Steelers forced to regroup after late collapse
Mike Tomlin liked his odds. A lot.
Sure the Baltimore Ravens had more than 2 minutes to score a touchdown to overcome a four-point deficit and sweep their archrivals. The Ravens also had to go 92 yards against the second-ranked defense in the NFL on the road to do it.
''I felt good about where they were,'' Tomlin said. ''We had a four-point lead and our defense was on the field.''
Only problem: The defense couldn't get off the field.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco methodically led the Ravens into Pittsburgh territory, then hit Torrey Smith for a 26-yard touchdown with 8 seconds remaining to lift Baltimore to an unlikely 23-20 victory and put a stunning halt to Pittsburgh's four-game winning streak.
One or two snaps away from getting comfortable atop the AFC standings, the Steelers (6-3) instead slipped to third-place behind the Ravens and surprising Cincinnati, both 6-2.
''They made plays when they had to,'' said cornerback William Gay, who failed to cover Smith on the final pass. ''We have to go and watch film and correct it. We still have a long season.''
One that may have gotten a little longer if Pittsburgh plans to make it back to the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
Baltimore's sweep means the Ravens have the tiebreaker over the Steelers if they end up knotted in the standings at the end of the year. It's a little early to think about the playoffs, but the Steelers understand they let one get away.
''The ultimate high to the ultimate low,'' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Particularly for a team that erased a 10-point deficit with an electrifying fourth quarter. Rashard Mendenhall started the rally with a 1-yard touchdown run. Linebacker James Harrison kept it going by stripping Flacco, a fumble Gay recovered. The turnover led to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace that gave Pittsburgh a 20-16 lead with 4:59 to go.
The defense held once and when the offense moved into field goal range it appeared the Ravens were on the ropes.
A slight hesitation by Tomlin, however, kept the door open. Facing fourth down at the Baltimore 31, Tomlin wasted a few precious seconds before sending out the field goal unit. The play clock expired, and the penalty effectively pushed the Steelers out of kicker Shaun Suisham's range.
Tomlin blamed the mix-up on reservations about punter Jeremy Kapinos, who took over as Suisham's holder Sunday after normal punter Daniel Sepulveda was placed on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury.
''I was concerned about the distance,'' Tomlin said. ''We had some changes in personnel with a new holder. Under the circumstances I didn't want to give them the ball with a short field. I sent the group out there a little late.''
Kapinos pinned the Ravens at the Baltimore 8. Yet Baltimore responded with arguably the finest drive of Flacco's career. He expertly led the Ravens downfield, converting a key fourth-and-1 to extend the drive by hitting Anquan Boldin on a slant.
Boldin was supposed to be covered by Ike Taylor on the play, but Gay - who typically plays in the slot when he's not out wide - shooed Taylor over to cover Smith. Boldin easily beat Gay for the first down, and Gay's rough finish was just starting. He could do little on the winning touchdown despite interfering with Smith on the play.
''That was, on my part, the worst drive ever,'' Gay said.
Yet it was typical of a night when Pittsburgh's vaunted defense couldn't keep the Ravens from methodically moving the ball. Baltimore converted 14 of 21 third downs and held onto the ball for nearly 34 minutes. Getting stops on third down has been an issue all year for Pittsburgh, which is now 25th in third-down defense, allowing opponents to move the chains 42 percent of the time.
''They had third-and-2s, third-and-3s,'' Tomlin said. ''Offenses are going to have an opportunity to convert many of those, but you have to compliment those guys, regardless of the distance. They showed up big offensively on third downs. We didn't do as well defensively.''
Pittsburgh's offense firmly put the 28-point whipping it received from Baltimore in the season opener firmly in the rearview mirror. Roethlisberger threw for 330 yards to become the first quarterback in team history to go over 300 yards passing in three straight games.
Pittsburgh, which turned it over seven times in the first meeting, only gave it away twice in the rematch, one coming on a botched lateral on the game's final play.
Still, the numbers were little solace to a team that now finds itself in a dogfight with the Ravens and the Bengals, who have ripped off five straight wins and will likely play in front of a sold-out crowd for the first time this season next Sunday.
''It was a tough loss for us,'' center Maurkice Pouncey said. ''We came out strong, we just didn't finish the right way. Hopefully next time we'll see them again.''