Steelers prove they have something left with key victory over Ravens
It's remarkable how only one game, one week and one signature performance can totally alter how an NFL team is perceived.
Last week, the Steelers looked too old and too slow during a dismally played flop of a game, a 20-14 loss in Cleveland that revealed numerous weaknesses and exposed many flaws. And it wasn't just their nearly 38-year-old quarterback, Charlie Batch, who was getting blamed for a showing-their-age loss that also appeared to be a strong indictment against a very-old defense.
Now, after a 23-20 win Sunday in Baltimore that ranks as one of the Steelers' best character-driven victories in years, all that experience and its accompanying intangibles are being looked upon as assets, not liabilities.
“Rolling into December, what a confidence boost,” linebacker Larry Foote said.
A defense that counts seven starters who are 31 or older and is directed by 75-year-old coordinator Dick LeBeau didn't get rattled after falling behind by 10 points in a stadium where a visiting team hadn't won in two years.
The Steelers kept their composure, kept getting after harried quarterback Joe Flacco and finally proved the difference in a game they didn't have to win but badly needed to win. And that pivotal fourth quarter, when the Steelers outscored the Ravens, 10-0? The defense gave up all of 12 yards.
“We've been getting old for five or six years, but somehow we always end up in the top five,” said linebacker James Harrison, whose strip-sack of Flacco led to Batch's game-tying touchdown pass to Heath Miller with 7:24 remaining.
The Steelers are No. 1 in the league in total defense — allowing nearly 20 yards per game fewer than any other team — passing defense and, perhaps more importantly, yards allowed in the second half and the fourth quarter, when games often are decided.
They struggled early in the season to close out games, giving up leads and a lot of fourth-quarter yardage to the Raiders, Broncos and Titans — 135 yards alone to Tennessee. But teams simply aren't moving the ball against them in the final 15 minutes; they allowed only 12 yards in each of the Ravens games, and they held the Giants to minus-9 yards.
That defense might need to get by for multiple games without cornerback Ike Taylor, who was seen wearing a boot and is believed to have a high-ankle sprain. But it welcomed back safety Troy Polamalu following a seven-game absence, and the impact of having one of the league's top defensive playmakers back on the field can't be measured.
“We know we're going to need him, because it's time for us to make a run,” nose tackle Casey Hampton said.
What all these older Steelers are telling their younger counterparts is you don't need to be top-seeded in the conference or even win the division to advance far in the playoffs. The Steelers, Giants and Packers have proven that in recent seasons.
Two seasons ago, Polamalu's strip-sack of Flacco in a late-season game similarly carried the Steelers past the Ravens in Baltimore and ultimately pushed them all the way to the Super Bowl.
Could Harrison's play this season be a similar momentum creator?
“The older guys, we keep telling the younger guys about this,” Foote said. “They've got to believe, they've got to understand how important these games are to us. We've just got to get a ticket.”
The Steelers (7-5) are tied with the Bengals (7-5) for the second AFC wild-card berth but own the tiebreaker. The teams meet Dec. 23 at Heinz Field in what might prove to be a mini-playoff game.
And the Steelers will play the final quarter of their season largely at home, meeting the Chargers (4-8) there Sunday, the Bengals and the Browns (4-8). The only road game is Dec. 16 against the Cowboys (6-6).
The Bengals play the Cowboys at home Sunday followed by a Dec. 13 road game against the Eagles (3-9), meaning they will have a 10-day break before the Steelers game. They close out against the Ravens (9-3) at home Dec. 30.
And just when it seemed the Steelers were past their time, they're back in the time of the year they play their best. They have won nine of their last 11 in December.
“I'm hoping this will put us up there to be a playoff team,” Hampton said. “We've got to go out there and win and continue doing what we're doing.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.