The Ravens defense has come under attack for most of the 2012 season.
Unlike most seasons where they typically sit atop the league's rankings, the defense has been in the bottom third of most statistical categories this year.
But none of that mattered on Sunday night, as it was the defense – just like old times – that carried the Ravens to a 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
"The rankings don't mean one thing to us," Head Coach John Harbaugh said after the win. "Everybody talks about that all they want. The prognosticators make their prognostications, and that's good, and that's what should be done, and you base it on stats and all that other kind of stuff. But then the game gets played."
In arguably their finest showing of the season, the Ravens defense held the Steelers to 311 total yards, forced three turnovers and kept Pittsburgh from making a fourth-quarter comeback to tie the game or take the lead.
On a night where the Ravens offense had trouble moving the football and was unable to find the end zone, it was the defense that led the way for the Ravens' eighth* *win on the season. The performance earned Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees the game ball from Harbaugh.
"We felt good because we knew that's how we could play," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
The Steelers' lone touchdown came on their opening drive, when quarterback Byron Leftwich, who played for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, scrambled for a 31-yard score on a broken play. After that point, the Ravens kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone for the next 59 minutes and 17 seconds.
"I'm proud of them for that," Harbaugh said. "We always thought we could be a good defense."
It was a total team effort for the defense. And it wasn't the usual suspects making all the big plays.
Cornerback Corey Graham, who started in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, came up with an acrobatic interception in the third quarter after the Steelers marched into Ravens' territory. Graham also made a key pass breakup in the end zone on receiver Mike Wallace and broke up a pass for tight end Heath Miller on Pittsburgh's final drive.
"Corey Graham came up big," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He played really well."
In addition to Graham, reserves like recently-signed cornerback Chris Johnson and safety James Ihedigbo came up big. Johnson's hit on Wallace forced a first-quarter fumble that led to the Ravens' first points, and Ihedigbo's sack on Leftwich in the fourth quarter forced a Steelers' punt and allowed the Ravens to run more than three minutes off the clock to secure a win.
Overall, the Ravens defensive front was stout for much of the game and got pressure on Leftwich in the backfield. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger led the pass rush, and finished with one sack, one quarterback hit and two tackles.
"We're finally playing the type of ball we know we can play," Kruger said.
The defense stepped up in a big way, but the tune after the game was that the group still has plenty of room to grow.
"We need to become better," Harbaugh said. "We still need to be a better football team. We can play a lot better than we played tonight, and we're going to have to play a lot better than we played tonight. And that will be our challenge going forward, to become a better football team."
Improving through the final six weeks of the season is a priority for the Ravens, but the numbers aren't the chief concern. Harbaugh and a number of defensive players emphasized that the rankings don't matter much when the Ravens are sitting at 8-2 and leading the division.
"It's definitely something new for us, but I'm starting to believe that the numbers really don't matter for the simple fact that we've been a top-10 defense for years, and yet we have no* *Super Bowl rings to count for them," Suggs said. "Last year in the AFC championship, we lost to the 31st-ranked defense. I guess the numbers are all good for [the media] to pile on, but I guess the only thing that matters is wins and losses."
The defensive effort was worthy of praise after the game, but Suggs pointed out that the performance came against a team playing without its starting quarterback and starting wide receiver Antonio Brown.
The next step is for the Ravens to continue that success against a team's top unit, which they will have to do next week when they travel to San Diego to face the Chargers, who beat the Ravens 34-14 last season.
"We played good defense, but we got to be able to do it against a starting quarterback – they had their second string quarterback in – but next week we have Philip Rivers and he torched us last year," Suggs said. "We'll see how we do next week."