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NFL AM: Thursday Night Turns Into Tale of Two Kickers

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Thursday night’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers turned into a battle of the kickers late, and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker saved his team’s season with his boot.

Tucker booted three late field goals, including one at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime and another in that extra session, to push the Ravens to their first win of the season with a 23-20 victory at Heinz Field.

“Getting to go out there and put the dagger in the thing, it’s always special,” Tucker said afterward. “We love doing that.”

Tucker was put in position to do that by an opportunistic Ravens team that used a ground and pound attack to get back into the game after falling behind. Baltimore actually led the game for much of the second quarter after a Michael Campanaro touchdown run late in the first made it 7-3. But Pittsburgh took the lead in the final two minutes of the half and carried a 13-7 advantage into the break. The Steelers then came out of the locker room with another scoring drive to pull ahead by 13, 20-7. That lead held until the closing moments of regulation.

Though behind by a two-score margin, Baltimore refused to modify their game plan and started to chip away at the deficit immediately with the ground and pound. After running for 45 yards on 10 carries in the first half, Ravens running back Justin Forsett broke off a 33-yard run on his first carry of the second half to get Baltimore in Pittsburgh territory. Four plays later, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw his lone touchdown of the night, a 15-yard scoring pass to Kamar Aiken that sliced Pittsburgh’s lead in half.

Flacco was average at best on Thursday night, completing 20-of-33 passes for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception. That pick, which came in the second quarter, didn’t wind up costing the Ravens points. But Flacco’s other turnover, a fumble on a scramble early in the third quarter, led directly to the touchdown that put Pittsburgh up 13.

Fortunately for Flacco, his mediocre performance was bailed out by the play of Forsett and the stinginess of the Ravens defense, which didn’t allow any points after the Steelers scored less than five minutes into the second half. After trimming the deficit down to six on the ensuing drive, Baltimore continued to ride Forsett and chip away at the Pittsburgh lead.

After totaling 124 yards on 39 carries over the first three games of the season, Forsett finished Thursday’s game with 27 carries for 150 yards.

“We had to run the football,” he told Deion Sanders on the TNF postgame show. “We knew that the last few weeks we hadn’t been doing that well running the football. That was our mindset going in. We had to be physical, had to be hard-nosed coming into this environment and keep that [Steelers] offense off the field.”

Baltimore did a great job of that in the fourth quarter, holding the ball for nearly 10 of the final 15 minutes of regulation.

Tucker got on the board for the first time early in the fourth with a 40-yard field goal to cut the Steelers lead to three. From there, it was a defensive struggle as Pittsburgh tried to take time off the clock. But Baltimore refused to allow them to get close enough to put points on the board, forcing two late field goal tries that both missed the mark.

Each one gave the Ravens new life and they finally capitalized in the closing moment of the fourth. After getting the ball back with 1:01 remaining, Flacco engineered a quick six-play drive, catalyzed by big completions to Darren Waller and Kamar Aiken. Then an eight-yard Forsett run put Tucker on the field for a 42-yard field goal try, which he drilled to send the game to overtime.

In overtime, the defensive struggled continue and again the Baltimore defense won out, refusing to break and stopping the Steelers on fourth down two separate times on the fringe of field goal range. The second of those stops put the Ravens in position at their own 33 and they again rode their ground game, complemented by a few short passes from Flacco into field goal range. Once they got there, coach John Harbaugh talked with his staff about trying to get closer for more of a chip shot, but Flacco spoke some sense into his coach.

“We were having a conversation about maybe trying to draw them offsides, get a little closer and get the first down,” Harbaugh said. “Joe Flacco comes over to me and says, ‘Just let him win the game.’ Good call.”

Tucker did just that with a 52-yard field goal. The kick marked Tucker’s eighth game-winner in his first four years in the league, and 16th field goal of more than 50 yards. It was also the longest field goal made at Heinz Field, a notoriously tough place to kick, in the last five years.

“In this league, most games come down to three points,” Harbaugh said. “We have a great kicker.”

That kicker may very well have saved the season for Baltimore, which moved to 1-3 with the win. The Ravens are still buried deep in the AFC North, where the Bengals team they lost to last week still rules the roost at 3-0. But a win is a start, 1-3 certainly gives them better odds than 0-4 and with games against Cleveland and San Francisco to come in the next two weeks, Baltimore could be back to .500 before too long.

To get there, they’ll have to trust their defense and running game, as they did on Thursday night. And having arguably the league’s best kicker won’t hurt either.

SCOBEE HELPS SINK STEELERS

On one end of Thursday’s matchup was a heroic kicker and on the other end was Josh Scobee, who finds himself the most hated man in Pittsburgh right about now.

Scobee missed two fourth quarter field goal attempts, of 49 and 41 yards respectively, both wide left, each giving Baltimore new life in a game the Steelers could have sealed. If either of those kicks is successful, Flacco has just one minute to lead the Ravens on a touchdown drive. Instead, they were able to tie the game with a field goal and send it to overtime. To say the misses were crucial would be an understatement.

“I feel like I let the team down,” Scobee said afterward. “It’s not something I ever want to remember doing. It’s just a bad feeling.”

