Ravens stay even-keeled after their biggest win of the year

The Ravens notched their best win of the season but the players know they've got another test in mere days.

Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs was more focused on the two late touchdowns that the defense allowed than how the Ravens kept Ben Roethlisberger and the high-powered Pittsburgh Steelers off the scoreboard for the game's first 51 minutes.

Quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. answered questions about the Ravens' first win in over a month by talking about what the team has in front of it. About the closest thing to euphoria for the Ravens during and after their had-to-have 21-14 victory over their biggest rival was delivered by coach John Harbaugh, who managed a smile late in the fourth quarter when his team finally put Pittsburgh away.

"I had an official down on the sideline at the end of the game say it was the first time he had seen me smile in a couple of years. I don't think that's true," Ravens Harbaugh joked. "It was just a great win, a great team win. We found a way to play winning football."

The Ravens' victory before an announced 71,286 broke a four-game losing streak, gave them four consecutive wins over the Steelers for the first time in franchise history and vaulted the team into first place in the AFC North. It didn't ease any concerns about the play of quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense or generate any hope about the Ravens' ability to make a playoff run.

Maybe that explains why the Ravens (4-4) were so subdued after the game — rare following any victory over the Steelers; or maybe the team's enthusiasm was marred by the reality that in four days, the Ravens will be back at M&T Bank Stadium for a matchup with the winless Cleveland Browns. Whatever it was, the Ravens seemed to understand that to make this a season-turning victory, rather than a highlight in another disappointing year, they are going to have to play much better.

"We have to make this something," Smith said. "If not, we just wasted ourselves."

The Ravens did plenty of good things against the Steelers, who seemed intent on making it as difficult as possible on themselves to win a road game. Now losers of three straight, the Steelers committed 13 penalties and punted or turned the ball over on their first 11 full drives.

The Ravens had 10 penalties, including four on rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and a turnover of their own. But an otherwise lackluster offense got a 95-yard strike from Flacco to former Steeler Mike Wallace — the late first-quarter touchdown going down as the longest play from scrimmage in regular-season franchise history. That was the Ravens' lone offensive touchdown.

"There's not disappointment right now," Flacco said. "They are tough football games to win, but yeah, here is a little frustration in the fact that we're not playing as well as we want to."

Buck Allen's blocked punt, returned for a 14-yard touchdown by rookie wide receiver Chris Moore early in the fourth quarter, proved to be the decisive score. But the Ravens again beat the Steelers because their defense was the best unit on the field.

Starting less than three weeks after having knee surgery, Roethlisberger never got into a comfort zone, throwing for a good portion of his 264 yards after the Ravens had a 21-0 lead. Le'Veon Bell, arguably the game's best all-purpose back, was essentially a non-factor, gaining 70 total yards on 20 touches. Pittsburgh had 36 rushing yards on 18 carries. Wide receiver Antonio Brown finished with seven catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, but he was rendered into a spectator for the better part of three quarters.

"It's frustrating," said Roethlisberger who threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brown with 8:38 to play and scored on a 4-yard run with 48 seconds remaining to pull the Steelers within seven points.

Chris Boswell botched the ensuing onside kick attempt, allowing the Ravens to kneel off the final seconds.

"We don't take anything away from them," Roethlisberger said. "They are a good team. We did not make plays. I did not make plays. I did not convert third downs. I turned the ball over. I hold myself to a higher standard."

Much of the talk during the week was on what has become of the Ravens-Steelers' rivalry, once considered the best in the NFL. The personalities in the game are certainly different, and the quality of play has been different, too. On Sunday, the two teams combined for 16 penalties in the first half and then the Steelers lined up offside on the opening kickoff of the third quarter.

But one similarity to past matchups was the appearance of a dominant defensive effort. The Steelers played well defensively, but the Ravens were better and didn't let down until midway through the fourth quarter.

"I feel like we have to play great to win games," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "That's no slight to the offense. That's no slight to this team. We're playing complimentary football, but we feel like we have to get turnovers and we have to hold teams to low points. That's the way our team is and there is nothing wrong with that. If we go out and play great defense, we're probably going to win. If we don't, then we're going to lose. That's just the way this league is."

How good was the Ravens defense Sunday? On their first 11 full drives, the Steelers had eight three-and-outs and a Roethlisberger interception on a pass Brandon Williams deflected and Timmy Jernigan caught. The Steelers had only two first downs, hadn't crossed midfield and were 0-for-10 on third downs until Roethlisberger got the ball with 13:36 remaining in the fourth quarter, trailing by 21, and directed a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive.

"It was really a team effort and a lot of credit goes to [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees for his game plan," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We mixed things up and kept Pittsburgh on their heels. They got some things late, which no one likes, but we're real happy with our performance."

Pees resisted the temptation to have Smith, the Ravens' top corner, shadow Brown across the field. Instead he left Smith on the right side and gave rookie Tavon Young safety help against Brown on the other side. Young got a game ball for his efforts, Smith had another good game and Lardarius Webb had his best game of the year.

But it started up front, as the Ravens sold out to stop Bell, got enough pressure early to make an at-times gimpy Roethlisberger look uncomfortable and then got their hands in the passing lane when they couldn't get to the quarterback. About the only thing the Ravens didn't do was cash on the many turnover opportunities Roethlisberger gave them. Webb, Weddle, C.J. Mosley and Jerraud Powers all dropped potential interceptions.

"It's good to win. We've still got a tremendous amount of work to. Tremendous amount of work to do," Suggs said. "It's always good to beat your division rivals, but what does it mean if we drop it Thursday? It means [nothing]. It's time. We've got to start doing what we know we are capable of doing and winning. So we've got some work to do."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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