It’s hard to find much positivity in a double-digit home playoff loss, but if there was one that stood out amongst all others for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their defeat at the hands of the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, I think that the special teams play of the likes of their reserve safeties, Ross Ventrone and Shamarko Thomas, should be near the top of that short list.
Between the two of them, the Steelers special teams downed a punt on the seven-yard line, made three tackles on kickoffs, and blocked a punt. Of course, Thomas also drew an unnecessary roughness call and a 15-yard penalty after tackling a returner out of bounds, but as Mike Tomlin likes to say, he would rather have to tell a player ‘whoa’ than ‘sick ‘em’, and it’s not as though the second-year safety has shown a propensity for drawing flags.
The first opportunity that either player had to show off their special teams prowess came a little prior to midway through the opening quarter, as the Steelers’ opening drive stalled out just on the cusp of field goal range.
Pittsburgh settled for a Brad Wing punt, and fortunately, he got off a good one, with solid hangtime, that bounced inside the 10-yard line. Ventrone was the first man down there, turning the jammer inside out on the right side of the formation, forcing the returner off his spot, and catching the ball off the bounce at the seven-yard line.
After the Steelers scored a field goal with less than a minute to play in the first half, the Ravens resolved to determine whether or not to take a knee based on the success of the ensuing return. Thomas made sure there would be a knee.
With Jacoby Jones taking the ball out from eight yards deep, Thomas lined up furthest left of the kicker and stalked behind the action until he got a read on the returner. Eluding the up back, Thomas showed off his closing instinct by pulling Jones down at the 16-yard line.
With the Ravens getting the ball right back to start the second half, however, Jones had another chance to make the Steelers pay. This time it was Ventrone in line to stop him, and it just so happened to be at the 16-yard line again.
Ventrone was lined up to the left of the kicker, third player nearest the sideline. After racing down the field, he only had to get inside one blocker to gain access to the returner, grabbing hold of his leg.
With the Steelers desperate for anything so late in the game, the Ravens punted at the two-minute warning, and it was Thomas providing a slice of life. With eight rushers to eight blockers, it should have been simple, but Thomas was able to get outside of the fullback blocking at the line and got a piece of the ball, sending it out of the end zone for a safety.