Flacco out-duels Big Ben and cages the wildcat, the Ravens defense is flimsy late, and more from Thursday's win

RUNNING IT BACK

November 29, 2013|By Matt Vensel

Joe Flacco did not sound like a man who had just led his team to its biggest victory of the season.

Standing at the podium late Thursday night -- or was it early Friday morning? -- Flacco harped on missed opportunities against the Pittsburgh Steelers and repeatedly said how frustrated he was that the Ravens had to settle for five field goals despite moving the ball into Steelers territory seven times on eight drives. He talked about concentration lapses and failed conversions and the need to correct the little things.

Finally, at one point, the quarterback conceded that he was "pretty happy with how we played tonight."

He should be. More than anything, it was the steady play of Flacco that allowed the Ravens to beat their bitter rivals, 22-20, and move into prime position in the race for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Flacco out-dueled Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had a fine game himself, as most of America watched on Thanksgiving night before eventually nodding off into a turkey-induced coma.

What a difference a couple of days and a couple of deep balls make.

In the days after Sunday’s win over the New York Jets, Flacco was ripped both locally and nationally for criticizing the team’s use of a two-quarterback offense that stuck him on the sideline as backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor ran the offense. It was just five plays, but Flacco made it clear those snaps would have been better spent with himself under center instead of keeping his hands warm on the sideline.

Flacco backed up his big talk -- and temporarily silenced his critics, who slinked back to their lairs to regroup before next weekend -- by starting Thursday’s game on a roll. He completed four of his first five attempts for 74 yards and a touchdown. After misfiring on one deep ball at the start of that drive, Flacco lofted a beauty to wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 54-yard gain. Smith was tackled at the 1-yard line, but three plays later, Flacco found him again to give the Ravens a 7-0 lead.

That statement drive and the ensuing success clearly convinced coach John Harbaugh to park Taylor and the nameless two-quarterback offense for the night.

Instead, the Ravens stuck with their up-tempo, three-receiving passing attack and Flacco rewarded them for it. He often evaded pressure and got the ball to one of his receivers in a spot where they could make a play. He was great on third downs, helping the Ravens convert 10 times on 17 chances. And he completed 24 of his 35 attempts for 251 yards, that touchdown pass to Smith and a 98.6 passer rating.

By doing so, Flacco once again showed that he is at his best when all the chips are on the table -- in case anyone watching forgot about his heroics last postseason.

Yet, you can understand why Flacco was upbeat but frustrated after the game. While the Ravens were efficient, at least through the air, and had six scoring drives, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Flacco senses that, but it seems as if he legitimately believes this offense is really close to busting out in a big way.

Flacco can’t do it all by himself. The offensive line must be better and a running game would help. But with two strong games in a row, Flacco appears to be peaking at the right time. And if he continues to play sharp, mistake-free football, a one-quarterback offense will be all the Ravens need to get back to the playoffs.

One thing that I learned

The Ravens defense is one of the NFL’s stingiest in the first three quarters and one of its flimsiest when the game is on the line. For three quarters, the Ravens put the clamps on Roethlisberger and the Steelers, holding them to seven points and 185 yards. But in the fourth quarter, the Ravens could not get off the field against the Steelers, continuing a troubling trend that has cost them at least a couple of games this season. Sure, they survived this time because of cornerback Chykie Brown’s tight coverage on that final two-point attempt, but it should have never come to that. Roethlisberger picked apart the Ravens defense and rookie back Le’Veon Bell bowled over them on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to nearly rally from a 12-point deficit. If this defense had a killer instinct, though, there would be no thrilling ending and most of America would have succumbed to a turkey-induced coma as the Ravens rolled to a relatively easy victory, at least by this rivalry’s standards.

Handing out game balls

The offensive game ball goes to Flacco for reasons previously stated. The defensive game ball goes to cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, who limited the damage done by Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. And Justin Tucker gets one, too, for single-handedly destroying one of my fantasy teams with five field goals and an extra point.

This week’s head-scratcher

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