PITTSBURGH (AP) — John Harbaugh told his young team you’re not really a Baltimore Raven until you’ve beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Justin Tucker has. Many times.
His team on the cusp of letting a winnable game on the road get away, the NFL’s best kicker added another notch to his remarkable resume during a 26-23 victory on Sunday. The Ravens snapped a two-game losing streak and pushed the Steelers to the brink of also-ran status in the process.
Tucker drilled four field goals in all, including a 48-yarder in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime and a 46-yarder with 5:26 left in the extra period — both into the tricky winds at the open end of Heinz Field. He capped an emotional day that saw one of the AFC’s most bitter rivalries begin anew.
“We’re young but we’re figuring it out,” Harbaugh said.
Having Tucker certainly helps. His pinpoint kickoffs — dropping the ball near the goal line, forcing Pittsburgh to return instead of settle for a touchback — played a role in Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s unorthodox decision sending his defense out first in overtime even though an offensive touchdown would have won the game outright.
“We couldn’t get back to the 15, why would I sign up for that?” Tomlin said. “I put the defense on the field in an effort to fight for field position and put the onus on them to get the stop. When we got the ball, we got it on the 30-something, which is dramatically different than when our kickoff return team took the field all afternoon.”
Harbaugh wasn’t caught off guard when Pittsburgh chose to let Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson get the first crack with the game extended beyond four quarters.
“Give Tomlin a lot of credit, he knows this place better than anyone,” Harbaugh said. “I think we probably know it the second best because we play here so much. For our kicker to be able to make that kick in the end with the wind blowing says something about him, (holder) Sam Koch and (long snapper) Morgan (Cox), and our whole field-goal protection team because it was an all-out rush as well.”
Tucker, however, wasn’t so sure his winner was going to make it. It fluttered toward the left upright and appeared to be going wide before moving right as if flicked by an invisible finger.
“My dad sent me a text right after the game saying, (an angel) might have blown that ball inside the upright just a little bit,” Tucker said. “As soon as it came off my foot, I knew it would have a chance just given the conditions. Several of the kicks I had today I kind of wish I would have hit them a little better, but at the end of the day, we made them.”
He almost always does. Tucker has now made 41 of 43 field goal attempts against the Steelers in his career (95 percent). He was perfect on a cloudy afternoon on a track where footing is treacherous even under ideal conditions.
“On a couple of (kicks), my plant leg kind of came out from under me,” Tucker said. “That is part of the reason why this is a notoriously tough place to kick, especially after a game like we saw today where the field is getting trampled. Just at the end of the day, being able to come through, make kicks, and help the team win.”
The field goals helped give the Ravens enough points to win. Yet he was just as lethal on kickoffs. Tucker kicked off six times in all. Three times he kept the ball short enough that the Steelers had to return it. Three times the Steelers failed to make it past their 15.
“Our special teams (are) something we are really proud of,” Tucker said. “We know they can help us win games. We aren’t trying to get through a game on special teams, we are trying to make the play that will make the impact in the game that will help us win.”
Baltimore needed Tucker to be special on an afternoon in which the Ravens let a 10-point halftime lead slip away. Jackson threw three interceptions, two of which gave the Steelers a short field, and the defense let Pittsburgh backup quarterback Devlin Hodges provide a spark when Mason Rudolph sustained a concussion in the third quarter after getting knocked out by Baltimore safety Earl Thomas.
“We just stepped up in so many different situations and found a way to win the game,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of things were going against us. A lot of things did not go our way. Our guys kept their poise. Our guys didn’t get overwhelmed by the moment and found a way ultimately to win the game.”