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Six Points... on another loss to the Ravens

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The defense was terrible on third down, and Baltimore exploited Pittsburgh a number of ways. The Ravens converted 14 of their 21 third-down attempts. For good measure, they also converted their only fourth-down attempt, which occurred on the final drive. Baltimore achieved success on the critical down through three methods:

The first method is one that you’ll see every Sunday by every team: sometimes Baltimore’s players simply beat their defender. Here are some examples:

1st Quarter, 3rd-and-6 at Baltimore’s 47-yard line: This play foreshadowed William Gay’s struggles throughout the game. Ryan Mundy and Larry Foote broke in to the backfield, pressuring Joe Flacco, who heaved a pass to TE Dennis Pitta off his back foot. Gay, who was on Pitta, seemed to pull up a bit, allowing the tight end to catch a 23-yard pass. My guess: either he thought Flacco was throwing it away or he lost sight of the ball completely.

1st Quarter, 3rd-and-9 at Baltimore’s 44-yard line: Keenan Lewis was charged with covering rookie Torrey Smith. Flacco lobs up a pass his way. It’s a little underthrown and very pickable. Smith adjusts to the pass faster than Lewis, though, and picks up a 29-yard reception.

2nd Quarter, 3rd-and-10 at Baltimore’s 41-yard line: Lewis is on Ravens WR LaQuan Williams and gives him an eight-yard cushion at the snap. It’s tough to see what happens because both disappear off screen, but the result is a 15-yard catch by Williams, who was wide open. Lewis may have backpedaled too far, allowing an easy grab.

3rd Quarter, 3rd-and-3 at Pittsburgh’s 42-yard line: Ray Rice is lined up in the shotgun next to Flacco. He leaks to the left and catches an easy pass because Brett Keisel, who was assigned to cover him, simply couldn’t reach him in time.

4th Quarter, 3rd-and-10 at Pittsburgh’s 26-yard line: Gay has coverage on Smith and is beat by the rookie. Gay commits some light interference, but Smith also gets away with a little push-off. The real issue is that Clark is late to help over the top, as he admitted post-game. The result is a game-winning 26-yard touchdown for Baltimore.

The second method also involves the receiver beating his man, but I’m listing it separately because of the similarity between the plays and, of course, the common denominator (Anquan Boldin).

1st Quarter, 3rd-and-7 at Pittsburgh’s 27-yard line: This was an example of a perfect playcall by the offense. At the snap, 10 of Pittsburgh’s 11 defenders were at or near the line. Troy Polamalu was the only man deep. Pittsburgh sends five at the snap, with safety Ryan Clark coming on a delay. Flacco unloads the ball quickly to Boldin who simply beat Ike Taylor on a slant for a first down.

4th Quarter, 3rd-and-10 at Baltimore’s 20-yard line: Ball is out quick to Boldin, who beats Taylor again on a slant.

4th Quarter, 4th-and-1 at Pittsburgh’s 49-yard line: Boldin lines up in the slot and beats Gay inside with a slant.

The third method may have been the most-popular move by the Ravens, and something they used far more often than the four examples I’ll list here. Baltimore took advantage of Pittsburgh’s man coverage (which Pittsburgh unveiled against the Patriots) by using moving screens and picks, some of which were less obvious than others.

1st  Quarter, 3rd-and-2 at Baltimore’s 32-yard line: Jason Worilds is the man charged with covering RB Ricky Williams, who is lined up in the shotgun next to Joe Flacco. Williams leaks right and Worilds is effectively picked by Anquan Boldin. Worilds has to re-route around Boldin (and Ike Taylor) and ends up missing a tackle on Williams that gives up a few extra yards.

1st Quarter, 3rd-and-7 at Baltimore’s 35-yard line: Cortez Allen is responsible for covering Pitta, but he is knocked off his coverage by Ravens TE Ed Dickson, who flat out blocks/pushes Gay into Allen’s way. Pitta turns that space into an eight-yard gain and a first down.

2nd Quarter, 3rd-and-4 at Pittsburgh’s 38-yard line: Gay was on Pitta, who ran a flat, and was picked by Boldin/Taylor. It was all moot anyways, as James Harrison was offsides at the snap.

