There was no Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward or Ray Lewis, but as both teams predicted all week, it turned out to be more of the same with the Ravens-Steelers rivalry.
In a tense game dominated by both defenses, Ravens return man Jacoby Jones made the game's decisive play with a 63-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter. The Ravens' defense did the rest in a 13-10 victory over the Byron Leftwich-led Steelers in front of an announced 63,446 at Heinz Field.
The Ravens improved to 8-2 on the season and now have a two-game lead in the AFC North. The Steelers fell to 6-4. The two teams will play again in two weeks, but up next for the Ravens is a West Coast trip to face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday afternoon.
“It's never pretty in this game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I think it's the usual, right? Three-point spread? Isn't that what these usually are? We got a typical Pittsburgh-Baltimore game.”
After allowing a touchdown in the opening minute of the game on a 31-yard scramble by Leftwich, the Ravens' defense wouldn't allow the Steelers into the end zone again. Trailing 13-10, the Steelers got the ball back at their 16 with 1:05 to play and no timeouts, but they did nothing with it, and the Ravens poured onto the field to celebrate their latest victory over their division rival and third consecutive regular-season win at Heinz Field.
"It wasn't the same kind of game because [Lewis] wasn't playing, [Lardarius Webb] wasn't playing,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They had a couple of key guys out. It's bittersweet. You're glad to win, but you don't want to leave no stone unturned. You don't want them to be able to have no excuses, to be able to say, 'Oh, Ben didn't play.' But we'll take the W. We'd prefer the W with [Roethlisberger] under center and [Troy Polamalu] out there.”
Leftwich committed his first turnover on the Steelers' first drive of the third quarter. After a 37-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders put the ball into Ravens' territory, Leftwich tried to force another ball to Sanders but cornerback Corey Graham, getting the start with Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith sidelined, stepped in front of it at the 18. He returned it all the way to the Ravens' 38.
The Ravens converted the turnover into points. A 23-yard completion from Flacco to Anquan Boldin and a key 8-yard third-down catch by Ray Rice put Justin Tucker in position to hit a 39-yard field goal. That gave the Ravens a 13-7 lead with 6:49 left in the third quarter.
But the Steelers, whose offense had done nothing since their opening drive, answered immediately. With Pittsburgh getting the ball at its 16, Leftwich hit running back Jonathan Dwyer for a 15-yard gain. The Steelers then started to get their running game going with Dwyer running for gains of seven and 11 yards.
A 23-yard completion by Leftwich to Sanders, coupled by an unnecessary-roughness penalty on Ed Reed, who was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit, put the ball down to the Ravens' 12. After an 8-yard run by Dwyer advanced the ball to the 4, Leftwich threw back-to-back incompletions to the right corner of the end zone.
Shaun Suisham then hit a 22-yard field goal to cap a 12-play, 80-yard drive and cut the Ravens' lead to 13-10 with 37 seconds to play in the third quarter.
On their next two drives, both in the fourth quarter, the Steelers advanced into Ravens' territory but a sack by Haloti Ngata forced a punt on one drive and a sack by reserve safety James Ihedigbo forced a punt on the next.
With Roethlisberger on the sideline with his right arm in a sling, Leftwich was making his first start since 2009. The Steelers talked all week about tailoring their offense to suit the veteran's skill set.
Sure enough, on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage, Leftwich threw the ball deep down to the left sideline to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace. The pass fell incomplete, but Ravens cornerback Cary Williams was called for pass interference on the play, a 42-yard penalty.
Two plays later, Leftwich rolled out to his right, outrunning Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs to get out of the pocket. He then broke through an arm tackle attempt by safety Bernard Pollard on his way down the sideline for a 31-yard touchdown run. It was the longest touchdown run of his career.
"We said he was a statue,” Suggs said. “We said that he wasn't going to move and he proved all of us wrong."
The Ravens then went three-and-out on their first possession and lost one of their top playmakers in the process. Tight end Dennis Pitta, who was hit by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Clark while making a 5-yard catch on third down, sustained a concussion on the play and didn't return to the game.
But trailing 7-0, the Ravens got a big lift from one of their newest defensive players. On third-and-10, Leftwich hit Wallace on a slant but cornerback Chris Johnson, who was playing in his first game this season, stripped Wallace of the ball. Safety Ed Reed recovered it at the Steelers' 29 and ran it all the way to the 12-yard line.
The Ravens were forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal by rookie Justin Tucker to put them on the board. They'd get into the end zone about five minutes later, but it would happen with their offense on the sideline.
Jones, whom the Ravens acquired this offseason to provide big plays in big games just like this, fielded a 51-yard punt from rookie Drew Butler at the Ravens' 37. He cut toward the left sideline and then cut back up the field, where he found plenty of open green grass. The last man to beat was Butler and Jones did that with relative ease to finish off a 63-yard touchdown run.
"It's a Ravens-Steelers game. ... We expected this to be a net punting-type game and a significant play was going to swing it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Unfortunately for us, they provided a significant play with the punt return."
Jones' touchdown, which he culminated with an elaborate dance in the corner of the end zone, gave the Ravens a 10-7 lead and was his third return touchdown this season. No other Raven has ever done that.
Jones' heroics provided the last points of the half. After getting off to a slow start, the Ravens' defense stiffened, particularly on third down. Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger abused rookie right tackle Mike Adams for a sack and two hurries on Leftwich on three straight third downs. All told, the Steelers were just 1-for-8 on third downs for the half.
The Ravens weren't much better, going 2-for-8 in such situations. They advanced down to the Steelers' 19 early in the second quarter, but a false start on left guard Jah Reid, a Flacco incompletion and a two-yard completion to tight end Ed Dickson forced a field goal. Tucker then sent a 41-yard attempt wide right for just his second miss of the season.
The Ravens, who had just 20 yards rushing on 13 carries in the first half, advanced inside Steelers' territory on two more drives in the second quarter but never got close enough for Tucker to get another first-half attempt.
The two teams combined for 10 total punts in a first half which ended with the Ravens leading 10-7.
“That's how it's going to be,” Graham said. “We have to find a way to go out there and get it done. We haven't been playing the best the last couple of weeks or the whole season some people say but you know, we find a way to get wins and that we were able to go out there and do today.”