Things looked bleak for the Pittsburgh Steelers going into halftime. They trailed the Baltimore Ravens, 21-7, after turning the ball over twice and committing six penalties in the first half.
But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made an adjustment that may have saved their season and sent them to their 15th conference championship, moving Troy Polamalu into the defensive box.
In the first half, Polamalu was within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage on 26 percent of the Ravens offensive plays. In the second half, that number increased to 56 percent, and it paid off. Baltimore managed just three second-half points, while turning the ball over twice and taking three sacks.
The added pressure also got to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who did a great job of handling extra pressure during the regular season and the Wild Card playoff game against the Chiefs.
In his first 17 games of the season, Flacco had a 98.2 passer rating when facing five or more pass rushers. In Saturday’s loss to the Steelers, his passer rating was 72.9 in those situation, as he completed just 20 percent of his passes.
The Steelers also employed the five-man rush on each of the last four plays of the game. On those plays, Flacco threw three incompletions and took a sack for an eight-yard loss.
Conversely, Ben Roethlisberger thrived when the Ravens defense wasn’t aggressive on Saturday, throwing for 186 of his 226 yards with both of his touchdowns when the Ravens brought four or fewer pass rushers.
On the 58-yard pass to Antonio Brown that set up Rashard Mendenhall’s game-winning touchdown run, Baltimore sent just three defenders.
Roethlisberger improved to 9-2 in his postseason career as a starting quarterback, the second-best mark in NFL history among quarterbacks with at least 10 postseason starts, trailing only Bart Starr’s 9-1 mark.
The story of the game could end up being the Ravens blown first-half lead. Since 1990, Baltimore is the seventh team to score at least 21 points in the first half of a playoff game and go on to lose. In that span, teams that score at least 21 in the first half are 54-7.
They are also the first team to lose in such fashion since the 2006 New England Patriots, who also put up 21 first half of the 2006 AFC Championship Game, but went on to lose to the Indianapolis Colts, 38-34.
The Steelers, on the other hand, improve to 7-0 in the Divisional Playoffs when having a first-round bye dating back to 1984.