PITTSBURGH -- The reason why the Baltimore Ravens strengthened their grip on another AFC North title was the timely and tenacious play of their defense.
For the previous decade, that statement wouldn't come as a surprise. But for a banged-up defense -- one that has taken as many blows from critics as it has from injuries this season -- the stubborn performance was like a blindside hit from James Ihedigbo. If you didn't know he played for the Ravens before his fourth-quarter sack Sunday night, you're not the only one.
This patchwork defense took the ball away from the Pittsburgh Steelers and gave up very little after the opening drive, carrying the team to a 13-10 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field and proving it's better than its No. 27 ranking.
Is this a championship-caliber defense? Let's see how this group fares against the likes of Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning over the next few weeks before getting into hyperbole. What Baltimore's defense showed Sunday night was it's good enough to win this division and get the Ravens to the playoffs when the offense disappears once again on the road.
The Ravens forced two turnovers, something the NFL's top-ranked defense was unable to do. They stopped the Steelers on 12 of 17 third downs. And, most importantly, they kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone for the final 59 minutes, 17 seconds.
Yes, the Ravens caught a break when Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with rib and shoulder injuries and they instead faced Byron Leftwich, whose long windup makes Tim Tebow's release look like Kurt Warner's. Some will want to put an asterisk by this defensive effort because the Steelers are 0-5 against the Ravens since 2004 without Roethlisberger. Just don't forget the fact that the Ravens have only six starters from the defense that played in the AFC championship game 10 months ago. Ray Lewis was standing in sweats on the sideline, and Baltimore started a Pro Bowl special teams player in Corey Graham at cornerback.
That's why the Ravens entered this game ranked 27th in yards allowed and 26th against both the run and the pass. But it was this low-ranked defense that made the plays for the Ravens to improve to 8-2 and extend their lead to two games over the Steelers with six weeks remaining.
"I'm starting to believe that the numbers really don't matter for the simple fact that we've been in the top-10 defense for years and yet have no Super Bowl rings to account for them," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Last year, in the AFC championship, we lost to the 31st-ranked defense. I guess the numbers are all good for you guys to pile on, but I guess the only thing that matters is wins or losses."
Where the Ravens' defense won the game was in the fourth quarter, when it held the Steelers to 51 total yards and didn't let them get into field-goal range to tie the game.
On their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Steelers moved to the Baltimore 46-yard line. It ended with a third-down sack by Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is not the same player this season with shoulder and knee injuries.
On the Steelers' second drive, they got to the Ravens' 42-yard line. That was stopped by a third-down sack from Ihedigbo, a backup safety who was signed eight days before the season opener.
The Ravens did get lucky when Leftwich couldn't get the ball to a wide-open David Gilreath deep downfield with 12 seconds remaining. But the two previous plays were incompletions because Graham nailed tight end Heath Miller and Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard crushed Jerricho Cotchery.
"So many count us out. So many people say things about us," Pollard said. "We're coming together. We're getting into a nice stride. For us, when people score, it's because we make mistakes."
Pollard owned up for the missed tackle of Leftwich on the 31-yard touchdown run in the first minute of the game. That was the only costly mistake by the defense.
In what typifies where the Ravens stand defensively, they got turnovers from two unlikely players. Chris Johnson, who was signed this week to add depth at cornerback, stripped wide receiver Mike Wallace in the first quarter. Graham, a 2011 Pro Bowl special teams player, intercepted Leftwich in the third. The Ravens converted those turnovers into six points.
Baltimore's offense needed all of the help it could get. How many thought the Ravens would win if they got 164 yards passing from Joe Flacco and 40 yards rushing from Ray Rice? To the defense's credit, no one is slapping each other on the back after stepping up when the team needed it the most.
"We have to be consistent. We have to compile these defensive stands," Suggs said. "We played good defense but also we got to be able to do it against a starting quarterback. Next week, we have Philip Rivers and he torched us last year. We'll see how we do next week."
Where the Ravens are championship caliber is in the red zone. The Steelers got to within four yards of the end zone in the third quarter and failed to punch it in. The Ravens, the top-ranked defense in the red zone, haven't allowed a touchdown when the opponent has gotten inside the 20-yard line in three straight games (nine drives in the red zone).
"If they get down there, we have to hold them to three," Pollard said. "I think if we can hold them to three and continue to score seven, if you do the math, we come out on top."
The Steelers did help the Ravens out with their game plan. They didn't stick with the run when it looked like the Ravens were wearing down. And Pittsburgh didn't exploit a Baltimore secondary that didn't have two of its top three cornerbacks (Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith).
Pittsburgh had success throwing deep on the first play of the game when Cary Williams was called for pass interference on Wallace. Why didn't the Steelers continue to test the Ravens deep?
"When everybody's commenting on Leftwich's elongated throw, they didn't want him holding the ball too long and have Mike Wallace go downfield," Suggs said. "But you have to remember we have the best safety in the world [Ed Reed] back there: Superman. He can cover both halves of the field. I'll be totally honest with you, I wouldn't take a chance of throwing the ball up there where 20 can get it. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he becomes an offensive player and can go the distance with it."
The Steelers were supposed to be the ones turning back the clock with the 1934 bumblebee-style uniforms. Instead, it was the Ravens defense that invoked some nostalgia.
Will the Ravens' wounded defense continue to recreate some of its old magic? Probably not. But this group is showing signs of turning things around.
"We're 8-2 but we're not happy about it. We know we can play better," Suggs said. "We have yet to play our best football. Coming down the stretch in November and December, there's very few teams better than us."