The Plays that Lost the Game
This was an unusual case where the Ravens usual snap-count domination abandoned them at the wrong time. The Steelers prosecuted 3 long scoring drives (78, 50, 69 yards) in the 4th quarter sandwiching just 8 Ravens plays from scrimmage.
In particular, the defensive line had minimal rotation with Campbell playing every snap of the 3 scoring drives and Brandon Williams playing 18 of 23.
Only once during the 3 drives were the Ravens able to generate a 3rd and 6+ play (3rd and 8, Q4, 7:28) as compared to 4 instances of 3rd and 5 or less. Perhaps more troubling, the Steelers were able to generate 2nd and 2 or less on 6 different occasions.
Among those 3 drives were 6 plays that were most significant in the loss:
- (Q4, 14:35): On 3rd/1, with BOQ despite 7/0 pass rush, Roethlisberger threw to WR Chase Claypool PL40 (14 + 26)  as Averett lost him on cross with WR Ray-Ray McCloud clearing out Stephens underneath. Jimmy Smith lost track of the play and was unable to help tackle at 30 yards.
- (Q4, 14:08): With BOQ despite 6/0 pass rush, Roethlisberger pump faked Clark off his feet then threw to WR Diontae Johnson PM29 (22 + 7) . Averett lost coverage on semi-rub when Johnson’s deep cross brought him through path of Humphrey.
- (Q4, 11:11): On 2nd/9, Roethlisberger threw to WR Johnson PR25 (7 + 18) . Averett missed the tackle at 8 yards.
- (Q4, 2:55): On 3rd/2, Campbell beat RG Trai Turner outside for fast pressure. Averett’s PD was collected by Queen but negated by Averett’s DPI.
- (Q4, 1:52): On 3rd/5, TE Pat Freiermuth rubbed Humphrey on cross at goal line and Marlon suffered a shoulder injury on PR5 TD to WR Johnson (2 + 3) .
- (Q4, 1:48): On the ensuing 2-point conversion, contact by WR Johnson rubbed Jimmy Smith and Queen was not in a good spot to bat down Roethlisberger’s pass to TE Freiermuth (2 + 0) .
Common threads from those plays:
- Roethlisberger picked on Anthony Averett, who had his 2nd bad game of the season (Indianapolis, week 5)
- A major theme of both the short and intermediate routes was rubbing which was both overt as on the go-ahead TD to Johnson (Q4, 1:52) and subtle with routes where the defenders needed to be careful crossing an area (Q4, 14:08)
- Roethlisberger made some plays (and did not make any serious errors) and was able to deliver the ball quickly against all-out blitzes
Loss of Marlon Humphrey
If Marlon Humphrey is indeed lost for the season as is feared, the team’s limitations at cornerback are even more pronounced. The Ravens practiced with 5 CBs on the injury report, including Humphrey (illness). Reviewing the other 4:
- Despite a difficult game, Anthony Averett is now the team’s number 1 CB.
- Jimmy Smith is the logical choice to play the other outside CB spot at least until Westry returns. The fact he played 6+ yards off Dionte Johnson on 3rd and 2 (Q3, 5:19) does not instill confidence that he can cover speedy receivers deep.
- Chris Westry did not dress for the game but has been a limited participant in practice. His return would be a significant benefit and he would probably start opposite Averett.
- Tavon Young is the only true SCB the Ravens have now with Ar’Darius Washington out for the season. He was listed as sick and dressed but played just 7 snaps in a game where the Ravens lined up with 5+ DBs 45 times.
The Ravens have had many seasons with more severe depth challenges at CB at this point in the season. If you’re looking to feel better, 2012 was one of those.
Going for 2
For the record, I think going for 2 (Q4, 0:12) was the better decision, particularly for the game situation.
Harbaugh explained it well at the podium in terms of having a chance to win the game at that moment and the fact the Ravens were “out of corners” (which Ravens fans must hope does not extend beyond the loss of Marlon Humphrey).
Based on the relative offensive success of the teams in the second half as well as the concentration of snaps on the Ravens defense during the 4th quarter, it seems as if the Ravens would have had a disadvantage in overtime.
It’s tempting to judge the choice by the result, but the Ravens had been playing excellent game-management football to that point in the game…
The Ravens took an intentional offside penalty by Chuck Clark to give the Steelers first and goal at the 8-yard line and preserve their 3 timeouts. While the Steelers scored a TD and converted their 2-point conversion, Harbaugh’s gambit maintained enough clock to allow the Ravens offense to respond with their own score and force the winner-takes-all conversion attempt.
