BALTIMORE – It came down to one pass the backup quarterback attempted and one pass the starting quarterback didn’t.
Indeed, there was more to the Steelers’ 23-16 victory over the Ravens here yesterday – such as the defense forcing the NFL’s fourth-best red zone offense to settle for three red zone field goals, and James Conner becoming the only player in franchise history with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in the first eight games of a season – but those two plays by those two quarterbacks highlighted the guts, savvy, and awareness necessary to pull off what Mike Tomlin’s team pulled off inside M&T Bank Stadium.
Coming into yesterday afternoon’s 1 p.m. scheduled bar brawl, the Steelers were winners of three straight while the Ravens had lost three of their last four, but trends and statistical minutiae rarely matter much when these teams square off inside the white lines. What always ensues is 60 minutes of organized mayhem that tests courage, measures desire, and typically determines who is the best the AFC North Division has to offer in a particular NFL regular season.
This was the rematch of the Sept. 30 game at Heinz Field, when the Ravens got the better of it physically and controlled the action throughout in what ended up a 26-14 spanking that offered a grim forecast for a Steelers season that began with such high expectations. In that game, the Steelers started poorly and wilted down the stretch; they were awful on third downs, whether their offense or defense happened to be on the field; and in a series known for its violence, they were meek.
But yesterday while evening the season series with the Ravens, the Steelers rectified each of those issues. They held a 7-3 lead after the first quarter and doubled it to 14-6 by halftime. The Steelers offense converted 10-of-16 (63 percent) on third downs and were 1-for-1 on fourth down, and their defense held the Ravens in check on possessions downs (4-of-12 on third downs and 0-for-1 on fourth down). And if rushing yards and sacks can be used as a means to measure control of the line of scrimmage, the Steelers out-rushed Baltimore, 113-61, and posted two sacks to the Ravens’ one.
The Ravens lone sack in fact was gifted to them in exchange for 48 valuable seconds off the clock in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, but more on that in a minute. Right now, it’s time to delve into Joshua Dobbs’ NFL debut.
As is typically the case, the outcome of this particular Steelers-Ravens installment was coming down to the wire, and there were going to be a few snaps of the football that would label one team the winner and the other the loser. When Dobbs strapped on his helmet with 12:39 remaining in the fourth quarter of a game in which the Steelers were clinging to a tenuous 20-13 lead, which team was going to end up with which label was very much in doubt.
The previous play had been a second-and-15 from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line, and when it ended, Ben Roethlisberger walked off the field with an unknown injury sustained during a mad scramble toward the first down marker, and a holding penalty on Al Villanueva rendered it all moot and had the Steelers instead looking at a second-and-20 from their own 5-yard line.
As Roethlisberger hit the turf with Za'Darius Smith landing on his back, Darrius Heyward-Bey immediately yelled for Dobbs to get his helmet and start warming up. As the medical staff attended to Roethlisberger, Dobbs took some snaps and made some attempt to warm up his right arm, and then what followed was a tete-a-tete with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
The way these things work on the Steelers sideline is that Mike Tomlin charts the course for the general strategy – conservative or aggressive – and then the offensive or defensive play-caller takes it from there. Informed that the idea was to be aggressive, Fichtner asked Dobbs if he felt like throwing the ball down the field some. What resulted was the first pass of an NFL career coming off as a poised veteran playing catch with his favorite receiver, but it forever will be chronicled in the official play-by-play as a 22-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a first down at the Steelers 27-yard line.
The visual had the offensive line blocking it up to provide Dobbs with a clean pocket, while Smith-Schuster ran a crisp route that had him slanting toward the middle of the field, always a dangerous area vs. the Ravens. Dobbs delivered on time and on target. Smith-Schuster caught the ball and cradled it as he went to the ground. Pitch-and-catch, NFL style. First down.
Roethlisberger then re-entered the game and directed the rest of a 74-yard drive that ended with a 29-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that extended the Steelers lead to 23-13.
Jump ahead now to a third-and-11 from midfield with 1:45 remaining and the Ravens out of timeouts and trailing, 23-16. That Tomlin would have his offense looking for the first down that effectively would end the game by putting the Steelers into take-a-knee formation was no surprise, but the instructions to Roethlisberger if nothing was available ran counter to the instructions he has been given in every other similar situation during his professional life.
Take the sack.
Right. Don’t get rid of the ball to save the loss of yardage. Take the sack to keep the clock running. Then punt and play defense with a unit that had allowed only one touchdown to this Ravens offense all afternoon. The game effectively was clinched on the second play after Jordan Berry’s punt, when Cam Heyward singlehandedly blew up the middle of the Ravens offensive line and Stephon Tuitt cleaned up with a sack of Joe Flacco, which left the Ravens in hope-for-a-miracle mode.
The Steelers now are 5-2-1, with a slightly firmer grip on the AFC North lead, but a credible case can be made that their toughest games are in front of them. Yet what they accomplished here and how they accomplished it have them looking to be capable of handling that. Which is the direct opposite of how they looked after the first time these teams met this season.