Defense keeps doing its thing, but not enough ☕


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Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) is sacked by linebacker Bud Dupree in overtime during the Steelers loss to the Ravens Sunday at Heinz Field -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

There are lies, damn lies and statistics. But in the case of the Steelers' 26-23 overtime loss to the Ravens, Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, the statistics didn't lie.

This was a game of inches. A game played in the trenches. A game that was going to be decided by whichever team made a fatal mistake.

In the end, it was the Steelers who blinked, as JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled on the Steelers' second offensive play of overtime, setting up Justin Tucker's 46-yard game-winning field goal with 5:31 remaining in the extra period.

But that hardly tells the whole story from this one.

This was strength on strength and weakness on weakness. The strengths (the Ravens offense versus the Steelers defense) was an epic battle. While the weaknesses (the Ravens defense versus the Steelers offense) took a back seat for large stretches of the time, largely because the Steelers chose to play things close to the vest.

The end result was another epic Steelers versus Ravens game that will be remembered for a long time as the game in which Earl Thomas knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game with a helmet-to-helmet hit. That play came with 7:39 remaining in the third quarter and the Steelers trailing, 17-13 and left them to play the remaining time with their third quarterback of the season, rookie Devlin Hodges.

As bad as that was, the defense wasn't about to allow this game to slip away without a fight.

Hodges led the Steelers on a touchdown drive to grab a 20-17 lead. As it had throughout the game, it stifled Baltimore's offense, which entered the game No. 1 in the league averaging 482.5 yards and 33.8 points per game. It was not nearly as good in this one, gaining just 277 total yards and scoring two touchdowns, though the first was a gift after running back Jaylen Samuels was intercepted while attempting an ill-fated pass out of the Wildcat at the Pittsburgh 15 in the first quarter.

After that, the Steelers' defense took over the game, to the point Mike Tomlin made the rare decision to put it on the field first in the overtime period despite winning the coin toss to start the extra period.

"Mike T wanted to put the defense on the field and take away an opportunity (from them)," Cam Heyward said. "He told us, ‘Go win the game.’ We got off the field. We got a bad break. But that’s just how it went."

Tomlin explained it further.

"Did you see our kickoff return in this game? Did you see their kickoff team?" he asked. "Every time, they put the ball on about the 2-yard line and Tucker hung the ball up for about 4.5 seconds, and we couldn't get back to the 15. Why would I sign up for that? I put the defense on the field in an effort to fight for some field position and put the onus on them to get a stop. When we got the ball, we got it on the 30-something (32), which is dramatically different than when our kickoff return team took the field all afternoon."

The Steelers got the defensive stop they needed, forcing the Ravens into a three-and-out on the initial possession of overtime, thanks, in part to a second-down sack of Lamar Jackson, one of five the Steelers had.

But that led to Smith-Schuster's fumble, which was forced by a strong punch on the ball by cornerback Marlon Humphrey that was recovered by the Ravens to set up the game-winning score.

The Steelers had a chance to win this one, however, because of their defense.

In addition to sacking Jackson five times, his most this season, it also picked him off three times -- a new career high for Jackson -- once each by safety Kameron Kelly, cornerback Mike Hilton and a beauty by rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Hilton's interception came at the end of the first half and essentially gave the Steelers three points.

Bush's pick, was a big one, turning what would have been points for the Ravens, into a big defensive stop.

 Jackson finished 19 of 28 passing for 161 yards and one touchdown pass, but posted a season-low 54.9 passer rating — the lowest of his two-year career.

Jackson hurt the Steelers with his legs, gaining 70 yards on 14 attempts, but most of that came in the first half. Jackson's running became less and less effective as the game wore on.

"Early on, he broke the pocket," Heyward conceded. "Later on, he was thinking about the rush. We had our chances. We didn’t get off the field enough."

That's going to be the focus for the Steelers. And for obvious reasons. They didn't win the game.

But they held a Ravens offense that entered this game averaging 7.0 yards per play to 3.8 yards per attempt -- on 73 plays.

There's no doubt the Steelers turned the tide with their defense from the second quarter on.

"Oh yeah for sure," Minkah Fitzpatrick said. "When we were making three and outs, just stopping them, getting hits on the quarterback, putting pressure on him, the momentum was definitely turning."

But not enough to overcome the early 10-point deficit. Or the loss of yet another quarterback, so the Steelers fall to 1-4.

"We’re in it for the outcome," Heyward said. "All the stuff that happens in between. All the breaks that might happen, I don’t care. I don’t care if it’s pretty or ugly, I just want to get the win."

And that didn't happen. There are no moral victories in the NFL.

"We played pretty solid football. We had some unfortunate things happen -- our quarterback going down. We're not far," Fitzpatrick said. "You know, 1-4 doesn't really reflect where this team is at. I think we're a really good team, a really solid team. We're going to keep getting better week to week."

The question now is whether they'll have enough time for it to matter.

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