection.

"Hopefully, it will be an opportunity for us to continue to improve," he said. "The thing we have to do is find a way to win these games. We're 3-4, by no means out of it."

Rice held in check

Ravens running back Ray Rice has always been tough for the Steelers to handle, but they were able to keep him in check Sunday.

Rice ran 15 times for 45 yards and caught four passes for 27 yards.

Rice, who has been in the league since 2008 and faced the Steelers many times, said there was nothing unusual about the game.

"It was a hard-hitting game today," said Rice, his left shoulder wrapped in ice after the game. "You can see I dropped my pads today. I thought our tempo was good and our execution was good. I probably could have made a few more plays, but we've got to get better on offense."

Dumervil's bad day

The Ravens made a splash this past offseason by signing Denver free agent linebacker Elvis Dumervil to a reported five-year, $35 million contract, the kind of money usually reserved for difference makers.

But Dumervil committed two costly penalties to keep a Steelers drive alive, leading to a Shaun Suisham field goal and a 13-6 lead.

On a second-and-17 play from the Steelers 30, Dumervil committed an unnecessary roughness penalty, hitting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and giving the Steelers the ball on the 48. Then on a third-and-7 from the Ravens 17, he and teammate Haloti Ngata sacked Roethlisberger, but Dumervil was called for grabbing the facemask on the sack, giving the Steelers a first down on the 11.

"I've got to be aware of strike zones," Dumervil said, alluding to his roughing call on Roethlisberger. "I've got to do a better job not to cost the team."

Harbaugh partly defended Dumervil on the facemask penalty.

"The facemask, that's one where you just can't grab the facemask," he said. "But Ben ducks all the time. You have to find a way not to do that. He's trying to wrap him up. This is the biggest, strongest quarterback in the National Football League. We have to wrap him up strong and bring him down."

Jones deactivated

Rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones, diagnosed with a concussion Wednesday, did not dress for the game because he was not cleared to play by team doctors. He was listed as questionable. The other Steelers deactivated for the game were quarterback Landry Jones, running back Isaac Redman, receiver Markus Wheaton, cornerback Curtis Brown, tight end Richard Gordon and nose tackle Hebron Fangupo.

The Ravens deactivated linebacker Josh Bynes, defensive tackles DeAngelo Tyson and Terrence Cody, offensive linemen Jah Reid, Bryant McKinnie and Ryan Jensen and receiver Brandon Stokely.

Quick hits

• Linebacker Lawrence Timmons tied his career high with 17 tackles.

• Before the Ravens scored the tying touchdown with 1:58 remaining the Steelers had played eight quarters without allowing a touchdown.

• It was the 28th time that Roethlisberger led a winning drive in the fourth quarter when the Steelers trailed or were tied. It was the sixth time he did it against Baltimore.

• Roethlisberger improved to 48-4 in games when his passer rating was over 100. His rating was 107.2.

Heath Miller became the fifth player in franchise history and the first tight end with 40 touchdown receptions.

• Suisham improved 14 for 14 on field goals this season and his 42-yarder as time expired was his sixth game-winner as a member of the Steelers.

Steelers

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. Jerry Micco contributed. First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM


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