A strong defense can overcome only so much. Quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and the other Baltimore Ravens weren’t much of a problem for the Steelers defense Sunday night. But the unit couldn’t make up for a lame outing by the offense and a huge special teams breakdown.
Ravens 13, Steelers 10.
The defense deserved so much better in a loss that left Baltimore (8-2) in complete charge of the AFC North Division, two games better than the Steelers (6-4) with, at least until the teams meet again Dec. 2 in Baltimore, the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The defense did what it had to do on a night that backup quarterback Byron Leftwich played in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger and had his struggles. The importance of a franchise quarterback, anyone? The defense gave the team a chance to win by playing its best game of the season. It nearly pitched a shutout, basically holding the Ravens to one field goal drive. The Ravens finished with 200 yards of offense and punted on eight of their 11 possessions.
Funny, though, none of the defensive players felt all that good about themselves afterward.
“No, no, no,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We had to find a way to make a play for our offense. We had to make a statement play to change the game. We didn’t do that.”
It’s true, the Steelers defense didn’t force a turnover. The Ravens had two, the first after a fumble by wide receiver Mike Wallace in the first quarter, the other in the third quarter when Leftwich threw an interception. The Steelers defense also didn’t get a sack in the first three quarters, although linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison each had one in the fourth.
“I don’t know why the big plays aren’t coming,” Clark said. “I’ve never played with cornerbacks” — Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis — “who are playing at a high level like this. It has to be something on the inside with the linebackers and the safeties.”
Still, the Steelers defense was brilliant.
The dominance started on the Ravens’ first offensive play. Defensive end Brett Keisel slammed into Flacco as he threw, forcing an incompletion. This would not be a good night for Flacco, who couldn’t get the Ravens into the end zone.
Good defenses always talk about turning a short field for the opponent into a field goal instead of a touchdown. The Steelers did that on the Ravens’ second possession, which started on the Steelers 12 after Ed Reed picked up the fumble by Wallace and returned it 17 yards. First, nose tackle Casey Hampton, then linebacker LaMarr Woodley made big plays on two runs by the Ravens. Early in the third quarter, Woodley was stout against the run again, tackling Rice for no gain on a third-and-1 play from the Ravens 39. Rice — one of the best backs in the NFL — finished with 40 yards on 20 carries.
Clark was right on about the Steelers cornerbacks. Taylor and Lewis played strong games. Taylor did a great job breaking up a deep pass for wide receiver Torrey Smith, whom he helped to hold to just one catch for 7 yards. Lewis — perhaps the Steelers’ most improved player — was all over the field. In one three-play sequence in the second quarter, he tackled wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a 2-yard gain, wide receiver Jacoby Jones for a 4-yard gain and Jones for a 3-yard loss. In the third quarter, on consecutive plays, he broke up a pass for Boldin in the end zone and knocked the ball away from Jones on a sideline pattern.
The Ravens’ other points came on a 63-yard punt return by Jones in the first quarter and an eight-play, 41-yard field-goal drive in the third quarter.
That’s winning defense.
Again, Clark disagreed.
“When you’re down a quarterback, you need to make a play, not give one up,” he said. “Our quarterback doesn’t play on the punt team. It was mostly defensive players out there. That’s a part of us. We didn’t do the job.”
Jones’ punt return was a killer, but you had the feeling the Steelers offense — also playing without injured star wide receiver Antonio Brown — could have played all night and not scored a second touchdown. Leftwich scored on a unlikely 31-yard scramble on the second play of the game, but that was it. Three times, the offense had the ball in the fourth quarter and couldn’t deliver.
When last seen after the game, Roethlisberger was headed into the early morning chill, his right arm in a sling. It’s unlikely that he will be back from his shoulder and rib injuries for the game at Cleveland Sunday.
It’s clear, isn’t it?
The defense is going to have to find a way to play even better for the Steelers to hang around in the wild-card chase.