One play, Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.
All the Steelers defense needed to do was make one play. Force a fumble. Pick off a pass. Get a sack and make the other team punt. Do something -- anything -- to get the ball in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's hands with a short field and that 21-7 third-quarter lead by the Baltimore Ravens wouldn't look nearly so insurmountable in the AFC divisional playoff game Saturday night at Heinz Field.
So, of course, a Steelers safety made the big play.
Troy Polamalu closed as only he can and belted ...
Wait a minute.
You're right, it wasn't Polamalu this time.
"We've got two safeties on this team," Clark said, grinning.
Or, as coach Mike Tomlin put it after Clark turned the game the Steelers' way by forcing a fumble by Ravens running back Ray Rice and then put them in position to win by intercepting a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco, "We just love Ryan Clark."
All of Pittsburgh does this morning after Clark played the lead role in the Steelers' 31-24 win. They move on to the AFC championship game next Sunday, against the Patriots in New England or the New York Jets at home. And the Ravens? Well, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward covered that angle pretty well when he said, "Putting out Baltimore and having them think about us all offseason, it couldn't get any greater than that."
It wouldn't have happened without Clark. The Steelers were a Dead Team Walking after their offense did nothing on its first possession of the second half and they had to punt. Linebacker James Harrison produced a little buzz in the stadium by sacking Flacco on first down. Then, on third-and-14 from the Ravens 18, Clark hit Rice after a short pass over the middle and forced a fumble that linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered at the Ravens 23. One play later, Roethlisberger threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller, cutting the Ravens' lead to 21-14.
Now, Heinz Field was rocking.
"All we were looking for was one play," Clark said. "We ended up making a ton of plays after that. Once we got that momentum, we weren't going to be stopped."
Harrison had another sack on the Ravens' next possession, helping to force a punt. The Steelers then punted, as well, but it didn't matter. On the Ravens' next play, Flacco tried for tight end Todd Heap down the right sideline, but the ball was long and hung in the air. "I didn't anticipate Clark getting all the way over there," Flacco said. But Clark did, returning the interception 17 yards to the Ravens 25. Three plays later, Roethlisberger hit Ward with an 8-yard touchdown pass that tied the score, 21-21.
Clark noticed an immediate change in Flacco.
"I saw him get a little rattled. I saw it when he fumbled that snap [on the Ravens' next possession]. He pulled out a little early. We were starting to put a lot of pressure on him. He knew we were coming and he had to pay attention to everybody. When you're up, 21-7, it's easy to be Joe Cool. It's not so easy when we're coming after you."
The Steelers turned the Flacco fumble into a field goal to take their first lead of the second half, 24-21. The defense had one more big stop to make after a long punt return gave the Ravens the ball at the Steelers 29 with 5:55 left. The Ravens made it to the 6 but had to settle for the tying field goal.
Clark figured the Steelers were in good shape at that point, mostly because they had Roethlisberger on their side. He has watched Roethlisberger lead too many winning drives. He believed even when the Steelers faced a third-and-19 at their 38 with 2:07 left.
"It's funny, I was talking to [injured defensive end] Aaron Smith on the sideline," Clark said. "We agreed that no down and distance is too great when you've got No. 7."
Of course, Roethlisberger threw a 58-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Ravens 4. Of course, running back Rashard Mendenhall scored the winning touchdown. Of course, the Steelers eliminated the hated Ravens in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
And, to think, it all started with one play.
One forced fumble.
One hit by Clark.
Make no mistake, the Steelers' other safety noticed.
"Ryan Clark," Polamalu said, "came up big for this team."
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