Steelers look more like contenders by the week

BALTIMORE -- The Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth straight game and aren’t peaking any time soon.

One of the hottest teams in the league looks well-positioned for winter football -- and a playoff run -- after controlling the pace in a physical 23-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sees a different team than the one that lost to the Ravens in September, a game Antonio Brown called “disgusting” because of missed third-down opportunities. On Sunday, the Steelers converted 10-of-16 third downs.

“Our defense is playing with a lot more confidence,” Roethlisberger said. “Offensively, we’re a team that likes to spread it out…use the pass to open up the run.”

Standing at 1-2-1 after September and reeling without Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers faced adversity they hadn’t seen since 2016, when they started the year 4-5. But starting with Week 5, a once-maligned Steelers defense hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game.

Pittsburgh has won back-to-back games in M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since 2001-02, and it did so with quite the creative quarterback exchange.

Early in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger left the field for one play after taking a hard hit from linebacker Za’Darius Smith on a scramble play. Backup Josh Dobbs entered the game deep in Steelers territory, on second-and-20, and threw a beautiful ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster over the middle for 22 yards.

That was Dobbs’ first NFL passing attempt. “Every man in here believes in him,” said Brown of Dobbs.

Two plays later, Roethlisberger -- who had the wind knocked out of him -- found Jesse James deep for 51 yards over the top.

Seven plays after that, Chris Boswell's 29-yard field goal strengthened a lead the Steelers would not relinquish.

Those are winning plays that the Steelers keep making.

Winning is bringing out the best in everyone, players say. The Steelers won the physical matchup with their fiercest AFC North rival, holding the ball for more than 36 minutes and converting 27 first downs compared to Baltimore’s 18.

“The standard with this team is, how good can I be?” said guard David DeCastro, part of an offensive line that’s played excellent football the last month. “It’s a good environment to be in.”

Roethlisberger finished 28-of-47 passing for 270 yards and two touchdowns, finding seven different receivers for at least two receptions. James Conner produced another solid outing with 163 total yards, including 107 rushing. The Steelers have given Conner the ball 108 times over the last four matchups, and he’s produced nearly 700 yards with that faith.

On third-and-4 with two minutes left, the Steelers went five-wide, and Roethlisberger found Smith-Schuster over the middle to help clinch the game.

“Baltimore did a great job taking away big plays from us today, so we just settled for whatever we could get,” Roethlisberger said.

Three pass interference calls nearly doomed the Steelers’ defense, which responded swiftly with three red zone stops, including timely pass breakups in the end zone by corner Mike Hilton and safety Terrell Edmunds. Baltimore averaged 3.8 yards per carry, and the Steelers found success rushing the passer against the Ravens’ two backup offensive tackles, drawing two sacks and two holding calls.

When the Ravens got the ball at their own 24-yard line with 44 seconds left, a Coty Sensabaugh pass breakup and a sack by Stephon Tuitt buried them.

“We were doubted early in the season, but now that we found our rhythm, everyone’s healthy,” Hilton said. “We’re showing what kind of defense we can be.”

The Steelers are about to find out. The Carolina Panthers look dangerous, and they head to Heinz Field on Thursday night.

The Steelers (5-2-1) look ready for anything.

Coach Mike Tomlin is not about to forecast, especially with three days to prepare for Carolina.

“(Our future) will be revealed to us instead of going out and searching for it,” Tomlin said.