In the words of the late Hall of Famer and former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, "Where would you rather be than right here, right now?"
I was reminded of that famous Levy catchphrase watching Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin standing on the sidelines during pre-game introductions. The telecast caught Tomlin grinning ear to ear, apparently ecstatic with anticipation. Tomlin lives for those moments. The opportunity to compete at the highest level against your biggest rival.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and that is particularly true in the NFL's biggest and best rivalry. You can tell by the countenance on the faces of the competitors, whether they be players or coaches. The focus, intensity, and will to win couldn't be higher for either side. Those attributes create unmatched physicality, and mutual respect.
I appreciate every aspect of the Steelers/Ravens rivalry, and I am thankful for a head coach who doesn't run from the heightened pressure it brings, but actually revels in it. At this point in his legendary tenure, Tomlin desires those moments that make him feel most alive.
That was beyond obvious during those pre-game introductions. No place Mike Tomlin would rather be.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Offensive identity
One man's trash is another man's treasure. To an old-school football purist like myself, the Steelers offensive performance against the Ravens on Sunday night in prime time was a thing of beauty. An answered prayer.
Heading into a rebuilding season, I wanted to see the Steelers solidify the overall execution of the offensive line enough to reach middle-of-the-pack status. In other words, be an average offensive line.
Sunday night's performance suggests they have easily surpassed that rather humble goal. Even contending teams don't waltz into the Charm City and dominate in the trenches against the Ravens like the Steelers offensive line did Sunday night.
The Ravens defense hadn't given up a touchdown in over 15 quarters at home prior to the Steelers game-winning fourth quarter score, the longest streak in over a decade. The Ravens Top 10 defense entered the contest with the third best run defense in the NFL, and the Steelers would have finished with 200 total yards on the ground without the yardage lost from two kneel downs.
That type of dominance in the trenches simply doesn't happen against the Ravens, but it just did.
It was apparent heading into the game that something had to give. The Steelers have found an offensive identity since the bye week. Run the football consistently enough to create favorable down and distance situations, convert a high percentage of those situations, and improve their overall time of possession in the process.
This simplified approach is anything but simple actually. It requires clean, almost perfect execution to be successful. Ball security is a must, and self inflicted wounds like penalties must be kept to the bare minimum. That is a tall task for the youngest collection of offensive talent in the league, but the Steelers offensive youth movement is taking shape right before our eyes, and on back-to-back weeks, on the prime time stage.
My lovely wife pointed out Sunday night that Kenny Pickett has the 4 C's that every potential franchise quarterback needs to be successful:
Good to know she is paying attention to all my Steelers rambling.
In my opinion, Najee Harris fully displayed, for the first time, precisely why the Steelers utilized their first round selection in 2021 to acquire his services. That was Harris’ first opportunity to run behind an above average offensive line performance in the NFL, and the results speak for themselves. That was a breakout performance for Harris, hopefully just the first of many such opportunities.
Jaylen Warren is proving to be the ideal complimentary partner for Harris. He continues to perform effectively and aggressively, with enough burst and surge to convert in critical situations. The Steelers have unearthed another diamond in the rough in the young man my aforementioned wife affectionately refers to as ‘Mighty Mouse’.
The Steelers talented young group of receivers weren't targeted often, but they rose to the occasion when the opportunity presented itself, which included some effective run blocking.
The Steelers were able to impose their new offensive identity on the bewildered Ravens defense Sunday night, a reality believed unimaginable prior to the game. You actually had to see it to believe it.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Defensive creativity
As the BTSC community already knows, I was particularly perplexed by the Steelers inability, or unwillingness, to modify to more aggressive run sets in the first meeting with the Ravens. Especially after the Ravens spent the first three quarters of action dominating the Steelers defensive front seven in the trenches.
No run blitzes or heavy sets to speak of. That was inexcusable, especially after the Ravens were forced to play a third string rookie quarterback that had never taken an NFL snap.
The Steelers defensive coaching staff has actually shown some impressive flexibility and creativity at various points this season. Trying to generate any semblance of a pass rush without T.J. Watt, playing winning football against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a mixture of backup secondary personnel, breaking out the three interior linebacker look in that same contest, and the three safety set looks late in the season.
All those examples were nice, but the creativity on display Sunday night against the Ravens was special, because that was totally out of character for the Steelers, to the point I can't remember a previous point in time when the Steelers coaching staff fully committed to such innovation. I fully believe that change in defensive philosophy caught the Ravens by surprise.
Schematic creativity is all well and good, but it's up to the participants on the field to execute the game plan. Needless to say, the Steelers defense rose to the challenge.
Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi gave inspiring performances, and the defensive line rotation held their own. Watt and Alex Highsmith did a much better job setting the edge against the Ravens powerful rushing attack, although the Ravens did exploit Watt's overaggressive tendencies on occasion in the first half, until Watt tightened up his lane responsibilities in the second half.
The biggest adjustment by the Steelers was their commitment to utilize two rookies, DeMarvin Leal and Mark Robinson, in their defensive rotations. Not only did they use them, but both youngsters played at least half of the Steelers defensive snaps. Needless to say, they didn't disappoint.
Leal relied on his tweener characteristics to foil the Ravens best laid plans. He utilized his exceptional wingspan, mobility, and attacking nature to clog running lanes, and stretch outside runs to the boundaries. The Ravens runners were meeting Leal in the hole, instead of defensive backs.
Mark Robinson was exactly what I thought he would be: an ultra aggressive, contact-seeking missile bound and determined to hit a moving target, especially the ball carrier. He looked like an inexperienced rookie at times, especially when he failed to complete a couple of tackles after arriving with bad intentions. That's to be expected from a rookie linebacker with a grand total of 7 defensive snaps on his resume.
With that being said, his always forward aggressive mindset is just what the Steelers defense has been missing at the position this season. Robinson finished the game with 7 total tackles, a couple of physical solo tackles at or near the line of scrimmage, and the respect of Mike Tomlin. Tomlin specifically mentioned the valuable contributions of both Leal and Robinson in his post-game press conference.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the game-altering performances of Robert Spillane and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Spillane has settled nicely into his leadership role at the position, and once again played 100% of the defensive snaps. He snuffed out a couple of potentially big plays for the Ravens with his defensive acuity.
Fitzpatrick continues to stabilize the Steelers defensive secondary, and he has also blossomed in his leadership role this season. He has made a habit out of closing out games late with key takeaways, including a game saving blocked kick. Fitzpatrick has shown clutch ability this season, his best season to date, in my opinion.