PITTSBURGH (AP) — Earl Thomas saw Mason Rudolph step up in the pocket and took aim at what the Baltimore Ravens safety considered Pittsburgh quarterback's "strike zone." One ugly and illegal collision later, Rudolph lay motionless on the Heinz Field turf and one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries was reborn.
Thomas' crunching hit to Rudolph's chin left Rudolph with a concussion and Pittsburgh's season in the hands of undrafted rookie free agent quarterback Devlin Hodges. While Hodges filled in admirably after Rudolph woozily made his way off the field and to a nearby hospital for further evaluation, the Ravens pulled out a 26-23 overtime victory that could have a significant ripple effect on both teams' seasons.
Baltimore (3-2) snapped a two-game skid when safety Marlon Humphrey stripped Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 34 early in the extra period. Justin Tucker slipped a 46-yard field goal through the uprights four plays later as the Ravens won at Heinz Field for a second straight season.
"(When overtime started) I was on the sideline and I was thinking, 'Whatever happens right now, somebody's going to make a big play and going to be remembered forever in the outcome of this game,'" Humphrey said.
Maybe, but for all the weirdness of the game — from Lamar Jackson's three interceptions to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's decision to kick off in overtime instead of taking the ball to another crucial late-game fumble by Smith-Schuster — it's the visual of Rudolph unconscious on the turf in a silent stadium that will linger.
Trailing 17-13 and facing third-and-11 at the Pittsburgh 12 midway through the third quarter, Rudolph lined up in the shotgun and dropped back to pass. The play broke down and Rudolph scrambled to his left, stepping up the field in the process. He flicked the ball to teammate James Washington just before the crown of Thomas' helmet hit Rudolph under the chin. Rudolph limply fell to the ground and laid there with his eyes closed while medical personnel rushed to attend to him.
"I was just flying to the ball like I normally do," said Thomas, who signed with Baltimore in the offseason after becoming a perennial Pro Bowler with Seattle. "I was asking the ref what happened and they said upstairs said that a part of my helmet kind of hit him in the chin, and that's what caused the flag. I still believe that it wasn't intentional on my part."
Rudolph eventually came to as trainers cut off his face mask. He needed to be helped off the field by his teammates because the cart used to treat seriously hurt players stalled. Tomlin wasn't sure why the cart wasn't working.
"Ask somebody that is in charge of that," Tomlin said. "I don't drive carts and things of that nature."
The scene of players on both sides going down to one knee while Rudolph was being treated was eerily similar to the on-field reaction in Cincinnati in December 2017 when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier sustained a spinal injury. Shazier, currently on the physically unable to perform list while he continues his rehab from spinal stabilization surgery, walked over to Rudolph and briefly comforted him as Rudolph made his way to the locker room for further treatment and examination as the crowd chanted "Throw him out!" at Thomas.
"When you see somebody lying lifeless like that it kind of strikes a bell," Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree said. "Any human being that cares about somebody in that type of situation will feel a certain way. ... When something like that happens, it makes a trigger go off in your brain and you've got to control yourself."
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh likened the hit to "kind of like a boxing deal," adding he did not believe it was Thomas' intent to hit the 6-foot-5 Rudolph so high.
"It's fast and he's closing and Mason is running and he's not going down, throwing the ball," Harbaugh said.
Pittsburgh (1-4) did not fold after being forced to go with Hodges, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Samford who was signed to be a "camp" arm before organized team activities. He trotted onto the field when Rudolph slipped out of view and hardly looked nervous. He completed 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards and also had a 21-yard sprint to set up Chris Boswell's go-ahead field goal with 2:41 to play.
It wasn't quite enough to put away the Ravens. Jackson — with the help of a roughing the passer call on Steelers linebacker Ola Adeniyi — moved Baltimore in range to have Tucker tie it with 14 seconds to go.
Pittsburgh won the coin toss to start overtime, but curiously opted to kick the ball rather than receive it even though an offensive touchdown would have ended the game. Tomlin pointed to his team's ineffective kickoff return unit as one of the reasons for the decision. Tucker had consistently pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory throughout the game. It worked. Pittsburgh forced a punt and took over at its 34 before Humphrey's expertly timed forced fumble on Smith-Schuster swung the balance to the Ravens for good.
"I put the defense on the field in an effort to fight for field position and get the onus on them to get the stop," Tomlin said.
Ravens: Safety Tony Jefferson went down in the fourth quarter with a left knee injury.
Steelers: Washington left in the third quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return. Linebacker Mark Barron exited in the second quarter with a hamstring injury.
Ravens: Hosts AFC North rival Cincinnati next Sunday. The teams split their two meetings in 2018.
Steelers: Visit Los Angeles to face the Chargers next Sunday. Los Angeles beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 33-30 last season.