For just a moment or two early on, you wondered which team was the one ravaged by COVID-19 absences.
Because although the woefully shorthanded Baltimore Ravens could barely complete a pass, and couldn’t run it a lick, thanks largely to a recovered muffed punt they actually led the Pittsburgh Steelers 7-6 after one quarter, in a thrice-delayed NFL game Wednesday.
The Steelers, though, weren’t about to let their hated AFC North arch-rivals somehow gut out a win on Pittsburgh’s own turf at Heinz Field. Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 36 of 51 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown as the Steelers won 19-14, to remain the league’s last undefeated team at 11-0.
“We’re happy for the win, not real happy with the way we played,” Roethlisberger told NBC on the field afterward.
The Ravens fell to 6-5, in danger of not making the playoffs a year after posting the league’s best regular-season record (14-2).
“We’re down a lot of guys right now,” Ravens left guard Bradley Bozeman said. “The players and coaches wanted this game to happen, but we were also concerned with safety.”
The game originally was scheduled to be the nightcap of a U.S. Thanksgiving Day tripleheader last Thursday. But a major coronavirus outbreak on the Ravens, followed by a mini one on the Steelers, postponed it three times — to Sunday afternoon, to Tuesday night and finally to Wednesday afternoon.
How weakened were the Ravens?
Consider that 15 players were still on COVID-19/reserve by game time, either for being infected with the virus or as a precaution as high-risk close contacts. Included in that bunch was the reigning NFL MVP, quarterback Lamar Jackson.
NFL teams are permitted to dress only 46-48 players for a game, and on Wednesday the Ravens called up a whopping 10 players from the expanded-for-COVID 16-man practice squad, to meet that requisite number.
One of the call-ups for his second game in Baltimore was tight end Luke Willson of LaSalle, Ont. The former long-time Seattle Seahawk nearly snared a half-ending touchdown pass in the Pittsburgh end zone, but a couple of Steelers defenders broke it up.
In the end, the Ravens did have much to be proud about. Given the circumstances, and the opponent, losing by five points isn’t bad at all for a team that had five players taking their first career snaps, including starting centre Trystan Colon-Castillo, plus another three making their Ravens debuts.
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh was in no mood afterward to dissect what his players, coaches and team staff did or did not do right by way of following the ever-restrictive distancing and mask-wearing protocols during the week, which might have sparked the club’s outbreak.
“I think everyone did their best,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t bat 1.000 but nobody does. It’s not the time to take an accusatory stance. I’m sure we will have a statement going forward with those details.”
Robert Griffin III, Jackson’s backup at quarterback for the past two seasons, performed miserably for the Ravens before being pulled in the fourth quarter, with a hamstring injury.
On Baltimore’s second drive he botched a read-option handoff with running back Gus Edwards, and the Steelers recovered the fumble at the Raven 22. Roethlisberger got picked off in the end zone to keep the score 0-0, but three plays later Griffin gifted a pick-six on a horrible throw that Pittsburgh linebacker Tyus Bowser jogged into the end zone.
As a passer, Griffin was nearly as useless as Denver’s converted practice-squad receiver was on Sunday. Seriously. The former Heisman Trophy winner was asked to attempt just 12 passes, completing seven for only 33 yards.
RG3’s backup, former Penn State star Trace McSorley, threw a 70-yard touchdown strike to Marquise Brown with 2:58 left to make the final score close.
Harbaugh said RG3 battled the hamstring issue the whole game.
Baltimore’s defence was heroic throughout, frustrating Big Ben and his receivers much of the time.
How quickly do both teams have to move on? So fast that Roethlisberger said the team, after a two-hour break, was going to reconvene Wednesday night to begin watching film of their Monday opponent, Washington.
Baltimore plays host to Dallas next Tuesday night.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020