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Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Ravens

They once played each other in a game that sent the winner to the Super Bowl. In a game where the winner was crowned their division's champion and moved on to the playoffs while the loser was sent home to begin its offseason. They once played a regular season game to determine the venue for an inevitable third meeting in the playoffs. But not all of these games involve high stakes. Some of them are played for fun, and there is nothing more fun for one of these teams than beating the other.

The Steelers and Ravens got together once again on Sunday at Heinz Field for some more of their unique brand of fun, and while the stakes couldn't be termed meaningless the stakes were more subtle than in some of the knock-down, drag-outs that were a part of the past of this often-riveting series.

The Steelers needed a win, especially over a division rival, to remain relevant in the AFC playoff chase heading into the final five weeks of the regular season. And the Ravens needed a win to maintain/extend their cushion atop the AFC North and move closer to winning the division and reaping the rewards in the playoffs that such an accomplishment bestows. And the fans, either watching live or on television, were treated to 60 minutes' worth of mutual dislike that gradually built to a crescendo with 12 seconds remaining.

Leading up to that final dramatic scene from the Steelers 2-yard line with the outcome of the game hanging in the balance was the kind of action that has made football America's favorite spectator sport.

The Steelers arrived on an 0-2-1 slide, and the Ravens showed up with a one-game lead in the AFC North and as the only team in their conference with fewer than four losses. But as is usually the case when these teams line up on opposite sidelines, such details soon were rendered insignificant.

One week after being handled on both lines of scrimmage while allowing the Bengals to rush for 198 yards in a 41-10 defeat, the Steelers defense made the Ravens pay for every inch and sacked Lamar Jackson seven times, which was a single-game career-high for a man who closely resembles lightning in a bottle when he has the football in his hands.

But even though Jackson plus the NFL's No. 2 rushing attack looked to be a horrible matchup for a defense that had allowed 357 yards on the ground over its previous two games, the Steelers defense rose to the occasion. The unit got a boost when T.J. Watt cleared the COVID protocol on the day before the game and became eligible to start vs. Baltimore, but the Steelers' front seven on defense also got significant contributions from newly signed defensive lineman Montravius Adams, and Chris Wormley, who had been acquired via trade with the Ravens in 2020.

As two-thirds of the starting defensive line, Adams finished with two tackles and batted a pass at the line of scrimmage while playing 34 defensive snaps, and Wormley finished with five tackles and 2.5 sacks while playing 55 defensive snaps.

So while the Steelers offense needed some time to get untracked against the Ravens defense – the Steelers didn't record their initial first down until the second quarter and didn't convert a third-down situation until the second half – the defense never allowed Baltimore to extend its lead beyond one score.

And the opportunistic nature of the defense showed itself on the game's opening possession. The Ravens took the kickoff and using their running game and a series of short passes from Jackson to his running backs and tight end Mark Andrews they eventually faced a third-and-6 from the Steelers 10-yard line, where under pressure from Watt, Jackson floated the ball into the middle of the end zone where it was intercepted by Minkah Fitzpatrick, his second interception in the last two games.

Baltimore would put together a 99-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead, but the Steelers were able to answer with a 53-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that capped a nine-play 52-yard drive with 27 seconds left in the first half, which made it clear this was going to be one of those typical Ravens-Steelers games where the scoreboard operator would experience long stretches of inactivity.

In talking about the rivalry in the run-up to the game, Coach Mike Tomlin mentioned how Steelers-Ravens has served as a launching-pad for some players' careers, with James Harrison being the prime example. While nothing of that magnitude happened on Sunday, the Steelers did get significant contributions from John Leglue, who played all but three snaps at left guard after B.J. Finney's back injury sent him to the sideline, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who finished with five tackles and broke up a deep pass as a starter for the injured Joe Haden.

"I'm appreciative of the Ravens. It takes two to Tango. They bring out the best in us," said Tomlin during the postgame interrogatories. "Those games are always like that. I don't think anybody who has looked at them over the last 15 years or so is surprised by what transpired in terms of how the game was played. Just the competitiveness. Whether we like it or not, I'm talking about us and the Ravens, we're tied together."

