Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Tale of Two Halves

The Ravens lost 23-20 in overtime to the Pittsburgh Steelers last night.

At least it was a good game.

Going in, it was unsure whether rookie QB Joe Flacco would be able to handle the pressure of his first game on the road, during prime time, and against an always tough tough Steelers defense. Flacco performed about as good as you could expect in his third NFL game, going 16-31 for 192 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT. Despite his impressive passing stats, he constantly held onto the ball too long in the pocket, resulting in several unnessary sacks and a fumble that was returned for a momentum-changing touchdown.

However, Flacco showed the impressive poise he displayed in the first two games. He continued to side-step pressure in the pocket and completed a highlight-reel-worthy Donovan McNabb-esque pass after scampering to his left and then right for twelve seconds. The play was just another reminder that Flacco, three games into his career, is going to be something special.

But as impressive as Flacco was under pressure, the Ravens let the game slip away from them, mostly due to stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

The Ravens dominated the first half of the game, going into halftime leading 13-3. At the half the Steelers only had 41 net yards, to the Ravens' 136. But when the Steelers came out after halftime, they switched to the no-huddle offense that seemed to keep the Ravens defense, which had been completely dominant in the first half, off balance.

Jarett Johnson's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was the game-changing play, tacking 15 yards onto a 8 yard Nate Washington reversal that gave the Steelers the ball well within Ravens territory. They scored their first TD in eight quarters three plays later. Then, on the first play of the Ravens' next drive, Flacco stepped back and tried to elude the pass rush when he should have just thrown the ball away. As he was getting sacked, the ball was knocked loose and picked up by the Steelers, who ran it in for their second TD in fifteen seconds to take the lead, 17-13.

The Ravens came back to tie the game late in the 4th quarter, with Flacco leading the offense on a brilliant 9 play, 76 yard drive which resulted in a Le'Ron McClain TD. He went 3-3 for 60 yards on the drive. Things were also looking good at the start of overtime, when the Ravens won the coin toss, but they went three-and-out and punted to the Steelers, who drove the ball down the field at will and kicked a field goal for the win.

Game over.

To their credit, the Ravens showed tons of heart, especially on the 4th quarter game-tying drive. If this game is a sign of things to come, Flacco is going to be the QB the Ravens have been waiting for since Vinny Testaverde was released in 1998. He is cool, calm and collected. The Ravens' long drives on offense gave the defense time to rest, and they were swarming the field all night.

But on the flip-side, the Ravens looked very undisciplined, racking up 8 penalties for a total of 76 yards. Most of them were as stupid as they were costly. Yes, it's a heated game against a division rival under the lights, but come on. Get your tempers under control. From a mental stand-point, they looked no different than the undisciplined Ravens teams of the past.

Another disappointing aspect of the game were the wide receivers. Only Derrick Mason was a factor, racking up 137 yards on 8 receptions. But where was Todd Heap? Where was Mark Clayton? Demetrius Williams was thrown to a few times, but had only 1 catch.

At 2-1, the Ravens are only a half game back of the Steelers, who are 3-1. But the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Ravens, as they host the 4-0 Tennessee Titans this Sunday. And that makes losing to the Steelers even more painful, since the schedule from here on out is brutally hard.

But, the Ravens are worlds ahead where we thought they'd be in the preseason, and look to be in pretty much every game they play if Flacco can maintain drives and avoid turnovers. He'll continue to get better, too.

Losing to the Steelers is hard, especially when the Ravens were dominating them for an entire half of the game, but if the Ravens can focus on the positives from this game and focus on improving discipline, this is the kind of game that can rally a team.


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