Steelers' rally falls short against Ravens
BALTIMORE — Losses don't come much closer. Or with much more confusion. Or with so much consequence.
Of course, it was a Steelers-Ravens game. Of course, it was a close finish.
And now, a remarkable rally under the most difficult of circumstances wasted, the Steelers' season may be ready to come to a close, too, even with four games remaining.
Justin Tucker kicked five field goals after Joe Flacco threw a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith on Baltimore's opening drive, and the Ravens held on to beat the Steelers, 22-20, on Thursday night to move past their archrivals in the AFC playoff race.
“We kind of felt we had to run the table, but this sets us back,” safety Ryan Clark said as the Steelers' three-game winning streak ended.
The Steelers (5-7), their season possibly hanging in the balance, twice had touchdowns overturned on their final possession before Ben Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 1-yard score with 1:03 remaining.
First, Heath Miller appeared to have scored on a 20-yard catch, but he was ruled upon review to be down at the 1. Then, Le'Veon Bell's helmet came flying off as he crossed the goal line from the 1, causing him to sustain a concussion as his head slammed into the turf. But a play must be stopped as soon as a helmet comes off, and the ball was placed just short of the goal line after another review.
The Cotchery touchdown used up the play the Steelers planned to run for the 2-point conversion. They tried what essentially was the same play again in an attempt to tie it, but Emmanuel Sanders, blanketed in the end zone by backup Chykie Brown, couldn't hold on to the ball, and the Ravens ran out the clock following a failed onside-kick attempt.
“He (Sanders) had a corner just come into the game, so I went to him,” Roethlisberger said. “You get so close, but it's a tough team, tough environment, and I've got to make (more) plays down the stretch.”
That close, but that was it.
“I was open (on the 2-point attempt), but a quarterback has a lot of decisions to make,” Cotchery said. “The touchdown (play) was going to be the 2-point play call, but we had to go with it.”
It was billed as an elimination game, and the Steelers probably must win their final four games to have a chance at a playoff berth.
“Absolutely,” Antonio Brown said.
With Flacco outplaying Roethlisberger in a matchup of $100 million, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, the Ravens (6-6) withstood a frantic Steelers comeback to move back into contention for a sixth consecutive playoff berth under coach John Harbaugh.
“It was unreal,” Ravens cornerback Corey Graham said. “It was so competitive. Those guys were throwing the kitchen sink at us. We were able to absorb their best blow and were able to get it done.”
The Steelers got their biggest game of the season from Bell, who ran for 73 yards and caught seven passes for 63 yards, but couldn't overcome a 13-0 deficit or a bizarre failed field goal attempt.
And, on a night filled with curious plays, Mike Tomlin proved to have a more accurate foot than Shaun Suisham.
Roethlisberger got the comeback started in the third quarter with a 21-yard throw to Heath Miller. On a third-and-2 from the Steelers' 49, Bell broke a 43-yard run — easily his longest of the season and the longest against Baltimore this season.
Three plays later, Roethlisberger scrambled long enough to keep the play alive, allowing Sanders to fake an outside move before cutting inside to catch an 8-yard touchdown pass that made it 13-7 near the midpoint of the third quarter.
The Steelers had three touchdowns, the Ravens one, but it mattered not.
Just when it looked like the Steelers were back in it, they let it slip away — or, more precisely, let Jacoby Jones slip away. Again.
Jones, who beat the Steelers at Heinz Field last season with a long punt return touchdown, broke loose on a 73-yard kickoff return halted only when Cortez Allen ran him down at the 27.
Allen and Tomlin offered the most resistance on the play. Tomlin actually was on the field of play by one step, forcing Jones to step around him before Tomlin ducked his back onto the sideline. The play was shown on the M&T Bank Stadium scoreboard a half-dozen times, with the crowd booing loudly each time. Tomlin was not penalized.
“I always watch the return on the Jumbotron, it provides a better perspective for me obviously, but I lost my place as he broke free,” Tomlin said. “I saw how close, at the last second, I was to the field of play.”
Asked about being well out of the sideline area, he said, “I do it quite often, like everyone else in the National Football League. I was wrong. I accept responsibility for it.”
It was the fifth consecutive Ravens-Steelers game ended by 3 points or fewer.
Tucker's 38-yard field goal made it a two-score game again at 16-7 with 3:49 left in the third.
Jones hurt the Steelers again on the next Ravens possession, catching a 34-yard pass to the Steelers' 24 with Allen in coverage. That catch set up Tucker's fourth field goal, a 45-yarder that was his 26th straight without a miss. The 27th in a row would prove the difference.
With the game slipping away, the Steelers mounted a must-have 60-yard drive in which Roethlisberger hit Bell for 9 and 6 yards and Brown for 19 on a third-and-10 play. Bell walked in from the 1 with 9:32 remaining, and the Steelers were down 19-14.
Before a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere, Tomlin was animated and energized during the warmups, clearly feeling the importance of the moment.
However, his team — all too acquainted with bad starts this season — didn't reflect their coach's intensity by coming out with a flat and possibly fatal start to their biggest game of the season.
They went three-and-out on their opening drive, all runs by Bell, and Baltimore took over on its own 29. Flacco immediately went after a defense that has allowed seven passes and 10 plays of at least 50 yards this season, trying to hit Jones deep downfield but just missing.
That didn't discourage Flacco or Ravens play caller Juan Castillo. Three plays and 16 yards later, Flacco went deep again — this time hitting Torrey Smith near the goal line with first Ike Taylor and then Will Allen failing to cover him.
Flacco was sacked by Jason Worilds for 6 yards on second-and-goal. But Flacco came right back to Smith, again with Will Allen and Taylor in the vicinity, for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 5:42 gone in the first.
The Steelers have been outscored 74-36 in the first quarter, and this score particularly hurt against their biggest rival, one that came in with an identical record and as much urgency to win as Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger (28 of 44, 257 yards, 2 TDs, 0 interceptions) was uncommonly inaccurate early, underthrowing or badly missing on five passes in just the first half. But he put together a drive from his 15 to the Ravens' 32 that stalled when he threw two successive incompletions.
Suisham, who has missed only twice in 26 attempts, lined up for a 50-yard attempt, but somehow mistimed the snap and already was through his approach when the ball arrived. Holder Mat McBriar handed the ball off to Suisham to try to salvage the play, but the kicker was dropped for a 12-yard loss.
“We were doing it on a cadence to slow down their rush,” Tomlin said. “Shaun Suisham started for the ball early and created a situation where we weren't able to get the play off.”
Suisham said, “It was off there. You'd like to have that one back.”
The bungled attempt gave the Ravens excellent field position at their own 44-yard line, and despite Worilds' second sack of the half, the Ravens drove to the Steelers' 16 before settling for Tucker's 43-yarder that made it 10-0.
Tucker hit again from 34 yards to start the second half after the Ravens drove to a first down at the Steelers' 11 but stalled after a false start penalty and a pair of Flacco incompletions.
It was a difficult night injury wise. The Steelers finished the game with Guy Whimper at tackle and Cody Wallace at center for the final two plays after Kelvin Beachum (knee), Mike Adams (ankle) and Fernando Velasco (ankle) were hurt. Brett Keisel (foot) also was pulled after only a couple of plays, and the rest of his season might be in doubt.