Monday, January 19, 2009

Playoff Report Card: Steelers 23, Ravens 14

The word of the game is... ugly. Even for the victors, this game was flat-out ugly. Players on both sides went down with injury and most simply played through the pain. Neither offense got much in rhythm (with the Ravens never getting in rhythm at all), and defenses ruled the day.

It was by far Joe Flacco’s worst game as a professional in my opinion, but he wasn’t alone. The lack of a true deep threat showed itself most clearly in this game, and the Ravens’ inability to beat single coverage deep and take advantage of Flacco’s big arm was a key determinant in the offense never getting started. The gadgetry and creativity of the resurgent Ravens offense during the regular season was nowhere to be found, and it felt like the Billick years all over again.

If nothing else comes out of this game, at least it has been recognized by the football community at large that the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is at or near the top in the NFL. The Steelers beat us up and beat us up badly this year, and hopefully that will help fuel the flame to return the favor next year.

Offense - Overall Grade: D-
Quarterbacks: D-
Flacco looked overwhelmed and confused for large stretches of the game. He had difficulty going through his progression and looked like a rookie for one of the few times this season. He threw three interceptions, one of which returned for a touchdown to seal the game. This grade isn’t all on him however; the coaches did a terrible job of giving him manageable throws to get into a rhythm. Flacco needs a true deep threat for this offense to be effective, and I’ll be repeating this ad nauseam until one is acquired in the offseason.
Running Backs: C+
Actually if you really look at how he ran, Willis McGahee ran pretty well when given the opportunity. The Ravens would have been far better served to let him carry more of the load early in the game, and mix in Ray Rice more than they did. Le’Ron McClain was hurt, so there can be no expectation that he run up to his usual standard.
Wide Receivers: D-
They couldn’t get open consistently, and couldn’t make plays for their young quarterback. Joe Flacco needed some help, and didn’t get much. The dropped passes early in the game absolutely killed any chance for their quarterback getting into a rhythm.
Tight Ends: D
Todd Heap should have been more involved in the offense than he was, and that was one of many mistakes made by the offensive coaching staff. He made one big play late in the game but very little else.
Offensive Line: D
The run blocking was generally poor, and Joe Flacco made the pass protection look better than it really was. Jared Gaither was absolutely taken to school by James Harrison, and it resulted in a few very costly penalties. Success of the offense is built around the success of the line, and in this game they saw little success.

Defense - Overall Grade: B+
Defensive Line: B+

The running game was controlled, contrary to Willie Parker’s pregame comments expressing an expectation of a big game against the Baltimore defense. Haloti Ngata played a huge game (no pun intended), and for most of the game Ben Roethlisberger was kept in the pocket.
Linebackers: B+
The discipline and overall play of this unit went up as the game progressed. Willie Parker was a non-factor, and Roethlisberger was harried just enough to keep the offense off-balance. It was a good final game for the free agent trio of Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, and Terrell Suggs. And a quick note about Suggs: two sacks with one arm? He is the consummate warrior.
Defensive Backs: B-
Not as bad a game as most pundits thought it would be for this group. Frank Walker and Fabian Washington both played solid games, and Corey Ivy actually made a couple of positive plays for the defense. Yes, they were burned for a couple of very long completions, but other than that the performance was acceptable. Ed Reed being a non-factor was more a function of Ben throwing away from him than Ed doing anything wrong.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: B+
Kicker: C

Or more accurately, Stover gets an A, Hauschka gets an F. I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but Hauschka’s kickoffs were abysmal and were a large part in setting the field position game in favor of the Steelers from the very beginning of the game. Stover did all he was asked to do, so he shouldn’t have to be part of the bad grade.
Punter: B+
Sam Koch didn’t do anything spectacular to change field position, but he did his job consistently well and was called on far more often than any punter should. He didn’t slip up under pressure and that’s worth something in my book.
Returners: B+
Boy, it’s the AFC Championship game and the Ravens are still shuffling kick returners. Figurs is going to be in a dogfight to get his job back heading into next season. But you know who won’t? Jim Leonhard. His work yesterday (and for the last several weeks in fact) has been nothing short of game-changing, and it looks like he has more than secured a spot on this team next season, whatever the capacity.
Coverage: B-
Not terrible, but certainly not very good by any stretch of the imagination. They blocked well for Jim Leonhard, but had difficulty stopping Russell on the short kickoffs and nearly let Santonio Holmes go for a long punt return touchdown.

Coaching - Overall Grade: C+
Offensive: F

Absolutely terrible, terrible game plan and execution by Cam Cameron and his staff. The coaches never put Flacco in a position to get into a rhythm early in the game, never tried out the run early to build a foundation for their passing game, and didn’t use enough of the playbook. When this offense is successful, Cam Cameron is letting out all of the weapons at his disposal, most notably including Troy Smith in his single-wing formation. For some reason the playbook closed back up in this game, and Pittsburgh feasted on a vanilla Ravens attack. Trickery can work in big games, just ask the Steelers: they won a Super Bowl with it.
Defensive: A
Considering all of the circumstances, the Ravens defense was brilliant in this game. After a rough first quarter, the defense rallied to make the Steelers offense just as anemic as their Ravens counterparts. Kudos to Rex Ryan and his staff for an excellent game, and we wish all the best of luck to Rex in his new job.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) –Jim Leonhard–
Leonhard was offense and defense for the Ravens, as he not only set up the first Ravens touchdown with a big punt return, he recovered a fumble and played solid defense throughout the game. A great day for the young safety from Wisconsin.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) –Jared Gaither– Gaither was overmatched by James Harrison, and in trying to compensate committed drive-killing penalties. Gaither has had a sensational year on the whole, but this was arguably his worst game.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

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