The Ravens have changed the DNA of their defense this season, forcing turnovers that have turned several games in their favor.
Roquan Smith, Patrick Queen and Marcus Williams all had interceptions in the red zone in Week 14 – huge plays that helped lift Baltimore to a 16-14 victory in Pittsburgh. Baltimore entered the game with 20 takeaways, tied with Jacksonville for most in the AFC, and it's been a point of emphasis since training camp. Last year, the Ravens had just 15 takeaways and knew they needed to improve in that area.
They have done so, and it has made a dramatic difference.
"We've got a lot of playmakers. It's fun," defensive end Calais Campbell said."That's the way we've been all year. I don't know where we are in the turnover battle but we've got to be pretty high up there."
Baltimore's first takeaway was by Smith, who made an instant impact in his first Ravens-Steelers game. The All-Pro inside linebacker has been an every-down player throughout his career because he's a playmaker against both the run and the pass. He dropped into coverage and read quarterback Mitch Tribusky's intent to connect with tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Smith and Tribusky used to be teammates with the Bears and practiced against each other on a daily basis. Smith knows the quarterback's Tribusky's tendencies, and in this case read him like a book.
"I got a lot of respect for the guy. He made a throw and had to pay for it," Smith said.
Queen's interception was even more spectacular, as he went high in the air to snag a Tribusky pass less than a minute before halftime.
It was a costly mistake for Tribusky with the Steelers already in field goal range. Queen has dropped some would-be interceptions during his career, so to make one with such a high degree of difficulty was rewarding.
"Never talk about Patrick Queen's hands again," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Actually, he made that demand in the locker room. Those were great interceptions by him and Roquan. And then Marcus, coming back to make that play shows what he's capable of. Those are game-changing plays for sure."
Queen made a quick read on Tribusky's eyes to put himself in position to make the play, stepping in front of a pass intended for Freiermuth.
"I just knew when I saw Mitch check his way," Queen said. "It's just trusting the defense and doing our job. Trusting each other and do your job. Instincts take over for sure. I really thought he overthrew me for a second."
Williams was playing his first game since breaking his wrist Week 5 against the Bengals, but he has clearly not lost his nose for the football. Signed as a free agent this offseason, Williams immediately showed his ball skills with three interceptions in Baltimore's first two games, and in the fourth quarter against the Steelers, he ranged far to his right to chase haul down a deep pass by Tribusky near the goal line.
Most safeties can't cover as much territory as Williams, which puts him in position to make plays that others can't. His acquisition was part of Baltimore's determination to have a more opportunistic defense, and that characteristic has been huge for the Ravens this season.
"It's definitely something that we work on," Campbell said. "The coaches, we practice everything. We stay focused and locked in. When the opportunities come through, we make plays."