John Harbaugh has the best kicker in the NFL, currently and possibly ever. Yet, trailing by one point, he left Justin Tucker on the sideline Sunday night and went for a 2-point conversion in the dying seconds at Pittsburgh.
Lamar Jackson didn't quite have enough touch on his pass to an open Mark Andrews, and the Ravens (8-4) fell 20-19 to the Steelers. The defeat dropped Baltimore from the overall lead in the AFC.
It seemed one of the stranger decisions of a strange NFL season. But Harbaugh, one of the league's best coaches, quickly explained his reasoning.
“We tried to win the game right there. We were pretty much out of corners at that point in time," Harbaugh said without noting that Baltimore's secondary has been leaky all season no matter who is playing. "It was an opportunity for us to win the game right there.”
Considering the versatility of Jackson, it probably was a strong opportunity. But the one item not a major part of Jackson's bag of tricks is the finesse pass, which is what this play called for.
“You saw the play. It’s that close," Harbaugh said. "It’s a game of inches. You saw the speech in, `Any Given Sunday,' right? That’s football. It’s just that close.”
As is the entire AFC race.
Baltimore's decision surprised its archrivals. And didn't.
“I was a little surprised because I ran off the field," said DE Cam Heyward, who is not on special teams. "But we called the timeout, bought me an extra couple of seconds. At first, I thought (Andrews) scored, because he had it in his hand and then he dropped it. But I mean, it’s just one or two plays that go your way.”
Harbaugh's gamble was in character, according to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has gone up against the Ravens coach for nearly 14 seasons.
“You know what, coach Harbaugh, Miami (Ohio) guy, nothing surprises me," Big Ben said. "And that’s why he’s, you know, I consider him a great football coach because he takes those chances and believes in his team, and as a player, I’m sure they love that belief in them.”
Fair enough, and who is to say the Ravens would have won a coin toss to start overtime, marched downfield and scored a touchdown to end it without putting their secondary on the field?
But the decision brings into focus just how difficult crunch time can be for coaches. There is no accepted manual on how to manage such situations. Many times, the gut feeling is the best approach.
Unfortunately, very few head coaches have the, well, guts to go with their gut. Far too many of them coach not to lose rather to win. Is there anything more frustrating than watching your team go into the prevent defense? Cliche warning: All the prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.
See what happened in Detroit, which is pretty emblematic of what the Vikings have gone through in 2021. A team talented enough to be high in the mix for the NFC wild-card spots, they fell to 5-7 in great part because they shut down the throttle. Minnesota added a two-point defeat to losses by eight, seven and four points; by three points in a pair of overtime games; and 34-33 at Arizona.
In pretty much handing the Lions (1-10-1) their initial victory of the season, the Vikings went into such a defensive shell, and offense-challenged Detroit went 75 yards in 1:50. Without a timeout.
Jared Goff threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown just beyond the goal line as time expired — with the Vikings' defensive backs far too deep in the end zone.
Minnesota's three-man rush backfired big time.
“In hindsight, we would have loved to have gotten more pressure on him,” coach Mike Zimmer said of Goff, "but I didn’t think we were covering very well. I thought we needed more people in coverage than we did up front. Obviously, that didn’t work.”
It very often doesn't.
The lesson? It hurts more to be passive and lose than to be super aggressive and lose.
“Honestly if we would’ve converted the 2-point conversion we would’ve been having a different conversation right now," said Ravens linebacker Josh Bynes. "Let’s be real. We’d be talking about how we found a way to win.
“At the end of the day they found a way to make one play and we didn’t. That’s what it came down to. That’s what these games are about, especially this late in the season. They made one extra play.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves and Larry Lage, and freelancers Dave Hogg and Dan Scifo contributed.
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Barry Wilner, The Associated Press