Steelers Notebook: Ravens' play calling comes as no surprise
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Familiarity breeds contempt in the Steelers-Baltimore Ravens rivalry. Familiarity also helped create turnovers for the Steelers in their 31-24 playoff victory against their most-hated rival.
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has a reputation for being an aggressive play-caller, even when his team is ahead. He was not conservative when the Steelers trailed by four points late in the fourth quarter against Baltimore Dec. 5, calling pass plays when runs would have been safer calls.
So, when the Ravens led, 21-7, at halfitme Saturday, the Steelers had an inkling that Cameron would not go conservative. The Steelers guessed right, and it led to turnovers in the third quarter that turned the tide.
"We played this team tons of times," said safety Ryan Clark, who created both turnovers that helped the Steelers tie the score. "We know this team. We kind of knew what Cam Cameron was going to come out and do to us. We knew he wasn't going to shut it down totally. He was going to try to get some yards on first down with the pass, and then run and protect [Ravens quarterback Joe] Flacco. We really guarded the pass on first down."
On the Ravens' first possession after halftime, Cameron called for a pass on first down from his 22. James Harrison sacked quarterback Joe Flacco for a 5-yard loss. After Ray Rice's 1-yard run on second down, Flacco checked down and threw short to Rice on third. Clark hit Rice and forced a fumble that LaMarr Woodley recovered at the 23.
Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller.
"It was one of those things where you try to tackle the ball," Clark said. "I didn't want to just go for the strip and not get him. It came out. It's one of those plays if you hit it, it's a good play. But, if you miss it, you get him on the ground. Luckily for us, it popped out."
On Baltimore's next series, Flacco again dropped back to pass on first down. Once again, Harrison sacked him, this time for a 7-yard loss. After two incomplete passes, the Ravens were forced to punt.
On the Ravens' third series of the half, Flacco dropped back again on first down and attempted to throw to tight end Todd Heap from his 10. The pass was overthrown, and Clark intercepted it and returned it to the Ravens 25.
Four plays later, Roethlisberger threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward to tie the score, 21-21.
Clark said he was not surprised by Cameron's aggressive play-calling. He credited defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for winning the chess match with Cameron.
"I wasn't," Clark said. "When you have a guy like Ben, a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, with the weapons we have offensively, you have to try to put your foot on the gas. In that same light, they had a pattern in which they would do it. We kind of caught onto it. Coach LeBeau called plays accordingly, and it worked out well for us."
Rookie receiver Antonio Brown made the biggest play of the game when he reeled in a 58-yard pass to the Ravens 4 on third-and-19 on the Steelers' winning drive in the fourth-quarter. Brown ran a go route down the sideline past defensive back Lardarius Webb. He pinned the ball against his helmet and then secured it in his arms before running out of bounds.
"I only caught two screens [before that]," Brown said. "They hadn't been sending me deep. It was a great call. I was able to get behind him. Ben made a great throw, and it was a great catch."
Brown also believes Roethlisberger caught the Ravens with the element of surprise.
"I'm the fourth receiver," Brown said. "I don't get that many opportunities. They kind of expected the other guys, Hines, Mike [Wallace]. They put a guy on me who's not so good. I got behind him, and I was able to make a great catch."
Five plays after Brown's catch, Rashard Mendenhall scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run.
With the score tied, 21-21, Roethlisberger gambled and called his own number on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 14.
"That was just me being crazy," Roethlisberger said. "Byron Leftwich told me after the play that him and coach were like, 'No, no, no ... oh, good job. It was my call the whole way."
"Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America."
Those words were uttered by broadcaster Verne Lundquist in Super Bowl XIII when Dallas tight end Jackie Smith dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter against the Steelers, who eventually won, 35-31.
Saturday, Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin morphed into Smith and dropped a sure touchdown, in strikingly similar fashion, late in the fourth quarter.
Boldin dropped a third-down pass from Flacco with 3:54 left. A touchdown would have given the Ravens a 28-24 lead. But instead of the go-ahead touchdown, Billy Cundiff came on to kick a field goal that tied the score.
The irony is that the Ravens acquired Boldin for such clutch situations.
T.J. Houshmandzedah, another offseason signing meant to bolster the receiving corps, dropped a sure first down in Steelers territory on fourth-and-18, effectively ending the game.
