"They're an undefeated group, but they've been in some close ballgames. They've been behind late in some of those ballgames, and I just think you can grow from some of those experiences, particularly when you've been able to be successful … They stood up in the waning moments and made the significant plays in those moments, and they've won games in a variety of ways. They've had to dig down deep and do the things you need to do to win in this league, and that's what I mean when I say battle-tested."
Coach Mike Tomlin said this the day before the Steelers boarded a plane for a flight to Nashville, and he was talking about the Titans, a 5-0 team at the time. He just as easily could have been making a prophetic statement about his own team that's now 7-0 after a 28-24 comeback win over the Ravens in Baltimore.
Maybe it's arguable whether the Steelers qualified as battle-tested before their afternoon at a rainy M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 1, but there no longer should be any debate. To this point in 2020, these Steelers have found ways to win games early in the season before they knew very much about themselves, they won games by not losing focus while preparing for an inferior opponent. Through no fault of their own they had to absorb the short end of a schedule shuffle necessitated by COVID-19. They have adapted to overcome injuries to key personnel. They have blown out an upstart division opponent at home, and then gone on the road the following week against a superior opponent and opened with their best half of football.
And if Lady Luck may have lent a hand in moving Stephen Gostkowski's game-tying field goal outside the right upright vs. Tennessee, she was no help at all when Devin Bush was being loaded into that MRI machine.
What turned out to be a pretty nice ride through the first six games of the schedule looked as though it had gone off the rails during a first half in Baltimore that bore absolutely no resemblance to anything that had come before. It's understandable and rather predictable that there will be ebb and flow to every team's season, even within every game on a team's schedule, but what was happening to the Steelers against the Ravens was a complete departure.
The Ravens run the ball effectively, and they are persistent at it. That was to be expected, but the level of success they enjoyed was not. When the first half ended with the Steelers trailing, 17-7, the Ravens already had 179 yards rushing, the second-highest one-half total posted by a Steelers opponent in 25 years, and it had been accomplished by moving defensive players against their will. It was uncharacteristic, particularly against a team that prides itself on being physical, especially against a unit that came into this allowing an average of 68.8 yards rushing per game, with that number fortified by back-to-back outings against Cleveland and Tennessee, both of which entered the game vs. the Steelers as the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack.
"I am going to tell you what I told my team: We did not play well today," said Tomlin. "We lacked detail in a lot of areas. When you play good people, you are going to be up against it when you don't play well. We can't allow the emotions of the moment for us to miss that fact. I am proud of these guys. I am proud of the fight. I am proud of how they supported one another. But it is important that we don't lie to ourselves. We did not function well in a lot of ways today. Baltimore had a lot to do with that."
But fight they did, and through a combination of some big plays from unexpected sources and a little help from the Ravens the tide began to turn in the second half. Robert Spillane's pick-six had accounted for all of the Steelers scoring in the first half, and then Alex Highsmith's interception on the Ravens' first offensive snap of the second half set up a quick touchdown that cut the deficit to 17-14 and provided a shot of adrenaline when it was needed most.
"We had one of our packages in the game that I was in, so I knew when that play started (where it was going) because they ran the same play in the first half," said Highsmith. "I didn't drop deep enough, and they threw it over my head, so I learned from that and just dropped deeper. The ball just fell right into my hands … I learned from my mistake in the first half."
In addition to some defensive adjustments, another thing that apparently was decided at halftime was to turn the offense over to Roethlisberger and let him do what he does. There was some no-huddle, empty-set, shotgun stuff that allows him to look over the defense and decide where to go with the football. And it was working, even against a Ravens defense that blitzes more than any other team in the NFL.
On the second play following Highsmith's interception, Roethlisberger got the ball into the end zone on an 18-yard pass to Eric Ebron. The Ravens went three-and-out when Jackson's third-down pass fell incomplete, and then Roethlisberger directed a 10-play, 77-yard drive, during which he completed 6-for-6 for 65 yards, and this one ended in a 1-yard touchdown run by James Conner.
With 5:38 left in the third quarter, the Steelers team that had been dominated in the first half held a 21-17 lead, at least partly because the Ravens had called only three running plays to that point in the second half.
Baltimore's decision-making had opened the door, the Steelers burst through it, and suddenly it was on. What began as a butt-kicking was back to being a rivalry. Back and forth. Punch and counter-punch. The Ravens reclaimed the lead with a 53-yard drive that included a 39-yard completion to Devin Duvernay and a 24-yarder to Willie Snead, before Jackson capped it with a 3-yard hookup with Marquise Brown for the touchdown that made it 24-21.
Roethlisberger had another answer, in fact several of them, on what ended up being an eight-play, 80-yard drive. He completed 4-of-5 for 45 yards, including the 8-yard touchdown to Chase Claypool, and it was 28-24 midway through the fourth quarter.
After struggling all afternoon to deal with Bush's absence and then the in-game injury to Tyson Alualu and the sore knee that hampered Cam Heyward, the defense rose up and contributed in a big way on Baltimore's final two possessions.
On fourth-and-3 from the Steelers 8-yard line at the two-minute warning, a Jackson run was stopped 1 yard short by Isaiah Buggs and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the latter of whom forced a fumble that Spillane recovered to make sure. The Ravens got one last shot, with 52 seconds left and no timeouts, from their 37-yard line following a 48-yard punt by Jordan Berry.
Baltimore got close, but Jackson's pass into the end zone from the 23-yard line intended for Snead as time expired was broken up by Fitzpatrick. Ballgame.
"It is good today, but it means nothing for tomorrow," said Tomlin about pulling out the victory. "The total mentality of it is, regardless of these experiences, we have to continue to be a group that is on the rise. And understand that the bigger challenges and the bigger opportunities are in front of us."
Which makes it a good thing they're now battle-tested.