PITTSBURGH – The Ravens-Steelers rivalry has had its share of classic games, and while this 2019 version might not win a lot of style points, as usual it did have plenty of twists and turns, including a huge role from a linebacker (Josh Bynes) who was unemployed on a couch a week ago and an undrafted rookie backup quarterback (Devlin Hodges) who nearly rallied his team to an improbable victory.
Instead, though, it was a more proven commodity, specifically Justin Tucker’s right leg, that gave the Ravens a 26-23 victory against the Steelers here at Heinz Field, as Tucker hit an upright-hugging 46-yard field goal with 5:26 left in overtime.
The kick came after four plays after Marlon Humphrey forced a fumble and then recovered it to end the Steelers only overtime possession, a vindication of sorts for a beleaguered Ravens defense that surrendered more than 1,000 yards of offense in the previous two games.
Here are five quick observations of the win, which ends a two-game losing streak for the Ravens (3-2):
1. Justin Tucker is worth every penny.
The Ravens gave Tucker a four-year, $23 million extension this offseason, and the nine-year veteran again proved that it was a wise investment. While teams around the league struggle to find consistency at the position, the Ravens have the league’s most automatic weapon in Tucker, who went 4-for-4 against the Steelers to improve to 247-for-273 in his career; his 90.5 percent success rate makes him the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
Kicking toward the open end of Heinz Field, where swirling winds are known to be a problem, Tucker drilled a 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, then hit a 46-yarder to win it. Earlier in the game, Tucker had connected from 27 and 26 yards when Ravens drives stalled inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line.
Tucker’s final kick appeared to start out wide left before curving inside the upright, making him 25-for-26 in his career at Heinz Field, a notoriously difficult venue for kickers.
“I was a little nervous about the first half of the kick,” Tucker said. “I think it was starting straight at that left upright. I know the previous kicks that we had had going in that direction, at least the longer one, the 48-yarder just before, had a little bit of a fade to it, left to right, at the very end of the flight path.”
Tucker noted that right after the game, he got a text from his father saying, “ ‘I think the archangel might have blown the ball inside the upright just a little bit.’ ... But as soon as it came off my foot, I knew it would have a chance just given the conditions.”
Divine intervention or not, it’s the 14
thgame-winning kick of Tucker’s career, and his second in overtime to beat the Steelers.
2. Marlon Humphrey is evolving into an elite NFL defender.
Marlon Humphrey made the defensive play of the day for the Ravens when he punched the ball out of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s arm in overtime to force a fumble, then recovered it at the Steelers’ 34-yard to set up the game-winning field goal.
“What an awesome play,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You make plays like that in a rivalry like this in a game that means so much early in the season, that’s what big-time players do, right? Big-time players make big-time plays in big games, and that’s what Marlon Humphrey just did.”
Although Humphrey acknowledged he has made a handful of errors in each game, he has been a consistent standout on a defense that has been abysmal for long stretches this season. Last week, he limited Cleveland Browns All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham to two catches for 20 yards, holding him without a catch over the first three quarters of a game for the first time in his career.
It was vindication for Humphrey, who had tried unsuccessfully to punch the ball from Smith-Schuster earlier in the game; Smith-Schuster instead held on to the ball and shed the Humphrey tackle for a 35-yard touchdown. It was also vindication for a Ravens defense that had been roundly criticized after giving up more than 500 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in franchise history.
“It’s been rough,” said Humphrey, who was holding a game ball as he met with the media. “There’s no sugar-coating that. We just haven’t been playing that well. …. We’re making small mistakes and teams are just exploiting them.”
Humphrey, who noted that the Ravens practice punchouts daily, said, “I love playing here. I love playing against the Steelers. … I was on the sideline and I was thinking, ‘Whatever happens right now somebody’s going to make a big play and going to be remembered forever for the outcome of this game.’ “
3. This most physical rivalry in a violent sport left both teams battered.
These teams always worry that the week after Ravens-Steelers will leave both teams shorthanded because of injuries.
This game had more of the same, with a scary twist, as players from both teams were visibly shaken after Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph was knocked unconscious on a hit by Ravens safety Earl Thomas.
Just after he released a pass, Rudolph was hit by Thomas from the front just as Carr got to him from behind, and Rudolph immediately fell to the ground, out cold. It was a scary scene as Rudolph was attended to on the field by a host of medics. Steelers players appeared to be distraught nearby, and players from both teams knelt on the field.
After several minutes, an obviously dazed Rudolph was helped from the field and was taken to a nearby hospital.
Several Ravens players expressed concern for Rudolph, including Thomas, who insisted he was just trying to make “a football play.”
“I’m just trying to get to the ball, make a play for my team,” Thomas said. “I hit the strike zone like we talk about. I didn’t go high. I didn’t intentionally hurt him. I’m worried about him. … I never try to hurt anybody.”
Thomas said he knew that Rudolph was unconscious right away, adding that, “I quickly went over to his teammates and said, ‘Hey, bro, I did not mean to do that. That wasn’t intentional at all, just trying to make a football play.”
Though not as scary as Rudolph’s injury, Ravens starting safety Tony Jefferson was lost for the season with a knee injury.
In addition, the Ravens top two receiving options, wide receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, both left with injuries as well. They returned to limited duty and their status going forward will be re-evaluated this week.
4. Clock management and play-calling at the end of the first half was nearly disastrous.
If the Ravens had lost this game, their final series of the first half would have led to much more scrutiny. The Ravens appeared to be content to take a 17-10 lead into the half as they ran the ball twice deep in their own territory with the clock winding down.
Then Jackson was sacked with 1:03 left, leaving them with second-and-13 at their own 19. But it was then that Jackson and the Ravens decided to hurry up, and Jackson floated a sideline pass that was intercepted by Mike Hilton at the Ravens 25-yard line. That set up a 29-yard field goal by Chris Boswell on the final play of the half that cut the Ravens to 17-13, and those three points loomed large when the Ravens found themselves trailing 23-20 in the closing seconds.
Jackson did more damage with his legs than his arm, as he ran 14 times for 70 yards and completed 19 of 28 passes for 161 yards with one touchdown and a career-high three interceptions.
The one right before half could have been disastrous, and it came after a curious sequence of play-calling from offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
5. It’s now a two-horse race in the AFC North.
The impact of the Ravens’ win can’t be overstated. Had the Steelers won, the Ravens would have dropped into a tie with the Steelers at 2-3 and reeling from a third straight loss. Instead, the Ravens are 3-2, own a road win in Pittsburgh and have sent the Steelers to 1-4.
The Ravens (3-2) and Browns (2-2) -- who play Monday night at San Francisco -- have put some distance between them and the Steelers and winless Bengals.
While the season is only one-third old, it seems implausible that the Steelers could make a late charge, especially if they are down to undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, depending on Rudolph’s injury. Hodges, though, is to be commended for the way he played taking over for Rudolph, completing seven of nine passes for 68 yards in pressure time.
Still, the Ravens win makes this start to feel like a two-horse race between the Ravens and Browns.