And in this first installment of the 2021 version of this matchup, it came down to one veteran of this series and one comparative newcomer to put the finishing touches on this latest chapter.

Sunday might have been Ben Roethlisberger's final game against the Ravens at Heinz Field, and if it turns out to be, he made it a memorable one. The fourth quarter began with the Steelers staring at a 10-3 deficit, but after Roethlisberger completed 9-of-10 for 129 yards and two touchdowns to account for 17 total points in those 15 minutes, the Steelers were on the path to a critical victory. And Roethlisberger walked off the field not only as a winner, but as a quarterback who had led an 11th game-winning drive against Baltimore, which is the most by a quarterback vs. any single opponent in NFL history.

"Huge win. Any time you play that team, that rivalry, that's a battle, and that's what that game is," said Roethlisberger. "That was kind of the perfect Ravens-Steeler game, if you will. Huge win for us. Especially at home against that team. Especially after last week. Great bounce-back by everybody. Just so proud of everybody. I kind of told the guys without going into great detail, you can go against teams sometimes that are better than you or equal to you in terms of skill. What's going to separate you is your heart, and I think tonight we had guys who showed a lot of heart."

None more than Roethlisberger, but maybe T.J. Watt made it a tie.

Entered into the COVID protocol the day after that loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati, Watt said he spent the week at home taking part in meetings via Zoom and going through a self-styled workout – riding a stationary bike and supplementing that with his own version of football drills.

"I'm sick of running around in my backyard. I put the cleats on and was running around trees and corny stuff," said Watt, "but I had to do what I had to do. I'm sure my neighbors think I was crazy this week but glad I was able to play (today). That was the goal, and glad we were able to get a win."

Watt was cleared on Saturday with his second negative test 24 hours apart and was in the starting lineup vs. the Ravens. He played 64 of the 74 total defensive snaps vs. the Ravens and finished with six tackles, 3.5 sacks, six hits on the quarterback, and a forced fumble. Watt now leads the NFL with 16 sacks in only 10 games, and he became the first Steelers player to post 3.5 sacks in a game since James Harrison did that to the Ravens on Nov. 5, 2007. His first sack on Sunday placed him alongside Reggie White as the only NFL players since 1982 to have at least 13 sacks in four consecutive seasons.

As mentioned earlier, Watt had six hits/pressures on Jackson in addition to the 3.5 sacks. One of those came on the first quarter play that forced Jackson to throw off his back foot and ended up being intercepted by Fitzpatrick in the end zone, and the last one came on the Ravens' failed two-point conversion play.

When the Ravens showed they were going to go for the 2-point conversion and the win after Jackson's 6-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins with 12 seconds left, Tomlin used his final timeout to set his defense. What that alignment was going to be never had time to show itself, because Watt came flying off the edge right at Jackson and forced him to try to get the ball around him and to Andrews, who was open in the right flat.

"Throw it right to (Andrews), just put it on his chest," said Jackson about what he was trying to do on the play. "I couldn't do that just because T.J. Watt's got range. He's a long guy. I had to throw around him and try to make something happen. That's all. Just came up short."

Actually, not short. Wide right.

And with that, another Steelers-Ravens game was in the books. Maybe not a classic like the 2008 AFC Championship Game, but one football lovers undoubtedly enjoyed. And one Ben Roethlisberger deservedly savored.

"You should always savor moments like this," said Roethlisberger. "I try and reiterate that to guys, whether you are in your first year or your fifth year or 20th year. You should always appreciate this moment because God has blessed me in an amazing way that I can throw a football like not many people in the world can, and guys can run and catch and do things not many people can, and we should always count our blessings that we're able to do this. You never know when it is going to be taken from you, as we, unfortunately, have seen. I just think we all should really take advantage of these opportunities, win, lose, or draw, to be appreciative of the opportunities we get out here to play football."

Which extends to appreciating a game like this as well as those responsible for the outcome.