PITTSBURGH - It hadn't been the smoothest game for Torrey Smith.
Actually, that's a massive understatement. It was set to go down as the roughest game of the rookie wide receiver's young career.
On the very first play from scrimmage last night, Smith was called for a holding penalty which wiped out a 76-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice. Replays showed Smith's block was a clean one, but he was whistled for an infraction nonetheless, taking six points off the board.
Then came the drops.
A slant in which Smith should have made an easy sliding catch. A simple out-route in which Joe Flacco's pass hit Smith square in the hands before falling to the turf. And then, worst of all, a deep route with 42 seconds left where Smith had a shot at pulling in the game-winning touchdown grab, only to have the ball flutter through his fingertips.
When that pass hit the Heinz Field turf, you could feel the air sucked out of the Ravens' comeback hopes. It stood to wonder whether Smith might fall back into the inconsistent stretch he put together during the preseason, when drops and mental errors were nearly a weekly occurrence from the second-round pick.
"For me, after I dropped those couple of balls, I was down for a second," Smith said last night. "At the same time, I've been through (earlier struggles), starting with the Redskins game in the preseason. My teammates warned me, 'Move on to the next play. You're going to make a big one.' "
Were they ever right.
Just four plays after the end zone drop, with 14 seconds left on the clock, Smith was supposed to run a speed-out. Instead, when he saw Steelers cornerback William Gay was matched up on him in press coverage, Smith changed his route and just sprinted to the end zone. He got a step on the cornerback, fought off Gay's pass interference, gave a slight push-off with his left hand to create extra separation and made a sliding catch.
Touchdown. Ravens win. Smith goes from goat to hero.
"Unbelievable," tight end Dennis Pitta said of Smith's play. "He just keeps fighting. He has no quit in him. This is the second consecutive week that he made a big play at the end to put us in position to win it. My hat's off to him. What an unbelievable job."
Flacco insists he never lost confidence in Smith despite the drops. Under pressure, the embattled quarterback kept looking for the struggling wide receiver, and it paid big dividends in the end.
"It's not my job to get down on Torrey, and it's not his job, either," Flacco said. "I could tell he was feeling a little bad about dropping those few, but what are you going to do? If I don't go to him, I really don't have anywhere else to go. I have to go to Torrey and I hope he makes the play. He's a playmaker, and when you need to make a big play down the field, he's the best guy for that. On that last drive, we went to him a couple times and finally, it worked."
"For me to drop those couple of balls and mess up (Flacco's) rhythm, that was the most frustrating part for me, just letting him down," Smith said. "Our teammates as well, but specifically him. For him to keep coming back to me, it meant a lot."
Smith finished the game with five catches for 71 yards, and the touchdown marked his first score since he put up three TDs in the first quarter against the Rams back in Week 3.
In an instant, the baggage put on Smith's shoulders earlier in the game - the holding penalty, the drops - was lifted. The Ravens kept looking for the rookie out of Maryland, and eventually, Smith delivered in a big way.
"That's what football is all about," head coach John Harbaugh said. "You walk through the fire and come out untouched. You get purified by it, and that's what he does. He walks off to the sideline, and our guys do nothing but put their arms around him and tell him, 'You're going to make a play.' That's why we're a team."
Regardless of what happens the rest of Smith's career, he'll remember Sunday night. All of it.
The miscues, the mistakes and, of course, the play.