Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 11: Ravens at Steelers Week 9

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Smash-mouth football.

That’s what you always hear about when the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers lock horns, right?

What exactly does that entail? Pressuring and knocking down the quarterback? Check. Playing physical, imposing defense? Check. Pounding the run game? Checccccck -- wait, not so much.

It’s funny, but lately Ravens-Steelers games aren’t quiiiiite as old school as football pundits lead you to believe, at least not last year. Look no further than Week 9, the season’s second meeting between these division enemies and our 11th-best game of 2011.

One of the more entertaining prime-time games of the last couple seasons was as pass-happy as it was 'smash mouth,” at least when it comes to two franchises that have a reputation for playing like it’s 1962. It’s hard to play consistently physical when the ball is in the air all the time.

But wait, you say, safeties can knock receivers’ heads off! Not if you watched football last season. Defensive backs -- like the Steelers’ Ryan Clark – were flagged for doing just that. (More on this later ... )

Going a step further, all that macho, tough, front-seven stuff gets thrown out the window when the running backs aren’t running and the ball is out of the quarterback’s hand in three seconds. That’s exactly what happened at Heinz Field back in early November.

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The Steelers called 18 running plays out of their 58 plays from scrimmage. (The stat sheet will tell you 20, but two of those were Ben Roethlisberger scrambles, the second of which put Pittsburgh in position to score from a yard out.) Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians put the lion’s share of this game on his quarterback’s shoulders, with a staggering 68.9 percent of his calls resulting in passing plays.

Baltimore’s balance was just as bad. Joe Flacco dropped back 50 times, while offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and company only dialed up 27 run plays. Basically this Sunday-night matchup was less smash-mouth football, more Marino v. Bledsoe, circa 1994.

It was hard not to think about this trend while taking in this game a second time, mostly because Cameron would catch serious criticism for giving tailback Ray Rice a miniscule five rushing attempts the following week in Seattle (a Ravens loss). Rice would go on to rush for over 1,300 yards while averaging 4.6 yards per crack, so it boggles the mind that he wasn’t being used more in the run game. The Steelers were also playing without linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior, thus making Baltimore’s infatuation with the passing game on this night even more baffling.

A franchise once known for grinding it out on the ground, Pittsburgh finished the year 16th in the NFL in run/pass ratio, using its rushing attack just 42.8 percent of the time -- a shade under the league average.

That trend played out on the Steelers’ two second-half touchdown drives of 80 and 58 yards, with Rashard Mendenhall’s number only being called a combined five times (for 21 yards). Per usual, it was all on Roethlisberger, who converted a third-and-17 on the first drive (more on that below), and then went 3-for-4 for 53 yards on the second. The air attack gave Pittsburgh a 20-16 lead and some control of the game.

With the ball at their 23 and a ton of time on the clock (4:59), the Ravens could certainly run their full offense and win the game -- a real advantage with a back of Rice’s ilk. Instead, Baltimore went shotgun on three straight snaps ... and had three straight incompletions to show for it.

After Baltimore’s defense came through with a stop, Flacco and the offense got the ball back with 2:24 to go and one timeout -- without the luxury of mixing plays with balance in mind.

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It wouldn’t matter. What was supposed to be a physical, old school bout devolved into a finesse game. Which quarterback could make the plays at the end? This time it was Flacco, marching his club 92 yards in 13 plays, with the 13th being a beautiful timing throw to Torrey Smith for the winning score.

Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss. Quarterback play -- not defense -- ruled the day in this heated rivalry.

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Can’t-miss play: Pittsburgh went on a key, 11-play drive that spilled from the third quarter into the fourth, culminating with a one-yard Mendenhall touchdown run to reduce the Ravens’ lead to 16-13. The key play on the Steelers’ march was a 21-yard completion to Antonio Brown on third-and-17. Clutch, as in a big-time play on the ball by the Steelers’ wideout. Take another look at Brown’s catch. It’s all body control and concentration.

Controversial call 1: Rice made it happen early -- just like he did in the 2009-10 playoffs vs. the New England Patriots -- by taking off on a 76-yard touchdown run, courtesy of a sick cutback when the diminutive tailback saw a crease on the backside. Unfortunately, Torrey Smith was called for holding, bringing back the opening jab just like that. Watching it again, it looks as though he and corner William Gay are locked up briefly -- not an intentional hold. Tough call.

Controversial call 2: With just over 20 ticks left in the first half, this AFC North battle was tied at six apiece, with the Ravens trying to put together a drive to get into field goal range. Clark fell victim to the whistle-happy nature of today’s refs looking for helmet-to-helmet hits, as the Steelers safety was flagged for an illegal hit on Ravens tight end Ed Dickson.

No way. Watching the play again, it’s clear Clark’s helmet was to the side. But, as was so often the case in 2011, the offensive player shrunk his body up in anticipation of a hit, causing the split-second action to appear as though Clark was aiming for a head-to-head collision. This horrible -- but painfully routine -- call gave the Ravens a gift field goal and a 9-6 lead at halftime.

Play of the game: Although Smith dropped a deep ball earlier in the drive, he more than made up for it by capping off Baltimore’s final possession with a 26-yard touchdown catch to win the game. Smith might have gotten away with a push-off on Gay just before Flacco’s pass arrived. However, the important fact here is that the rookie got the necessary separation so Flacco had a window to fit the ball into.

Best player on the field: The dude might be disliked, and he might have missed the four games prior to this one due to injury, but James Harrison was all over Heinz Field and all over the Baltimore offense. The veteran linebacker and former Defensive Player of the Year compiled eight tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. He didn’t play like a guy coming off a fractured orbital bone (tell me that doesn’t sound medieval). Love him or not, Harrison can play.

Why this game is No. 11: The Ravens and Steelers are good for at least one solid game per year. In 2010, all three were hotly contested: There was the T.J. Houshmandzadeh game-winning touchdown at Heinz Field, the Troy Polamalu strip-sack game and Pittsburgh’s 31-24 win in the divisional playoff. In 2008, these two clubs met three times, as well, with the capper being the hard-fought AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field (which Pittsburgh won 23-14).

Why not higher?: Ravens-Steelers Week 9 was the best game not to make the top 10, and shouldn’t be poo-pooed. The two things that kept it out were the bad calls and the lack of big-game stakes like other contests. While it did factor into the AFC North race, both clubs made the playoffs. It also didn’t feature as many exciting plays as some of 2011’s most elite matchups.

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