It’s no secret that head coach Mike Tomlin’s blueprint for his Steelers in 2022—the first season without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the face of the franchise in nearly two decades—has been to play things close to the vest on offense and try to “win” games with defense.
An archaic approach? Perhaps, but it’s one that might make sense with a rookie quarterback starting the majority of the games for Pittsburgh.
That rookie quarterback is Kenny Pickett, the pride of the University of Pittsburgh via New Jersey, and for nearly 60 minutes of Week 17’s vital matchup against the hated Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday Night Football, Pickett looked much like he did against the Raiders a week earlier: Inexperienced, which was how he has looked for most of 2022—including the brief time he was in the game when these two teams met at Acrisure Stadium on December 11.
But in Pickett’s defense, Roethlisberger looked inexperienced—which is to say, bad—in a lot of his matchups against Baltimore during his storied career. For that matter, so did Joe Flacco against the Steelers' defense.
So has Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ superstar quarterback who was out again on Sunday with a knee injury—his fourth-straight missed game, overall, and his second-straight against the Steelers in 2022—the few times he’s gone up against Pittsburgh in this historic AFC North blood-feud.
It’s just what the Steelers/Ravens rivalry does to quarterbacks, to offense, to scoring. It’s almost like these two teams are so conditioned to play this way that, Tomlin’s conservative blueprint or not, this is how these combatants are going to do it, darn it!
Sunday night’s game was no exception, as the two teams punched it out for all 60 minutes, with one of the fighters, the Ravens, surviving a few early body blows (the Steelers' punched their way into the red zone during the first half, but they couldn’t swing their way into the end zone) before scoring a shot of their own and taking a 10-3 halftime lead thanks to a ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Cam Heyward (when I say, ridiculous, I mean, ridiculous that it was ever called) that turned a Justin Tucker field goal into an Isaiah Likely touchdown.
Baltimore followed that up with a Tucker field goal to start the third quarter, which gave the home team a 13-3 lead, a 10-point advantage that may as well have been one million with this Steelers offense.
However, the defense tightened up big-time after that and limited the Ravens’ offense to 44 yards and zero points over its last four drives. Meanwhile, the Steelers offense did a decent job of moving the ball in the second half—much like it did in the first half—and had clawed to within 13-9 thanks to two second-half Chris Boswell field goals.
Still, like most Steelers/Ravens battles, this was a frustrating game to watch, thanks to a few black-and-gold gaffes in the first half—including a failure to score a touchdown after it was first and goal, Heyward’s penalty, and yet another missed field goal by Boswell.
A loss would knock the Steelers out of playoff contention, and much like that 16-14 home defeat a few weeks earlier, would leave coaches, players and fans asking, “What could have been?”
Yet, Pickett, who didn’t have much of a passing portfolio over the first 56 minutes, did what he did late in the game against the Raiders by completing several spectacular throws during a 3:20 drive that culminated in a 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Najee Harris to give Pittsburgh 16-13 lead with 56 seconds remaining. Actually, Pickett looked even better on that drive than he did against Las Vegas eight days earlier. He was accurate both in the pocket and while throwing on the run.
The defense rose up one final time and snuffed out a potential Tucker field goal try when Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a Tyler Huntley pass with 13 seconds left.
Pickett didn’t set the world on fire, but he may have finally had that “Oh, so this is why they drafted him” moment during the game-winning drive.
Of course, you have to talk about the running game, led by Harris’s 111 yards on 22 carries and Jaylen Warren’s 76 on 11 carries. The ground game kept Pittsburgh in it, and it allowed the Steelers to dictate the action most of the night.
The Steelers once again won the time of possession battle, as the offense appeared to be “this” close to breaking through.
It didn’t, at least not until the very end, but were you surprised Pittsburgh won this game in such a dramatic fashion? You shouldn’t have been. Again, this is what these teams do.
Yes, the Steelers beat the Ravens' backup quarterback, but the Ravens lost to a rookie quarterback who had completed 10 total passes prior to the game-winning drive.
The Steelers defense was trashed by Baltimore’s running game in the first meeting but more than held its own on Sunday night, thanks to schemes drawn up by Tomlin and Co.
The Steelers' home loss to the Ravens on December 11 still has them on the outside looking in at the playoffs, but their road victory against them on New Year’s will keep them alive through their final kickoff of the 2022 regular season.
30-29, that’s the total score of the two matchups between the Steelers and Ravens in 2022. Pittsburgh goes into the final week still unclear of its playoff fate, while Baltimore is still unclear about its postseason seed.
Maybe if one of these teams learned how to dominate the other, it might make things easier in the standings.
But that’s not how the Steelers and Ravens do it.