Jacoby Jones’ 63-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter gave the Baltimore Ravens enough breathing room to earn a 13-10 victory at Heinz Field over the error-prone Pittsburgh Steelers, whose four-game winning streak was halted.
The Steelers defense limited the Ravens offense to six points and 200 yards on Sunday night, but Pittsburgh’s offense suffered mightily without injured franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, producing only a third-quarter Shaun Suisham field goal after an opening-drive touchdown.
No. 2 quarterback Byron Leftwich scrambled for a 31-yard touchdown in the game’s first minute before the Ravens scored 13 consecutive points to take control of the latest edition of this always-contentious AFC North rivalry. Baltimore (8-2) now has a two-game lead over Pittsburgh (6-4) for the division lead, with another matchup between the two teams coming up in two weeks.
The Steelers committed two turnovers and squandered two timeouts in the second half that hampered their desperate effort for at least a tying field goal in the final two minutes. On that last drive, Rashard Mendenhall didn’t get out of bounds after catching a Leftwich pass near the sideline, effectively killing any chance Pittsburgh had to extend the game beyond regulation.
Despite the early quick strike, Leftwich was largely ineffective in his first start since 2009, completing 17 of 38 passes for 201 yards and an interception. The 32-year-old veteran showed good mobility, but he was often rushed and he appeared to sustain an injury to his ribs; officially, the Ravens recorded three sacks and five hits on Leftwich, who was laboring by the fourth quarter.
While the passing game predictably struggled (Emmanuel Sanders led all Steelers receivers with three catches for 82 yards), running back Jonathan Dwyer continued to produce, accumulating 55 yards on 12 carries. Dwyer also caught three passes for 26 yards, identical numbers to receiver Mike Wallace.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t pressured often, but the former Pitt Panther and Delaware Blue Hen still turned in lukewarm numbers, completing 20 of 32 throws for 164 yards. The Steelers defense remained No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed after its stifling performance, keeping talented Ravens running back Ray Rice under control (20 rushes for 40 yards).
But unlike last Monday, when Lawrence Timmons’ interception clinched an overtime win against the Chiefs, the Steelers defense couldn’t make a “splash play” to help lift the team in front of another national television audience. Pittsburgh is now 2-3 in night games and won’t get another opportunity under the lights the rest of the regular season.
The Steelers will battle the Browns (2-8) in Cleveland next Sunday at 1 p.m. Four of Pittsburgh’s final six games will be within the AFC North, featuring a Dec. 2 trip to Baltimore that the Steelers must win if they still harbor hopes of a division title.
On Sunday night, Leftwich got the Steelers off to a rousing start with a three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. On first down, an incomplete long toss to Mike Wallace drew a 42-yard pass interference call against Ravens cornerback Chris Johnson. Following a 7-yard David Gilreath end-around run, Leftwich improbably scrambled 31 yards down the right sideline for a 7-0 Pittsburgh lead just 31 seconds into the game.
Following a quick Baltimore three-and-out, Leftwich hit Wallace for a quick completion over the middle, but Johnson stripped the ball and Ed Reed recovered the fumble. The Steelers defense held firm, but Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker booted a 26-yard field goal to cut the Pittsburgh lead to four.
The Steelers surrendered their lead before the end of the opening quarter, but the defense wasn’t to blame. Drew Butler’s punt from his own 12 sailed into the arms of Ravens return specialist Jones, who had already returned two kickoffs for touchdowns prior to Sunday night. Jones reversed field from the Baltimore 37 and outran the Pittsburgh coverage unit to the end zone, putting the visitors in front for the first time.
The Ravens had an opportunity to add to their lead early in the second, but Tucker missed just his second field goal of the season from 41 yards, wasting a nine-play, 48-yard drive. Outside of that possession, neither offense managed to keep the ball for large chunks of time in the first half, as the teams combined to go 3-for-15 on third down.
Leftwich struggled with accuracy at times – he went 7-for-17 for 85 yards before halftime - but he fired a 37-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders to push the Steelers into Baltimore territory on their first drive of the third quarter. However, Leftwich was intercepted by Corey Graham three plays later, the Steelers’ second giveaway of the game.
Keyed by a 23-yard completion from Flacco to Anquan Boldin, the Ravens converted the turnover into three points when Tucker nailed his second field goal, this time from 39 yards.
Suisham countered with a 22-yard field goal on the Steelers’ next possession. Dwyer accounted for 41 total yards (26 rushing) on the drive, which also included a third-down conversion run by Baron Batch and a 20-yard dart from Leftwich to Sanders.
LaMarr Woodley’s sack of Flacco, the Steelers’ first of the game, gave Pittsburgh the ball back early in the fourth quarter, but the ensuing drive petered out near midfield after a pair of first downs. After another stop by the Steelers, Dwyer helped the offense move across the 50 again, but a third-down sack of Leftwich set up Butler’s eighth punt with under four minutes to play.
James Harrison dropped Flacco on third down just after the two-minute warning, giving Leftwich and the Steelers one final opportunity to rally.