Five thoughts on the Ravens' 21-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
This Win Changes Everything
Talk about 60 minutes changing everything. After the Ravens extended their losing streak to four games with a dismal loss to the New York Jets on Oct. 23, it was difficult to envision them doing much of anything this season. But after getting healthier during the bye and throttling the Steelers to end their losing streak, they're in first place in the AFC North with reason to feel optimistic about what lies ahead. No, they don't have a winning record, and no, their offense didn't light it up by any means Sunday, reaching the end zone just once. But in dominating the Steelers, the Ravens offered a blueprint for how they can win more games and make
things interesting down the stretch. It's not an unfamiliar blueprint – strong defense, stellar special teams play and enough offense to get the job done – but it has worked well for a long time, and if this game is any indication, this defense might have the shoulders to carry the load.
Here's What The Ravens Defense Did So Right …
The Steelers wound up with decent offensive statistics and more total yards than the Ravens, but that's misleading. Pittsburgh's offense produced just two first downs in the first three quarters. The Ravens defense completely dominated Ben Roethlisberger and his unit until Baltimore had a 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter. All of the Steelers' points and most of their yards came in what amounted to garbage time. What did the Ravens defense do so right? The key was stout interior play from Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan and Michael Pierce. The Steelers' Le'Veon Bell is a tremendous weapon, but he had nowhere to run Sunday and simply was no factor. "We got back to playing Ravens football" up front, Terrell Suggs said. Then there was the play of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, who didn't let the Steelers receivers make any plays until late in the game. Smith is playing his best football since his foot injury two years ago, and Young was such a revelation Sunday that he was awarded a game ball. The undersized rookie, a fourth-round pick, was projected as a slot corner, but he's outgrowing that projection and seemingly settling in as a starter after helping keep Antonio Brown in check. He's a big find.
Even Though It Didn't Gain Many Yards, The Rushing Offense Was The Difference
In some respects, the Ravens offense looked a lot like the one that struggled during the losing streak. The running game never got untracked, producing just 50 yards on 29 attempts. The passing game was good for one huge play, a 95-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Mike Wallace – the longest play from scrimmage in Ravens history – but otherwise sputtered, especially on third downs (the Ravens failed to convert 13 of their 17 thirds into firsts). Penalties were a problem again, as was the offense's inability to reach the end zone. Familiar stuff. But Head Coach John Harbaugh said he thought the offense was "better" than before the bye, and I agree for this reason: Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg didn't abandon the run. The Ravens actually were balanced on offense with 34 passing plays and 29 rushing plays, as opposed to Flacco firing the ball all over the lot, which was often the case before the bye. The Ravens aren't going to win many games that way. They had to get their run-pass balance under control, and they did. Even though the running game wasn't productive yardage-wise, it occupied the Steelers defense, kept Roethlisberger off the field (the Ravens had four-plus more minutes of possession) and enabled the Ravens to hold a lead this time instead of letting it slip away.
Ravens Blocking Kicks Is Officially A Trend
Another week, another blocked kick. That's four in eight games for the Ravens this year, a league high, and none have been bigger than Sunday's. With the Ravens leading, 13-0, but struggling to put the Steelers away, running back Javorius Allen skirted the line and smothered a punt early in the fourth quarter. Chris Moore picked up the loose ball and raced 14 yards for a score that effectively put the game away. It was the high point of another big day for the Ravens special teams, which continue to be difference-makers. The punt coverage unit, which struggled earlier in the year, kept Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown in check. Kicker Justin Tucker kept his perfect season alive, booting a pair of field goals and an extra point. (He's now 20-for-20 on field goals.) The only negative was the inability of Devin Hester to be decisive on several punt return opportunities. But with Sunday's blocked kick, the Ravens have now blocked two field goals, one punt and an extra point in 2016. It's officially a trend. Going back to 2014, no NFL team has blocked more kicks.
Everyone is going to be all over rookie tackle Ronnie Stanley, who had his "welcome to the NFL" moment courtesy of the Steelers' James Harrison. Stanley was flagged for four penalties. It was rough. But remember, this was just his fourth pro game, and his first after taking a month off due to injury. He needs to perform better, no doubt, but give him time to breathe … The Ravens defense could have added to their excellent performance with three interceptions, but Lardarius Webb, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley flubbed catchable picks … When Roethlisberger passed for 54 yards in the first three quarters, it was tempting to say he was feeling the effects of the knee injury that caused him to miss a game. But then he passed for 210 yards in the fourth quarter, so there goes the "injured" explanation. The Ravens' longtime nemesis just wasn't very good for three quarters. The Ravens defense got the best of him.