— For at least one night, the Ravens returned to their defensive roots.
Taking advantage of the absence of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the unit harassed replacement Byron Leftwich, knocked out running back Isaac Redman (concussion) and kept speedy wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders in check to propel the Ravens to a 13-10 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday night.
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The defense that helped the Ravens win for the third time in their past four trips to Pittsburgh did not look like the unit that had surrendered an average of 390.2 yards through the first nine contests, a number that earned the defense the No. 27 ranking in the NFL and proclamations that the Ravens were now built on the offense.
Instead, the Steelers managed 311 yards of total offense, compared with their season average of 354.1.
It's a positive sign for a unit much maligned over the first half of the season, but outside linebacker Terrell Suggs had said before the contest that the defense had to keep building on its performances.
"I think it's huge," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "Other than that first drive, letting them drive down the field and getting that touchdown, I think we did a great job today. A lot of people stepped up. Paul Kruger is definitely one of those guys. We had a great defensive game throughout the whole game."
The defensive effort was much appreciated as the offense seemed unable to find much footing in the game. While Joe Flacco and his unit could muster just two Justin Tucker field goals to show for their 203 yards of total offense, had back-to-back three-and-outs spanning the third and fourth quarters, and had the ball for almost six minutes fewer than Pittsburgh did.
The defense may have been tired, but inside linebacker Jameel McClain said there were no complaints from that side of the ball.
"We do a good job of working our conditioning in practice, and that's the Ravens mentality," he said. "It doesn't matter what happens on the other side. We're going to be ready 24-7, and that's what the defense did. Whatever happened, we ran out on the field and we ran in and ran out." The defense kept the team's losses to a minimum.
After a major gaffe in which Leftwich split strong safety Bernard Pollard and cornerback Corey Graham for a first-drive touchdown on a 31-yard run (the longest of the 10-year veteran's career), the defense ended Pittsburgh's next series of possessions with a forced fumble caused by cornerback Chris Johnson and recovered by free safety Ed Reed, a sack by outside linebacker Paul Kruger and three three-and-outs in four Steelers' drives.
Johnson's play was significant not only because the Ravens had signed the former Oakland Raider on Tuesday, but also because his strip negated a 15-yard completion to Wallace that would have given Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs.
Johnson played in place of second-year man Chykie Brown, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees had sounded like he would have no hesitation using Johnson immediately.
Kruger not only sacked Leftwich on the ensuing possession, but he also hit Leftwich as he released another throw on third-and-10 on the Steelers' next series.
Between Leftwich's touchdown run and Shaun Suisham's 22-yard field goal with 34 seconds left in the third quarter, Pittsburgh did not score. And when the Steelers marched across midfield to open the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata sacked Leftwich to force a punt and end that threat.
"I thought the defense stepped up," McClain said. "Obviously, we had some mistakes we can correct, but all in all, we played solid ball, and we communicated like we were supposed to and we got it done when we needed to."