In the first game, between two arch nemesis out of the AFC North, defense proved to be the key to victory, as expected from the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Both of which have been in the top five in overall defense in the league for nearly the entire decade.
Playing in Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco and the 13-4 Ravens, coming off a 30-7 shellacking of the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs last weekend, got off to a great start in the first half. Pittsburgh drew first blood with a 1-yard touchdown from running back Rashard Mendenhall to cap a six minute opening drive. But Baltimore quickly came back and scored 14 unanswered points on consecutive drives. The second of the two came after a controversial Ben Roethlisberger fumble.
Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs turned the corner on the Steelers' battered offensive line and hit Roethlisberger from behind, forcing him to get rid of the ball. After the ball appeared to bounce off a defender and hit the ground after leaving his hand, all 21 of the 22 players on the field seemed to believe the play was over with an incomplete pass. The one player whom realized there hadn't been a whistle blow yet--Corey Redding, Baltimore's veteran defensive tackle out of Texas--picked the ball up and ran it back 13 yards for the score. The play was challenge, but the touchdown was upheld, leaving coach Mike Tomlin and the rest of Heinz Field in shock.
The score at the end of one was 14-7, but Baltimore's first half scoring didn't stop there.
After exchanging punts, the Steelers got the ball back deep inside its own territory looking for a fresh start. A couple plays later Mendenhall fumbled the football and gave Baltimore yet another scoring chance. Flacco took advantage, of course, and six plays later threw a four-yard touchdown to Todd Heap. Baltimore went ahead by two scores.
Pittsburgh tried to regroup and get a drive together just before the half, but Roethlisberger's offense sputtered and kicker Shaun Suisham ended up missing a 43-yard field goal after successfully converting his first 14 attempts as Pittsburgh's kicker.
Tomlin's squad did not play Pittsburgh football in the first half of play, giving Baltimore far too many chances to score and digging themselves a huge hole. But, this is why he is a pro football head coach. He was able to get his guys together at the half, regroup, and come out and hit gold in the second half.
Pittsburgh dominated every facet of the game in the second half, outscoring the Ravens 14-0 in the third quarter, and 24-3 in the second half altogether. The key? The exact same 'key' that Baltimore had in the first half of play: turnovers. Pittsburgh forced two fumbles and a Flacco turnover in the third and fourth quarter of play and were able to take advantage of them.
At the end of the third quarter, Baltimore had just 94 total yards, as they finished the game with just 126 total net yards as compared to Pittsburgh's 263. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in the time of possession category by nearly 10 minutes as well. Despite playing rather sloppily in the penalty category (9-93 yards), the Steelers defense controlled Ray Rice (12 attempts, 32 yards, 1 TD) and grounded Joe Flacco, who threw for just 125 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT and was sacked five times (three recorded by James Harrison).
To overcome such a deficit through ferocious defense, Pittsburgh has proved they can hang in there with a poised Roethlisberger and an aggressive play-calling approach by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Looking forward to next week's matchup whether they play New York or New England.
James Farrior: NFL/Joe Robbins