Ravens 13, Steelers 10
This was the biggest turnover of all for the Steelers on a night when the Baltimore Ravens were only one long return and two big mistakes better: They turned over first place to their biggest rival.
The Ravens had no offense — Joe Flacco, his receivers and Ray Rice didn't produce a single point — but it didn't matter. They won again in their home away from home, Heinz Field, by scoring on special teams and off two turnovers to beat the Steelers, 13-10, Sunday night, with Jacoby Jones' 63-yard punt return score the pivotal play.
And perhaps the season-wrecking play for the Steelers.
“When a team gets turnovers and a special teams touchdown, they usually win,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “They made more plays than we did. But this one stings. This one hurts.”
Even with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu injured and out and a banged-up Byron Leftwich at quarterback in his first start in three seasons, it was all there for the Steelers (6-4). They could have grabbed first place and held the tiebreaker had they only beaten the Ravens for the ninth time in 12 seasons at Heinz Field.
Now the Steelers must wonder if losing at home to the Ravens (8-2) will be a deal breaker for the second straight season.
“When you play a good team, you've got to make more plays than we made,” Leftwich said. “We just couldn't get in rhythm. We had too many thirds-and-long. You can't do that when you're playing that caliber of team.”
The Ravens, the first visiting team to win at Heinz Field in three straight seasons, will go for a sweep in two weeks at M&T Bank Stadium, where they've won 14 in a row — the NFL's longest streak.
“Every game here on out we can't lose,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “We've hit four losses. We got to have that mentality.”
Leftwich (18 of 39, 201 yards, one interception) was OK but not outstanding, as the Steelers fell to 0-5 against their biggest rival without Roethlisberger. Leftwich got off to a great start, taking a shot downfield to Mike Wallace on the first play that yielded a 42-yard pass interference penalty.
Two plays later, Leftwich scrambled and found a wide-open running lane all the way to end zone for a 31-yard touchdown 43 seconds into the game.
But while Leftwich stunned the Ravens with his legs, he couldn't get much done with his right arm, perhaps in part because he was nursing his own rib and shoulder injury for much of the second half. Roethlisberger is out indefinitely with a dislocated rib and upper chest injury.
“Leftwich was hurt pretty much the whole game,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We couldn't make a play for him.”
Leftwich downplayed the injury, saying only, “I'm OK.”
Wallace turned over the ball after making a 15-yard catch on the Steelers' next possession, as newly signed cornerback Chris Johnson stripped the ball and longtime Steelers antagonist Ed Reed recovered. But while the drive started at the Steelers' 12, the Ravens settled for Justin Tucker's 26-yard field goal.
Jones settled for nothing but the end zone five minutes later, streaking down the Ravens' sideline for his third return score in less than a month. He also has kickoff return scores of 108 and 105 yards.
“They got that play on special teams and we never did anything to combat that,” Clark said. “They don't intimate us and we don't intimidate us, so it's about execution and they out executed us.”
With the Steelers' offense stalling even as coach Mike Tomlin rotated running backs to try to find what he has been calling a hot hand — Jonathan Dwyer was the most effective with 55 yards, while Rashard Mendenhall had 33 in his first game in five weeks — even a 10-7 lead looked big. And it proved to be.
“These games are 13-10, 16-13 every year,” Leftwich said. “We just found a way to lose this one.”
It's becoming a pattern.
“We just couldn't put plays together,” Leftwich said. “We'd hit a big play and we'd be right back in third-and-9, third-and-8. It's too hard to play a team of this caliber like that.”
Tucker was wide right on a 41-yarder in the second quarter but hit a 39-yarder near the halfway mark of the third quarter following — you guessed it — a turnover.
Leftwich's pass was intercepted by Corey Graham, a Pro Bowl special teams player for the Bears last season who signed with Baltimore for the chance to play more defense. And with cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith injured, he is.
Leftwich, making his first Steelers start in four seasons with them, is 0-6 as a starter since 2006.
“He had the one bad pick, but the defense has got to help that guy out,” Foote said. “He hasn't played in a few years, we got to get some turnovers and make the field short. But he managed the game for us.”
The Steelers' only second-half score was Shaun Suisham's 22-yard field goal late in the third as the turnovers proved huge; Baltimore is plus-11 for the season on takeaways, while the Steelers are minus-2.
The statistics all ran the Steelers' way, as they outrushed the Ravens nearly 3-to-1 (134-47) and outgained them 311-200. Flacco, who had beaten the Steelers on last-minute TD passes at Heinz Field the past two seasons, was 20 of 32 for 164 yards and Rice — who averages 4.1 yards per carry against the Steelers in his career — was held to 40 yards on 20 carries.
But after a typically physical Ravens-Steelers game — Isaac Redman and Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta each left with concussions — the only statistic that matters is this: The Ravens are 8-2 and in the division lead; the Steelers, their four-game winning streak ended, are chasing, with no idea when Roethlisberger will be back.
That's not a race they wanted to run.
“That's tough. The last few years, they don't normally lose to anybody but us,” Foote said. “We got to keep plugging away. We've got to keep getting better and get our ticket into the dance.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.