So very quickly, the Ravens’ impossible dream start had devolved into another unsettling dogfight with the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers.
All it took was one ill-timed fumble by Alex Collins with the Ravens poised to push their lead to 21-3 early in the second quarter. Two Pittsburgh scoring drives later, the game was tied and the fantasy of a rare blowout win at Heinz Field had vanished.
The Ravens and their fans know all too well the dread feeling of leaving opportunities unexploited against the Steelers and their indefatigable quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
This time, however, one of the least hospitable road stops in the NFL did not prove to be a chamber of horrors. The Ravens defense discovered its own inner iron, holding Roethlisberger and Co. scoreless on six consecutive drives in the second half and limiting the frightful Pittsburgh offense to just two conversions on 12 third-down attempts. Justin Tucker was perfect on four field-goal attempts in the second half to give the Ravens a deeply satisfying 26-14 victory.
“What’d I say?” safety Eric Weddle shouted at the start of a jubilant post-game news conference. “These ain’t the same Ravens!”
No they weren’t.
Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 363 yards, his most ever in 14 career trips to Pittsburgh, and completed passes to 11 receivers. Wide receiver John Brown put a powerful initial stamp on the Ravens-Steelers rivalry with three catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Finally, the Ravens smothered their rivals’ lingering hopes with a 14-play, 82-yard scoring drive that ate up 6:40 of the fourth quarter.
“We’re a better offense,” said Flacco, who felt the Ravens should have scored more points. “We just are.”
On defense, the Ravens adapted so effectively in the second half that they earned a game ball for first-year defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
The Ravens moved to 3-1 this season and dropped the two-time defending AFC North champions to 1-2-1. They had lost three in a row against the Steelers, including a pair of one-score classics in their previous two visits to Heinz Field.
So this one tasted especially good, even though the Ravens tried to keep it in perspective.
“I think it was in the back of all our heads,” Weddle said. “Losing the way we have here is not fun.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh tried not to get ahead of himself when discussing the greater implications, even as he joyously clapped players on the back.
“I hope the fans have a lot of fun with it and enjoy that,” he said. “I hope they have confidence in us. But we have to go to Cleveland against a Cleeveland team that’s playing really well with a rookie quarterback who’s playing out of his mind. … That’ll be our focus — try to be a better football team next week than we were this week. The thing about these guys is, that’s the way they think. They didn’t get caught up in it when everybody was saying how bad they were, they couldn’t do this or that. And they’re not going to get caught up in the noise when people start talking about how good they are.”
This journey to Pittsburgh did not carry the weighty playoff implications of the previous two, but the Ravens had a chance to build themselves a cushion as they began a stretch of four road games in five weeks.
With All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell holding out and an air of dissatisfaction lingering around All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers seemed more vulnerable than usual.
The Ravens wasted no time asserting themselves, driving 75 yards on a tidy eight plays for a game-opening touchdown. Flacco completed the sequence with a pretty 33-yard scoring pass to Brown, his new favorite deep target. But the Ravens’ opening salvo stood out as much for its variety as Flacco’s precision.
Collins, disappointed with his production in the first three games of the season, began the drive by picking his way through the Pittsburgh defense for 11 yards. Buck Allen converted a pivotal third-down chance off a pitch from Flacco. Backup quarterback Lamar Jackson even got in on the fun at the start of a busy night for him.
For the second straight week, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg threw an opposing defense out of sorts with his inventive mix of sets.
The Ravens quickly piled on their advantage when safety Tony Jefferson stripped Steelers tight end Vance McDonald to set up another touchdown drive — this one 31 yards on four plays capped by a 3-yard pass from Flacco to Collins.
The Ravens seemed poised to add another touchdown in the second quarter after Flacco hit Brown for a 71-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 13-yard-line. But Collins fumbled near the goal line three plays later, breaking the Ravens’ perfect record on red-zone opportunities this season and reviving concerns about ball security that haunted the running back early last season.
The turnover was doubly costly because the Steelers drove from their own 1-yard-line to set up a 39-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that cut the lead to 14-6.
On defense, the Ravens faced the unenviable task of covering Brown without their best cornerback, Jimmy Smith. The previous time they faced that scenario, in December, Brown burned them for 213 yards.
This time, they changed their approach, asking second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey to stick with Brown no matter where he went. Like Smith, Humphrey possesses the size and fluidity to go step for step with the best receivers in football.
He kept Brown in check for much of the first half, but the Steelers star showed why he’s one of the best players in the sport when he snared a 26-yard touchdown with Humphrey’s hand in his face. The Steelers added a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 14-14 with 2:50 left before halftime, erasing all the good work the Ravens had done before Collins’ fumble.
Beyond the connection with Brown, Roethlisberger repeatedly gashed the Ravens in the middle of the field with throws to McDonald and burly wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. It was a familiar picture for the Baltimore secondary, which has long struggled to account for Pittsburgh’s myriad pass-catching threats.
The front seven didn’t fare much better in its quest to lay a hand, any hand, on Roethlisberger. He took just two hits all game.
But the Ravens secondary found its bearings in the second half, and Roethlisberger didn’t get anywhere close to the 506 yards he put up in that 39-38 shootout last December. He finished with a 72.5 passer rating, far short of Flacco’s 109.5.
“You know, I don’t think I’m on the same page as anybody right now,” the Steelers quarterback said after the game. “I’m not playing well enough.”