Turnovers: They’re the most important statistic in football, at least they were for the Steelers on Sunday in a 28-24 victory over the Ravens at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
One week after surviving a 3-0 turnover deficit in a 27-24 win over the Titans, Pittsburgh needed every one of the four takeaways the defense produced against the Ravens.
The Steelers offense wasn’t all that great, as it posted just 221 yards—including 48 on the ground—possessed the football for 50 plays and just 24:38 of game-clock and scored an ordinary—at least for them—21 points. As for the Ravens offense. It gashed Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of 457 total yards—including 265 on the ground—possessed the football for 79 plays and 35:22 of game-clock and scored a healthy enough 24 points.
The Steelers defense looked winded, challenged, confused, frustrated (T.J. Watt and defensive coordinator Keith Butler seemed to have words at one point) and certainly continued to be plagued by injuries.
With inside linebacker Devin Bush already out for the season and cornerback Mike Hilton out for a second-straight week, Tyson Alualu left the game early with a knee injury; fellow defensive end Cameron Heyward would join him on the sidelines before the clock struck triple zeros.
So, what was the difference? How did the Steelers manage to win this game? Maybe it was that most important statistic in football: Turnovers. The Steelers were plus-three in turnovers, this time, taking the football away four times and giving it away just once.
Inside linebacker Robert Spillane supplemented what would be an overall ordinary day by the offense by intercepting Lamar Jackson on the third play of the game and returning it 33 yards for a score.
Later in the first quarter, just five plays after rookie receiver Chase Claypool fumbled at the Pittsburgh 44-yard line, outside linebacker Bud Dupree did the offense a solid by forcing a Jackson fumble that inside linebacker Vince Williams recovered at the four, thus preserving a 7-7 tie.
As much as the Steelers offense struggled on Sunday, it was three for three in the red zone. The first such touchdown came early in the third quarter, after a leaping interception by rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who returned it to the Baltimore 21. After doing zilch in the first half, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continued that trend during the first possession of the second half. Pittsburgh was trailing 17-7 at that point and certainly ripe for the picking. Highsmith’s interception gave the Steelers offense new life, and it responded with an 18-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to tight end Eric Ebron.
Late in the game, with the Steelers clinging to a 28-24 lead and Baltimore facing a fourth and three from the Pittsburgh eight, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick forced a Jackson fumble that Spillane recovered at the six-yard line. That takeaway didn’t matter as much as the play at the line of scrimmage and tackle by second-year defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs—that was more a testament to Pittsburgh’s perfection on stopping teams on fourth down in 2020—but it still counts on the stat-sheet.
The Steelers stymied Jackson and the Ravens’ offense one last time at the end of the game to keep the team undefeated at 7-0.
In addition to producing the four takeaways, the Steelers defense sacked Jackson four times on the day. As I’ve said many times about playing defense in today’s NFL, it’s perhaps more important to create splash plays than it is to totally shut a team down. Why? It’s kind of hard to totally shut a team down in today’s NFL.
The Steelers defense spent most of the afternoon looking totally vulnerable against Baltimore’s offense, but at the end of the day, it still managed to carry the offense to victory, thanks to opportune splash plays.
That’s the kind of defense that wins football games in 2020.