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Ledyard's All-22 Review: Ravens-Steelers

Analysis of coach's tape updates play of Villanueva, Foster, finds surprise on the DL, deconstructs the 'Immaculate Extension,' and much more.

There’s so much to highlight in what was surely the game of the year for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the vastly improved play of Alejandro Villanueva is not going to be overlooked this week. The Steelers began the game with a dart-scheme run with Villanueva coming across the formation to kick out defensive end Elvis Dumervil. The result was a gain of 10 yards to get the Steelers' ground game off and running against the best run defense in the NFL. Villanueva combined with Marcus Gilbert to pitch a shutout on noted Steelers-killer Terrell Suggs, who did not find his way onto the stat sheet on Sunday.

- It’s not just Villanueva who had a marvelous game among Steeler offensive linemen on Christmas Day. The entire unit played at a ridiculously dominant level, giving up zero sacks and allowing just three hits of Ben Roethlisberger all game long. Two of those hits came with Roethlisberger extending plays, marking a nearly perfect day in pass protection for the Pittsburgh offensive line. Rushing for 128 yards against Baltimore isn’t easy, either, yet the Steelers' front five controlled the line of scrimmage from start to finish, a sharp reversal from the first time these teams met.

- Ramon Foster continues to have one of the best seasons of his career, and the Steelers are becoming more comfortable pulling him on counter plays as well. He buried Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley on one pull in the first quarter, tossing the defender to the ground like a rag doll.

- The last time the Steelers and Ravens met, it seemed the Steelers ran directly at immovable Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams in an unsuccessful effort. On Sunday, the team didn’t pound themselves into a brick wall, instead getting a defensive linemen off the field by going to 11 personnel, while simply doubling and sealing the Ravens' interior defenders and running a gap outside of them. So Williams may have been immovable at the point of attack and won his gap, but the Steelers created rushing lanes outside of his responsibility, forcing other players like Dumervil, Zachary Orr and Mosley to make plays consistently in the run game.

- Gotta love Demarcus Ayers' energy in his first NFL action. From his first snap, the young wide receiver took off in an attempt to crack Eric Weddle, playing the entire 60 minutes with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He threw a key block on Le'Veon Bell’s first touchdown run at the beginning of the fourth quarter, moments after drawing a crucial pass interference penalty earlier in the drive.

Javon Hargrave continues to stabilize a Steelers defensive line without its two best players in Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward. Hargrave was a menace on Sunday, especially in the first half, terrorizing veteran center Jeremy Zuttah in one-on-one situations. Hargrave has been an excellent one-gapping presence against the run, but his ability to push the pocket and work to the edges of blockers has been surprising for a rookie. His jump from the FCS has been almost seamless and he continues to improve every week.

- Lawrence Timmons’ early second-quarter sack of Joe Flacco came on an old Dick Lebeau staple call, the Fire X blitz. Both inside linebackers cross to the opposite A gaps, with Ryan Shazier going first and Timmons coming underneath. Zuttah and running back Ken Dixon both moved to pick up Shazier, and the miscommunication left Timmons with a free run at Flacco.

- Couldn’t be more impressed with L.T. Walton’s play since his role increased following the injuries to Heyward and Tuitt. The Steelers defensive end stepped up in a major way on Sunday, making three big tackles and consistently winning his gap. His best play came in pursuit, when Bud Dupree missed a tackle underneath and Walton ran down Dixon from behind just past the line of scrimmage. If not for Walton’s hustle, Dixon had a big gain sitting in front of him. Think he’s learned something about busting his tail every snap from Heyward and Tuitt?

- Eli Rogers' huge, leaping 20-yard catch on the Steelers' game-winning drive will make all the highlight reels, and rightfully so, but the slot receiver was brilliant the entire game. Rogers made a couple of tough adjustments on off-target passes and consistently shredded man coverage, including getting open several times when the ball didn’t go his way. Only a matter of time before he starts getting more looks with Antonio Brown garnering tons of attention.

- OK, so the final play of the game: Slant route by Antonio Brown with a corner route by Rogers designed to clear things out for Brown. The look isn’t even a good one pre-snap for Pittsburgh, with safety Weddle rolled up and playing stacked behind slot cornerback Jerraud Powers. The switch release typically is used as a pick type play on the goal line, but the Ravens pass off the coverage perfectly (a banjo call pre-snap probably), with Powers staying inside to pick up Brown while Shareece Wright covered Rogers. But Powers jumped just a hair too far inside, allowing Brown to catch the slant with minimal contact at the one-and-a-half yard line. From there, a superhuman effort took place. Brown somehow fought off a big stick from Weddle and Mosley, shed the linebacker and recoiled back toward the goal line despite Weddle nearly ripping his head off with a facemask. Just an outstanding individual effort to send Pittsburgh to the playoffs as division champs.

- Brown’s play did more than simply send Pittsburgh to the postseason, however. It also negated a potential volley of criticism that could have been levied against three parties -- Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley and the officials. The play call is a risky one by Haley, because Brown is the first read on the play and the ball is unlikely to go anywhere else given the route construction. Calling for a combination route that is short of the end zone with 14 seconds left and no timeouts is incredibly risky and could have been disastrous. The same can be said for Roethlisberger throwing short of the end zone, although I guess he just has to follow the play call. Brown’s “Immaculate Extension” rendered this line of thinking moot, and ultimately Haley trusted his best receiver to get the job done in a key moment. There' still an outside shot Pittsburgh would have been able to spike the ball and kick a game-tying field goal, but it would have been very, very close.

- The officiating would have been on blast as well, as Weddle’s blatant and violent facemask of Brown should have resulted in a flag and clock stoppage with 10 seconds left. That would have given the Steelers another shot at the end zone before bringing out the field goal unit, and would have kept the clock from expiring. Again, this is all moot due to Brown getting in, but I’m guessing the NFL and Dean Blandino are glad they didn’t have to answer for that major gaffe during the week.


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