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Defense, the home crowd and some luck lift the Steelers to their third win

Resuming the pattern that produced two of their previous victories, the Pittsburgh Steelers used stout defense to overcome a largely ineffective offense — plus a dash of good luck — to defeat the Baltimore Ravens 17-10, extending their record to 3-2 entering their bye week.

Grabbing three crucial turnovers, blocking a punt through the end zone for a safety and sacking the elusive Lamar Jackson four times, the Black-and-gold defense atoned for their poor showing last weekend in Houston, surrendering only a single touchdown. Early in the second quarter, Larry Ogunjobi forced a fumble by Baltimore RB Justice Hill which was recovered at midfield by Damontae Kazee. But the Steelers could manage only a 43-yard FG by Chris Boswell as their lone score of the entire first half.

In the second half, with heavy support from their home crowd, the Steelers defense stepped up — not only to shut out the Ravens’ offense — but also to grab two pivotal, fourth-quarter turnovers plus Miles Killebrew’s punt block. The Steelers’ cause was aided throughout the game by Ravens receivers who logged seven dropped passes including a pass dropped by Zay Flowers early in the game that should have been another Baltimore touchdown.

Once again, the Steelers offense was ineffective throughout a majority of the game. Despite finally scoring a decisive TD on Kenny Pickett’s 41-yard pass to George Pickens with only about a minute remaining in the game, the Steelers offense mostly continued its abject futility, whether in converting third downs or scoring touchdowns. The Steelers converted only six of 15 third downs and rushed for only 87 total yards for a measly 2.9 yards-per-carry. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this 2023 season so far is that the Steelers currently find themselves tied for the AFC North lead despite an offense that seems incapable of capitalizing on good field position.

But in a season which so far seems to confound any firm conclusions, some definite positives have emerged which were evident at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon. First and foremost, the Steelers’ inside linebackers appear to be getting their collective act together after being utterly embarrassed in Houston the previous week. Cole Holcomb led the team in tackles, closely followed by Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander, who probably had his strongest performance of the season. On the outside, T.J. Watt was his usual dominant self while Alex Highsmith contributed continuous pressure and another pivotal strip-sack.

Not including the yardage gained by Lamar Jackson running from the pocket, the Steelers defense allowed only 80 yards rushing for the game. Baltimore converted only 5-of-14 third-down opportunities. Two particularly promising developments were the emergence of rookie Keeanu Benton as a force in the middle of the defensive line and Joey Porter’s crucial interception with only four minutes remaining in the game to thwart what might have been a decisive touchdown for the Ravens. Moving forward, the Steelers will be counting on these two youngsters to play key roles in their success.

Offensively, Jaylen Warren continued to fill the role of spark plug for a mostly sluggish unit by showcasing tough, elusive running to set up Steelers scoring opportunities. Whether or not it’s fully appreciated by Matt Canada, Warren has the potential to become the same kind of difference-maker for Pittsburgh as Darren Sproles once was for the Chargers. On Sunday at Acrisure, Warren demonstrated once again that he can be a weapon in various play designs which, so far at least, have scarcely been tapped by the Steelers OC. Warren’s success also can help to make Najee Harris more effective as the Steelers OL continues to improve.

Many fans and pundits continue to scratch our heads at the spectacle of a Black-and-gold unit currently sitting at 3-2 despite generating precious little in the way of offense. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that today’s NFL is a far different league than as recently as a decade ago. Despite surrendering 31 more points over five games than they’ve scored, the Steelers record is currently shared by teams including Buffalo, Baltimore, Dallas and New Orleans — each one strongly on the plus side regarding points scored vs. points surrendered. In fact, the Steelers are dead last in PF/PA among the eight NFL teams currently having 3-2 records.

This underscores how risky it is for Steelers Nation to assume the Steelers have in any significant way corrected the central issues which were exposed during blowout defeats in Weeks 1 and 4. Nevertheless, beating the Ravens was as thrilling for Pittsburgh fans as it was a necessary step for the team to remain in the playoff hunt. Players key to the team’s future took important steps forward in the win. Overall, it was a positive effort to build on as the Steelers enter their bye week.

But beyond the performance of a defense that collectively appeared to give its strongest effort of the season, we didn’t see much from the offense to hang our hats on. That’s why Matt Canada, Kenny Pickett and his offense will continue to be under considerable scrutiny as the season unfolds. When we consider the offense’s considerable struggle to secure this important win — producing only a single TD late in the final quarter — it’s obvious that a much-improved performance will be necessary if the Steelers hope to become serious contenders by December. But after last week’s Houston debacle, this victory at least opens the possibility of believing that the Steelers’ ongoing transition remains on track.

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