"This is a very special victory for us," coach John Harbaugh said. "Not just because it's a playoff win and we get the chance to advance, which is the most important part, but also because of who it comes against. (Kevin Richardson)
When strong safety Darian Stewart intercepted Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone Saturday, it completed a reversal of fortune for the Ravens secondary.
Stewart's interception — the second thrown by Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter — ended the Steelers' final trip into the red zone during the Ravens' 30-17 win in the AFC wild-card round at Heinz Field. And it gave the secondary a measure of redemption after the defense was embarrassed when it allowed six touchdown passes in the Ravens' 43-23 loss to Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Nov. 2.
The Ravens' secondary limited the impact of Roethlisberger and his talented receiving corps throughout the game Saturday, helping the team to advance to the AFC divisional round against the New England Patriots.
"Perfect timing, man," Stewart said. "We came in here with a chip on our shoulder from what they did to us last time and the way the media was talking about their receivers. As a defense, we just wanted to play big, and that's what we did. We knew what we were capable of."
On another play Saturday, Stewart prevented a touchdown by closely defending a pass in the end zone that was intended for Antonio Brown, not allowing the Steelers wide receiver to gain possession inbounds.
The Ravens allowed Roethlisberger to complete 31 of 45 passes for 334 yards and one touchdown Saturday, but he had just a 79.3 quarterback rating.
It was a far cry from how Roethlisberger exposed the Ravens' secondary two months ago, when he threw six touchdown passes and set an NFL record with 12 in a two-game stretch. During that game, Roethlisberger completed 25 of 37 passes for 340 yards, no interceptions and a 136.3 quarterback rating.
Roethlisberger was upset enough by his play Saturday night that he issued a blanket apology after the game to Steelers teammates, ownership, coaching staff and fans.
"I wish that I could apologize individually to everybody," Roethlisberger said. "I didn't play well enough to win, and guys look at me as the leader and the quarterback to make plays and to do what it takes to win the football game, and I didn't do that."
This time, the Ravens still had problems containing Brown, who finished with nine receptions for 117 yards on 14 targets. But Brown, who led the NFL with 129 catches during the regular season, never scored.
"As a group, man, we played OK," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We gave them a couple of big plays, kind of on miscommunication. We got to get a little bit better. We started off kind of slow. I would say I started off kind of slow.
"Altogether, the back end did a great job. The first time we came in here, they broke records. This time, a lot of guys had that on their minds. We went out and competed."
The Ravens' secondary has changed considerably since that Week 9 loss, which was the last game for cornerbacks Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks before they were cut.
The Ravens have lost cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (Liscfranc foot sprain), Danny Gorrer (knee), Asa Jackson (knee), Aaron Ross (torn Achilles tendon) and Tramain Jacobs (pulled hamstring) to season-ending injuries. They finished the regular season ranked 24th in pass defense, an improvement after being as low as 31st earlier in the year.
Webb has upgraded his play since a nerve injury and hematoma in his lower back have subsided over the past month. And former Miami Dolphins practice squad cornerback Rashaan Melvin has been productive by challenging receivers in press coverage.
"We've changed a lot of things, and it's a much different group now," Melvin said. "We've got a lot of confidence. We've been getting better and better. We're improving every week."
Webb and Melvin had eight tackles and seven tackles, respectively, against the Steelers. They allowed the Steelers receivers to make plays, including Martavis Bryant's 6-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter with Webb defending. But overall, the unit did enough to give the Ravens control of the game.
"Our defensive backs played tremendously well, Webb and Rashaan playing corner against these wide receivers," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Our safeties in the back end kept things in front and on top, with the exception of one big play, which is a tremendous catch by Antonio Brown. I thought those guys did a great job."
Now, the Ravens face another challenging game against one of the most respected quarterbacks in NFL history. The Patriots' Tom Brady is a two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and a 10-time Pro Bowl selection who has passed for 53,258 yards and 392 touchdown passes in his career.
"Everybody enjoys this one for 24 hours, but I'm letting this game go," Webb said late Saturday in the Ravens' locker room. "I want to enjoy it, but we got to move on to the next opponent.