The intentional penalty was the 3rd in the last 3 seasons for the Ravens. The previous 2:
- In the 2019 game at Buffalo they took a neutral zone infraction with Clark standing in the Bills backfield with Josh Allen (Q4, 8:16, 1st and goal at the 2). In that case, the Bills had run no huddle and the Ravens wanted to replace their dime package with jumbo personnel without wasting a timeout.
- In the 2020 game at New England they took an intentional offside (Q4, 2:40, 2nd and 2 at the Patriots 37) where another first down would have sealed the game. The Ravens subsequently stopped the Patriots on 3 plays and had another possession with 1:05 left.
All 3 times, it was Chuck Clark executing the strategy. He has the green dot (communications helmet) and was undoubtedly instructed from the sideline on each occasion.
Being that the outcome of a football game is a zero-sum proposition, any increase in the Ravens win probability similarly decreased the Steelers chance to win.
Declining the penalty might have created an odd stalemate situation (I’m not sure what would prevent the Ravens from executing multiple intentional offside plays), but accepting the penalty as Tomlin did, is effectively telling the Ravens “I know better about our chances to win this game under the competing circumstances.”
Note: all snap totals exclude penalties resulting in no play, kneels, spikes, and specials team plays resulting in a run or pass. As such, they will be lower than other published totals.
The Steelers ran 5 such snaps.
Base (11): The Ravens used their base 3-4 defense with 2 ILB and 2 OLB primarily vs 12 personnel on early downs. Among these were 6 run plays for 17 yards (2.8 YPC) and 5 pass plays for 13 yards (2.6 YPP). 11 plays, 30 yards, 2.7 YPP.
Standard Nickel (31): Martindale again used the standard nickel (including 2 down linemen, 2 OLB, and 2 ILB) as the most common response to 11 personnel (which the Steelers used frequently). Among these were 17 runs for 75 yards (4.4 YPC) and 14 pass plays for 150 yards (8.8 YPP). The solid results for the run game against the nickel are not unusual, but the 8.8 YPP surrendered contributed to the loss.
Rush Nickel (5): Martindale deployed the rush nickel including 1 down linemen, 3 OLB, and 2 ILB on the last 5 plays of the first half when Stephens left with an injury. Since the Ravens employed the dime defense on the first 3 plays, it seems Martindale thought the next most likely to succeed package included Queen at ILB instead of both of Smith and Young. 5 plays, 19 yards, 3.8 YPP.
Jumbo Nickel (4): Martindale deployed 4 snaps of jumbo nickel including 3 down linemen, 2 OLB, and 1 ILB as an alternative look vs 11 personnel. 4 plays, 67 yards, 16.8 YPP.
Rush Dime (5): The Ravens lined up with 1 DL, 3 OLB, 1 ILB, and 6 DB on 5 obvious passing downs. Martindale mothballed the package after Tavon Young’s last snap of the game (Q3, 3:53). Chris Board was the sole ILB on each of these plays and Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh, and Justin Houston were the 3 OLBs on each. 5 plays, 37 yards, 7.4 YPP.
Martindale’s pass rush was continually frustrated by Roethlisberger’s hot reads.
The Steelers had ATS on 11 of 32 drop backs (34%) resulting in a pass or sack, which is a solid result for the offense. They also had 12 ball out quick (BOQ) instances (38%) and the Ravens generated 9 pressure events (28%) within 3 seconds. By pressure situation:
ATS: 7/11 for 54 yards (4.9 YPP)
BOQ: 10/12 for 149 yards (12.4 YPP)
Pressured: 4/8 for 33 net yards, including 1 sack (3.7 YPP)
Roethlisberger’s quick deliveries included their 4 longest plays from scrimmage and effectively won the Steelers the game.
The futility of rushing numbers was also apparent from the results. Summarizing by number of pass rushers:
3 or fewer: 2 plays, 22 yards, 11.0 YPP
4: 18 plays, 93 yards, 5.2 YPP, 1 sack
5: 5 plays, 40 yards, 8.0 YPP
6: 3 plays, 36 yards, 12.0 YPP
7+: 4 plays, 45 yards, 11.3 YPP
Total: 32 plays, 236 yards, 7.4 YPP, 1 sack
The Ravens rushed 5+ on 12 of 32 drop backs (38%) on which the Steelers averaged 10.1 YPP.