Scobee, who made 80 percent of his kicks over 11 years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, has now missed four of his 10 field goal tries this season for the Steelers this season. All of those misses have come on Thursday night. He also missed two kicks in the season opener at New England that could have changed the complexion of a game Pittsburgh ultimately lost by a touchdown.

His failures late in the fourth quarter forced Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to alter his game plan for overtime. Instead of trying long field goals on two fringe scoring opportunities in the extra frame, Pittsburgh opted to go for it and both drives were stopped on fourth down, turning the ball over on downs. On the second of those, Tomlin turned down the possibility of a 50-yard field goal attempt for Scobee and went for it on fourth down, only to come up short. That decision led directly to Tucker’s game-winner on the other end.

“We lost, so I’m not going to try and justify anything that we did,” Tomlin said afterward. “Anything we did, I take responsibility for.”

Indeed, to pin the entirety of the Pittsburgh loss on the shoulders of Scobee would be a fallacy. The Steelers lost Thursday’s game in a number of areas.

Filling in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick looked rusty and uncomfortable. He made some big plays, including a few great throws on Pittsburgh’s second quarter scoring drive, and his toss to Darrius Heyward-Bey for a touchdown in the third to give the Steelers a 20-7 lead was pinpoint. But after that, Vick mostly vanished.

When asked to make big plays late, it was Vick who came up short as much as Scobee did. He missed passes in the fourth quarter that could’ve gotten the Steelers closer for Scobee or perhaps even salted away the game with another touchdown.

Then in overtime, Tomlin put the ball in Vick’s hands twice on fourth down and both times the veteran backup failed to deliver. The first play was a designed run for Vick that was a disaster from the snap and didn’t go anywhere. But Vick got a second chance and led Pittsburgh to the fringe of field goal range again on their next opportunity, this time with a kick set to win it.

But rather than try that 50-yarder, Tomlin put the ball in Vick’s hands again and for a moment that looked like the right strategy as Antonio Brown got open on a fourth down out-route that would have moved the chains. However, Vick’s throw sailed over his head incomplete, turning the ball over on downs. Baltimore took that opportunity down the field and won the game. Afterward, Vick lamented the missed opportunities.

“It’s probably one of the toughest losses of my career,” Vick said. “We had our chances to win the game. There were a lot of plays I could’ve made that I didn’t make.”

All of the Steelers should’ve been lamenting the lack of use for Le’Veon Bell in those late situations. Bell carried 22 times for 129 yards, including a 22-yard run early in overtime that put Pittsburgh in Baltimore territory. But Bell got just three carries the rest of the way and the Steelers went away from him on both fourth down plays, a recipe for failure.

Bell continues to be one of the best running backs in the league, and the Steelers need to trust him in those spots, especially while Roethlisberger is out. In the absence of Ben, the Pittsburgh passing game is weakened, leaving Bell as the team’s primary playmaker, and he needs to be treated as such.

After losing their quarterback heading into a short week, it was fair to anticipate some game plan issues for the Steelers offense on Thursday night. They’ll likely come back with a better one that utilizes their strengths next Monday night. But at 2-2, their margin for error just shrank and with a date with the Arizona Cardinals looming in Week 6, next week’s game against the Chargers becomes almost a must win. So whatever they decide to do, they have to get their issues cleaned up fast.

INJURY REPORT: Luck A Big Question Mark For Sunday

The injured quarterback carousel continued to turn this week, this time with an ailment popping up seemingly out of nowhere for one of the league’s premier signal callers.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has been limited in practice all week by a shoulder injured and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against Jacksonville.

Luck has been mum on how he suffered the injury, which has apparently been hindering him for more than just this week, but he has been under siege all season behind a woeful Colts offensive line. For his part, he expressed confidence on Wednesday that he will play.

“I expect to play,” Luck said. “I’m not going to get into what it (the injury) is or when it happened.”

But he was limited again on Thursday and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Luck was shut down by the Colts after a short throwing session on Thursday, which isn’t a great sign. If Luck can’t go, veteran Matt Hasselbeck would get the start.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is likewise dealing with a shoulder injury, which kept him out of last week’s loss to the Carolina Panthers. The 0-3 Saints host the Cowboys on Sunday night and during an appearance on Ellen this week Brees vowed to play in that game.

“I’m very confident I will be able to,” Brees said. “I practiced today. I feel good. So we’ll see how it progresses. But there’s not anything that’s going to keep me off the field this Sunday.”

It also looks like DeMarco Murray will be back this week after missing Week 3. The Eagles running back was a late scratch last Sunday with a hamstring injury, and a limited participant in Philadelphia’s Wednesday practice, but he practiced in full on Thursday and should be good to go against the Redskins.

The news is not as good for Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz who, after declaring himself ready to play early this week, suffered a setback with his calf injury in his first practice back with New York on Wednesday. On Thursday, Giants coach Tom Coughlin declared him out for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.

“Victor tried it yesterday, and it did not feel right to him, and so he did not practice — just a little bit at the very beginning,” Coughlin said. “Obviously we’re all disappointed in that. … We’ll get him back in rehab, get him back to work and see when we can get him back on the field.”


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys