PITTSBURGH — There were false dawns throughout the Ravens secondary's long, dark 2014 season, and the pass defense's performance Thursday night at Heinz Field ultimately might not prove to be a turning point this year.
But after a difficult start to the season throughout which Ravens defensive backs essentially blamed themselves for an 0-3 start, they held a Steelers offense featuring maybe the best receiver in football, Antonio Brown, to 124 passing yards. It was a feat they feel showed that their early-season struggles are behind them.
"My secondary unit, we were challenged," said safety Will Hill, again a standout in the 23-20 overtime win over the Steelers. "We feel as though all those games that we lost was on us. We had a great challenge with Antonio Brown out there, and just to come out and keep everything in front of us and tackle and help come up with the win — we're happy, but we're not satisfied."
Against Steelers quarterback Mike Vick on Thursday, it appeared that simple. Brown, who entered the game with a streak of 35 games with at least five catches and 50 yards, had five catches and 42 yards when Ravens kicker Justin Tucker ended the game in overtime.
The longest completion the Ravens allowed to a Pittsburgh offense that seemed averse to throwing deep was receiver Markus Wheaton's 18-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter.
"You think about the last two weeks, we've been giving up some deep balls," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We've been letting them get behind us in the secondary. All week, we just held each other accountable in the secondary. The safeties held me accountable, I held them accountable, and we worked on our game. Me and Jimmy [Smith] have to handle our business on the outside, and we can win games."
Vick helped the Ravens in that respect. He passed at least 20 yards downfield just twice, one of which Brown dropped in the end zone. Previously, the Ravens' best game was in Week 1, when they allowed 175 yards to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who also has an aversion to throwing downfield.
It was those deep passes that exploited the Ravens secondary between its strong start against Denver and Thursday's win. Manning and Vick were a combined 0-for-6 on deep passes in those two games, according to Pro Football Focus. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was 3-for-7 for 104 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception on passes 20 or more yards downfield; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was 5-for-7 for 221 yards.
But perhaps just as important to the Ravens' success Thursday — and to sustaining it — were the third-down plays that got the defense off the field. The Ravens entered the game having allowed opponents to convert 53.2 percent of third downs, third worst in the NFL. The Steelers converted just two of 13 overall. The secondary's newest addition could take some credit.
Cornerback Will Davis made his Ravens debut Thursday, just 10 days after the Miami Dolphins dealt him for a seventh-round NFL draft pick. He played 23 snaps, one more than Kyle Arrington, with Arrington in on early downs and Davis coming in primarily for third-down and passing situations.
Davis had a pass defense early in the second quarter, and the third-year cornerback was in coverage on Brown several times late in the game, including an incomplete third-down pass to him in overtime.
Davis understands how fortunate he was to be rescued from the Dolphins bench and thrust into such a role so quickly in Baltimore. He said he "couldn't thank [general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh] enough."
"It gave me an opportunity to go out there and not be nervous and uptight, being 0-3, going against your rivals," Davis said. "You can kind of get nervous, especially being a new guy in there.
"I appreciate them giving me an opportunity, having faith in me after only a week and a half of being here, and I'm going out there to play. I appreciate that, and it worked out."
Davis played in place of cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who was inactive after being benched last Sunday against the Bengals. Newcomers to the Ravens secondary have had good debuts, only to falter later, another hallmark of last year's false hopes.
Anthony Levine looked strong in his debut as a cornerback in Week 10 last year against the Tennessee Titans but eventually saw his role diminish. Melvin was impressive against the Houston Texans in his first start during Week 16 but was picked on by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the playoffs last season.
Still, Davis' debut came in a game when the Ravens secondary answered a lot of questions, and judging by how his teammates received him after the game, they believe he can be a useful piece going forward.
"He's a dog," Webb interjected as Davis was speaking with reporters after the game, throwing an arm around his new teammate.
Later, Webb told reporters that Davis' ball skills were a welcome addition.
"We brought Will [Davis] in, and you see how he plays," Webb said. "He's got a knack for the ball, and that's what we need around here. We need some guys who just love to play ball."