Martindale called only 6 off-ball blitzes (0.19 per pass play) spread among 4 plays. I define off-ball blitzes as from a player who was either outside the slot receiver or more than 1.5 yards off the LoS at the snap. Those 4 plays went for 45 net yards (11.3 YPP).
The Ravens did not use a stunt versus the Steelers despite a lack of off-ball blitzing. Essentially Martindale asked for controlled rush lanes, perhaps to increase the chance of batted passes at the LoS.
The Ravens showed simulated pressure 7 times where 2, 3, or 4 dropped from the LoS to cover. These plays average 4.9 YPP.
I define a deceptive pass rush as incorporating 2 or more of the above elements (off-ball blitzes, stunts, and simulated pressures). The Ravens ran 4 deceptive rushes on which the Steelers totaled 45 yards (11.3 YPP).
The only player with more than one pressure event was Calais Campbell who had 2 pressures, a sack and a late QH.
Other Individual Notes
- Justin Madubike (24 snaps) assisted on 2 tackles that were defensive wins. He blew up 2 other plays with penetration or by holding the point of attack (Q1, 7:32; Q2, 7:46). He generated pressure by bull rush (Q4, 7:28).
- The Ravens activated just 3 OLBs and split the snaps between Bowser, Oweh, and Houston with Jaylon Ferguson inactive. Malik Harrison has played a few snaps of OLB this season, but did not see action defensively on Sunday.
- Geno Stone again looked good in 11 snaps. He had coverage of WR Dionte Johnson (Q2, 0:43) when Roethlisberger threw the ball away by the left sideline. On the next play he rushed unblocked off the OLS for a pressure as for QH as Roethlisberger’s pass was tipped by Oweh to end the drive.
- Kristian Welch (4 snaps) had a pressure by bull rush of RB Najee Harris on the drive-ending 3rd -and-11 play (Q2, 7:11).
- (Q1, 7:32): On 3rd/1, Brandon and Justin Madubuike stacked up LG BJ Finney C Kendrick Green and RG Turner to allow Queen to clean up RB Najee Harris RM0
- (Q4, 3:38): On 2nd/7, C Green and RG Turner double teamed Brandon to help lead RB Benny Snell RM5
- (Q4, 2:00): On 1st/8, Williams pancaked C Green to tackle RB Harris RM-2 with assist from Bynes
- (Q4, 1:58): On 2nd/10, he read Roethlisberger’s play action, shadowed TE Zach Gentry then tackled him PM5 (2 + 3) 
Brandon set his career high with 11 tackles, blasting his previous high of 8 (accomplished 3 times in 2015-16), including 5 defensive wins. He was stout at the point of attack demonstrated awareness when baited into the backfield as a pass rusher. While he did not register a pass rush event, this was easily his best game of the season.
- (Q2, 7:52): He delivered a big hit on WR Johnson 25 yards  as the pass fell incomplete OOB
- (Q2, 0:58): He had coverage of TE Freiermuth and pushed him OOB PL5 (0 + 5) 
- (Q3, 13:03): He ran to the LoS late, jumped back on side then elevated for a PD at the LoS but was unable to collect the INT
- (Q3, 13:01): On 3rd/10 with ATS, Houston tipped a pass that fell incomplete. Clark picked it up and drew a face mask penalty after running with the dead ball
- (Q4, 14:08): Roethlisberger pump faked Clark off his feet, then threw PM29 TD to WR Johnson (22 + 7) 
- (Q4, 2:00): On 2nd/2, Clark intentionally jumped offside to give Pittsburgh a first down but conserve the Ravens three timeouts
Clark made 2 good plays in this game with a dead ball (see above). He
- (Q2, 0:43): He beat RT Chukwuma Okorafor inside for a late QH forcing Roethlisberger to throw the ball away
- (Q4, 5:51): On 2nd/2, after ATS on a busted play action, Roethlisberger decided to leave pocket, ran forward and was touched down by Campbell for S0
- (Q4, 4:50): On 2nd/1, he was blocked by LT Dan Moore to lead RB Harris RM13
- (Q4, 2:55): On 3rd/2, he beat RG Turner outside for fast pressure negated by Averett’s DPI
- (Q4, 2:45): He was blocked by LG John Leglue to help lead RB Snell RM8
Calais’ contributions in this one were primarily as a pass rusher. He had only 1 tackle in run defense.
I do not award MVPs after a loss.