To fully understand why the Steelers are a serious threat to win their seventh Super Bowl in franchise history this season, consider this:
On Sunday, their defense surrendered 265 yards rushing and 457 overall, both of which far surpassed their season averages. The offense wasn't much better, converting on just three of nine third downs while gaining 48 yards on the ground, 70 below their season average.
Yet despite those struggles, Pittsburgh prevailed in the NFL's fiercest modern-era rivalry, holding off Baltimore 28-24 on a gray, 52-degree afternoon in M&T Stadium.
It was the kind of game for which the Steelers could find satisfaction in only the outcome. There were too many issues on offense and defense to be totally pleased. But when a play had to be made, someone made it, particularly on the defense, which had four takeaways against 2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson.
The ability to step up in those situations speaks to both their talent and resilience. It's easy to win when everything is going your way, but when you manage to pack away a victory on the team plane home after a talented opponent takes the deep ball from your passing game and a rookie running back finds more open lanes for more rushing yards (113 by J.K. Dobbins) than any team has gained on you this year, it speaks to your character.
"It's big," linebacker T.J. Watt said. "These are very hard wins to come by in the National Football League. Every team is phenomenal, and an in-division game like this, a rivalry like this, to be able to walk out of a building on the road with a win gives us a lot of momentum."
That's an encouraging reality for the Steelers and a frightening proposition for opponents. Pittsburgh has yet to play its best football yet remains the league's only unbeaten team, its 7-0 record tying the best start in franchise history.
Victory seemed remote at the half Sunday. The Ravens were dominating in virtually every aspect, with 16 first downs to the Steelers' five and 254 total yards to the Steelers' 64. Baltimore's 17-7 lead felt like it was double that.
But the game shifted a minute into the third quarter, when Jackson's short pass to tight end Mark Andrews was intercepted by linebacker Alex Highsmith. Two plays later Ben Roethlisberger found his own tight end, Eric Ebron, for an 18-yard touchdown that resuscitated the Steelers. An offense that had failed to go more than 33 yards on any of its first six possessions went 77 yards in 10 plays following the Ebron touchdown, with James Conner rushing in from the 1 for a 21-17 advantage.
Even after Jackson drove the Ravens 53 yards to regain the lead on a 3-yard pass to wideout Marquise Brown, Pittsburgh answered with an 80-yard march that culminated with Roethlisberger’s 8-yard pass to Chase Claypool, giving the Steelers a lead they would not relinquish over the final 7:29 to play -- not that Baltimore didn't have opportunities.
The Ravens advanced to the Steelers 8-yard line with two minutes remaining, only to have Jackson lose a fumble on fourth-and-3 (though it appeared he would have been short of the first down anyway). And on their final possession, Jackson moved the offense from its 37 to the Steelers' 23, but his seam pass to Willie Snead fell incomplete as time expired.
Jackson finished 13 of 28 for 208 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and two lost fumbles. His first interception was returned for a touchdown three plays into the game by Robert Spillane, and his 46.4 completion percentage was a season low, as was his 65.8 rating.
"The turnovers, I feel, (are) the reason we lost the game," Jackson said. “I put that on me.”
Jackson was composed afterward, but the same could not be said of Brown. The speedy wideout took to social media to express his disappointment, if not his frustration, in a since-deleted Tweet. He wrote: "what's the use of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!)" Brown was targeted twice and had the one catch for a touchdown.
At 5-2, Baltimore still is in great shape for a playoff run, but its road will be tougher with left tackle Ronnie Stanley sustaining an ankle injury Sunday that, according to coach John Harbaugh, will sideline him the rest of the season. Right guard Tyre Phillips also left the game with an ankle injury, and linebacker Matt Judon was ejected for inadvertently making contact with an official during a sideline scrum.
If those aren't reasons for concern, there is this: The Ravens have come up short in their only two games against quality opponents, losing 34-20 against the Chiefs in Week 3 and Sunday against the Steelers. By this point last season, they were well on their way to 12 consecutive wins and a conference-best 14-2 record. The vibe today feels dramatically different than it did a year ago.
The same could be said for the Steelers. Last year, they lost Roethlisberger for the season after just six quarters, due to an elbow injury. Without him, they finished 8-8 and had some of the worst quarterback play in recent memory. With Big Ben back in the lineup, Pittsburgh appears capable of a deep playoff run, although fans got a scare Sunday when the medical staff was massaging his elbow after he was sacked (just a funny bone, he said). Roethlisberger finished 21 of 32 for 182 yards (158 after halftime) and two touchdowns with no turnovers Sunday, relying on quick releases and underneath throws.
"This is a really, really good football team," he said of the Ravens. "They're ranked really high on defense for a reason. They got after us and it wasn't pretty. I don't think at any point in this game, offensively, was it a pretty game. The first half wasn't pretty, second half wasn't pretty. Nothing about this game was pretty from our perspective until the game was over and we looked at the scoreboard and saw that we had won. At the end of the day, that's all that matters."
At this point, the Steelers might be the league's most complete team. Defensively, they're among the best at pressuring quarterbacks and stopping the run, Sunday being an exception to the latter; and offensively, they have weapons in the ground and air games. Their special teams also are solid. And yet, some questioned their status entering Sunday.
"Day in and day out, even with my friends, I'm going to bring this up because it's true," Ebron said. "People said, 'If y'all beat the Ravens, y'all really are legit.' And I'm like, 'Bro, we went 6-0. How are we not a legit unit?' Now that we beat the Ravens, I just want people to understand that we are legit and we're coming with our A-game every single time."
They didn't come with it Sunday, though, and that's all the more reason they should be taken seriously.