As far as the 2018 season goes, Sunday night was your typical Steelers experience. They were embarrassed early as the Ravens jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead only to bounce back in the second quarter to tie the score. But it was Baltimore's defense that trumped Pittsburgh's occasionally high-powered offense and cruised to a 26-14 victory.
For some context, this season Pittsburgh has outscored opponents 66-3 in the second quarter. This explains their 14-point second-quarter outburst against the Ravens. But the Ravens defense, which came into the game ranked fifth overall, hadn't allowed a second-half touchdown. That remains the case after they shut down Pittsburgh's offense.
But for as good as Baltimore's defense was on the night, it was the offense that made the difference. It started early with the 14-point lead but it was their last drive of the game, one that took 14 plays, covered 82 yards and ate up 6:40 off the clock, that proved to be the dagger. Justin Tucker, the Ravens' best player by roughly a million miles, converted his third field goal of the half to make it 23-14 with 3:37 to go.
Joe Flacco is elite when he has all day in the pocket
The Ravens came into the game with the league's No. 13 offense, according to Football Outsiders. The passing game was 11th and Flacco was 10th in total value and 13th in value per play. We're guessing he'll improve on both those numbers after his performance in Pittsburgh. When it was over, Flacco was 28 of 42 for 363 yards and two touchdowns. He looked comfortable from start to finish, partly because the Ravens' offensive line is playing really well but also because the Steelers chose not to blitz. He was sacked just twice.
We understand Pittsburgh's game plan -- their secondary has been exposed all season and to mitigate that eventuality, defensive coordinator Keith Butler decided to drop seven and eight guys into coverage. Turns out, it didn't matter. The same issues that have plagued this unit -- deep balls and wide-open tight ends -- continued unabated. Tight ends Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews combined for 10 catches and 99 yards, and John Brown did the rest.
John Brown is a legit weapon
Here's a quick look at the Ravens' leading receiver in recent years:
2017: Tight end Ben Watson: 61 receptions, 522 yards, four touchdowns;
2016: Tight end Dennis Pitta: 86 receptions, 729 yards, two touchdowns;
2015: Wide receiver Kamar Aiken: 75 receptions, 944 yards, five touchdowns
Crabtree leads the team in receptions this season with 16 and Brown, who is one of the fastest players in the league, gives Flacco something he hasn't had in years: a deep threat.
That was the Ravens' first drive of the game; Flacco went 4 for 4 for 51 yards, the offense gained three first downs, and the Steelers couldn't even double-team Brown properly.
A quarter later, this happened:
And if Alex Collins doesn't fumble at the goal line a few plays later, the Ravens go up 21-3 at the half and the game is over.
When Big Ben is off, count on the Steelers losing
For as good as Roethlisberger can be -- see: Weeks 2-3 -- he can also be incredibly bad. Part of the issue is that the Steelers offense is one-dimensional without Le'Veon Bell. You can say whatever you want about Bell being selfish by staying home but there's no denying how important he is to this offense. Pittsburgh had 19 rushing yards against the Ravens and averaged 1.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger, who was 19 of 29 for 224 yards a touchdown and no interceptions in the first half, slowly melted down after the break. He finished 27 of 47 for 274 yards with a touchdown and a horrible -- and horribly ill-timed -- interception, badly missed several wide-open receivers, including Antonio Brown, and played a big part in the offense's disappearance in the second half.
The good news is that Pittsburgh's defense wasn't a flat-out disgrace. They got some stops and kept the Ravens out of the end zone in the second half. The bad news is that if Roethlisberger isn't on, Pittsburgh has little chance of winning. This is going to be a recurring theme over the next three months.
Vance McDonald is fun to watch
One of the team's biggest additions that flew under the radar prior to last season was the Steelers trading for tight end Vance McDonald. He appeared in just 10 regular-season games in 2017 because of various injuries but when he was healthy down the stretch he immediately became one of Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets, including his 10-catch, 112-yard effort against the Jaguars in the playoffs.
McDonald was hurt for much of this preseason and missed the season opener against the Browns, and only managed three catches for 26 yards in the Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. But you couldn't miss him last Monday night when he had four catches for 112 yards, 75 of which came when he ruined Buccaneers safety Chris Conte's 2018.
On Sunday night, McDonald had five first-half catches for 62 yards, including this reception late in the second quarter in which he Conte'd safety Tony Jefferson and dragged half the Ravens defense 33 yards downfield.
But like the rest of the offense, McDonald was shut out in the second half.
The Steelers (1-2-1) host the Falcons (1-3) on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Pittsburgh last lost to Atlanta in 2006. Prior to that, its only other loss came in 1970. The Steelers lead the all-time series, 13-2-1.
The Ravens (3-1), meanwhile, travel to Cleveland to face the Browns (1-2-1). Baltimore has won five straight against Cleveland, and seven of eight overall, with the only loss coming in 2015 when Josh McCown and the Browns came to Baltimore and dropped 33 points. The Ravens lead the all-time series, dating back to 1999, 29-9.