3rd Quarter, 3rd-and-5 at Baltimore’s 34-yard line: Lewis is on Pitta, but he loses coverage when Dickson runs Allen right into his area. Pitta posts up at the sticks for an easy conversion.

In conclusion, Baltimore out-schemed Pittsburgh on some plays and flat-out beat them on others. Pittsburgh’s defense still had its moments, though, including two stops within the five-yard line and James Harrison’s sack-fumble. William Gay and Larry Foote also had near interceptions on the critical down. Regardless, allowing a 66% conversion rate against an offense that has struggled this season is a bad omen.

Torrey Smith is the center of one of the weekend’s better NFL stories. Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the game (or how you feel about the Ravens), you can’t deny that Smith catching the game-winner was somewhat poetic.

Here is a rookie playing in perhaps the biggest game of his young career – a division rival, on the road, with dominion over the AFC North at stake. He’s understandably nervous – so nervous that he commits an obvious hold on the first play of the game to wipe out a 76-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice.

He then proceeded to mix a few receptions with a handful of terrible, awful drops – dare I say, Sweed-like drops. Hell, he even dropped an easy touchdown on the game’s final possession. If he doesn’t come back to catch the game-winner, he’s demonized by the fans all week. Instead, he goes home a hero.

Sports are funny that way.

The officiating was lousy, but how is that surprising? The officiating in most of Sunday’s games was “below the line” as Tomlin would say.

I began my day watching the Saints vs. the Buccaneers. Late in the game, Darren Sproles broke off the left side for a game-clinching touchdown, one that was made possible by a beautiful block by receiver Devery Henderson on the outside. He flat-out pancaked his defender, but the referees saw the result (both men on the ground) and not the act. They called holding even though Henderson’s technique was perfect and his hands were inside. It was a highlight block on a highlight play that got erased because of a poor judgment call.

Fast forward to the second game I watched (in parts): New England vs. the New York Giants. Late in that contest, Eli Manning tossed a pass that was five yards over his receiver’s head. Victor Cruz, the intended target, would have needed to be 10 feet tall with a 10-foot vertical to snag it. There was contact on Cruz, though it was simply he and the safety running into each other while they each tracked the ball. It was called pass interference and New York got the ball at the one-yard line (and won), even though the pass was uncatchable.

In terms of Steelers-Ravens, the problem was inconsistency. Helmet-to-helmet was called on Clark (which was iffy), but not Ray Lewis (which was definite). Pass interference calls were spotty all game, with obvious contact going un-noticed by both teams on both sides of the ball. The worst is that flags would fly from centerfield even though the ref closest to the play deemed it clean.

The crew operating in Sunday night’s game was terrible, sure, but it wasn’t that far off from the rest of the NFL’s action.

If LaMarr Woodley plays, the Steelers win the game. I have no doubt in my mind about that. If the Ravens had issues dealing with James Harrison (three sacks, one FF, multiple hits and pressures), how would they deal with Harrison and Woodley coming off the edges?

My guess is that some of those third down conversions would turn the other way. Hell, the extra pressure might have resulted in another increasingly-rare turnover for the defense.

Even so, Pittsburgh had a few gifts thrown their way. What if Ray Rice’s touchdown stood because the referee’s missed Torrey Smith’s hold? What if Smith catches one or two of the four easy passes he dropped? Hell, even Anquan Boldin dropped a big pass on the final drive.

This game could have easily spiraled into something worse than a three-point, last-minute loss.

The offensive line was superb. Outside of his interception, Terrell Suggs had little impact on the game. Baltimore’s other defenders were also held in check both in terms of pass rush and in stopping the run. Pittsburgh put up 20 points against the best defense in the NFL, and would have had more if not for Roethlisberger’s interception and the fact that Baltimore’s offense was on the field more often than not.

And this performance happened in the third-straight week that the same five guys have been together (Starks-Kemoeatu-Pouncey-Foster-Gilbert) after unveiling different starting offensive lines every week for the first half-dozen games. That’s not a coincidence.

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