"It's a play that I should make, it's a play I always make but I didn't," said Houshmandzadeh, who caught three passes for 38 yards. "The defensive back [William Gay] didn't do anything. It's my fault.
"I can't believe it. I jumped up and I was indecisive whether I was going to catch the ball with my hands or try to body it. It was too late. For the life of me, I'm in disbelief about the way it happened."
Houshmandzadeh spent his first eight seasons playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, before heading to Seattle in 2009 as a free agent. He signed on in Baltimore for '10 and he caught 30 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
"We blew it, I mean, I blew it," he said. "I hope I can come back here next year. It's a great locker room and a great organization from top to bottom."
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, in his 15th season, is the only member still on the club from its Super Bowl XXXV team after the 2000 season, and he did something this week he rarely does. He wore his Super Bowl ring.
"I've been there before, so I thought I'd take it out," he said. "I'm the leader. I wanted the young guys to see it and to tell them to keep fighting."
Lewis has not returned to a Super Bowl since his Ravens defeated the New York Giants, 34-7, after the 2000 season. And he was philosophical about what losing a tough game means, even if it was to the Ravens' bitter rivals.
"You've got to hold your head up high," he said. "Someone else is going to go through this next week, and we'll be watching them go through it.
"It doesn't matter who it is you lose to. If we'd lost last week to Kansas City, it would have been bad, too."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was not afraid to throw his red challenge flag.
He challenged the first play of the game when Ravens returner Webb ran the opening kickoff back to the 49. After review, the ball was spotted at the 35 because Webb's elbow hit the ground when he was tackled by Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham.
Tomlin threw his second and final challenge flag with 53 seconds remaining in the first quarter after a defensive touchdown for the Ravens. Terrell Suggs sacked Roethlisberger and forced a fumble. Suggs hit Roethlisberger from behind, and the ball went forward after he pump-faked.
Steelers offensive guard Ramon Foster was near the ball, but he did not fall on it. Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding swooped in, scooped it up and raced 13 yards untouched to the end zone. Foster wasn't the only Steeler who thought the play was dead, and no Steeler attempted to tackle Redding.
Referee Jeff Triplette ruled it touchdown. This time, the play was upheld, and the Steelers were charged with a timeout. They also had to play the remainder of the game without the option to challenge another play. Coaches get two challenges per game, and only get a third if both calls on the field are overturned.
Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden injured his hip on the first series of the game, and his absence was felt in the secondary.
Gay took McFadden's spot, and reserve Anthony Madison took Gay's spot in the nickel package. It was Madison who was called for pass interference on a third-and-15 play when he bumped Derrick Mason before the ball arrived.
Two plays later, Rice ran 14 yards on a draw play to tie the score at 7-7 with 1:26 remaining in the first quarter. In the second half, offensive tackle Flozell Adams left the game with an illness. Trai Essex replaced him at right tackle.
Defensive end Brett Keisel was added to the Pro Bowl by the NFL, giving the Steelers four players in the all-star game Jan. 30 -- unless they reach the Super Bowl.
This will be Keisel's first time on the Pro Bowl roster. He was a first alternate and will replace the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney, who withdrew because of an injury. Keisel joins linebacker James Harrison and Polamalu, both starters, and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey.
The Pro Bowl will be played in Honolulu the Sunday before the Super Bowl.
The Steelers and Ravens played on new sod thanks to the National Hockey League, which paid for the new grass surface after staging the Winter Classic on new New Year's Day at Heinz Field. There were an extra 1,300 seats sold for Saturday's this playoff game because the NHL put additional seats behind the end zone in the open end of the stadium. The attendance was 64,879.
The Steelers did not dress running back Jonathan Dwyer, cornerback Crezdon Butler, offensive tackles Chris Scott and Tony Hills, defensive tackle Steve McClendon, defensive end Aaron Smith and linebacker Jason Worilds.
The Ravens did not dress receiver David Reed, safety Tom Zbikowski, linebacker Jason Phillips, defensive tackle Arthur Jones, offensive lineman Bryan Mattison, tight ends Davon Drew and Dennis Pitta and defensive tackle Lamar Divens.
First Published January 16, 2011 12:15 am