Though the Pittsburgh Steelers lost the bigger victory, falling to the Baltimore Ravens 13-10 on Sunday night, there were a number of smaller victories that came their way, especially when defending the Ravens' passing game.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco hasn't been that great of a passer on the road, with fewer than 200 passing yards in three of his last four road games. While that hasn't been an issue for him in previous seasons, when a poor road performance wouldn't necessarily mean the Ravens lost games, this year his defense hasn't been as strong, making him more responsible for what happens in the win column.
The Steelers held Flacco to just 164 total passing yards on Sunday night, and though he threw no picks, he didn't throw a touchdown either. Only three Ravens receivers had double-digit yardage, Torrey Smith pulled down only one of the seven passes thrown his way, and Flacco was held to just 5.1 yards per attempt.
This has been a common theme for the Steelers defense this year.
At 169.3 passing yards allowed per game, the Steelers have the top passing defense when it comes to yards and passing first downs. They also rank fifth in passing scores given up per game. And, most interestingly, they are doing it without producing a great deal of pressure up front against opposing quarterbacks. It's more about playing physically in coverage.
That physicality has resulted in the Steelers defense repeatedly cutting off the deep ball to opposing quarterbacks. In the four games prior to meeting the Ravens on Sunday night, they gave up only two completions of 20 or more yards on 11 total attempts—zero to Andy Dalton in Week 7, zero to Robert Griffin III in Week 8, one of four to Eli Manning in Week 9 and one of three to Matt Cassel in Week 10.
Pittsburgh's goal in allowing cornerback William Gay to leave in free agency and moving Keenan Lewis up the depth chart (with Cortez Allen at nickel) was to have a more physical, hands-on approach in the secondary—less zone and more man—and thus far, it's worked.
Safety Ryan Clark ranks second in overall tackles among Steelers defenders, and Lewis is fourth. Lewis and Ike Taylor are allowing only 50 percent (membership required) of the passes thrown to receivers they're covering to be caught (Allen is at 56.3 percent).
The three corners have given up a total of just six passing touchdowns this year (five of those being against Taylor) and have combined for 21 passes defensed. Their safeties have allowed three passing touchdowns this year—all of which were the responsibility of Ryan Mundy. Will Allen and Clark have been near-perfect in coverage.
Though Flacco wasn't picked off on Sunday night, the Steelers came close to intercepting him numerous times. Defenders played and stayed close to their receiver assignments, getting their hands on passes and batting them out of play.
It's a major reason why Baltimore converted only three third downs, lost the time of possession battle and could only manage field goals out of their possessions inside Pittsburgh's 25-yard line.
With Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined for an indefinite period of time with a shoulder and rib injury, and his backup, Byron Leftwich, apparently suffering the same fate, strong defensive play is more important than ever. The Steelers are just one game up in the wild-card playoff race, two games behind in the division and have four more AFC North contests before the season is up.
The more the Steelers can shut down opposing passing games, the better. Sometimes it's not enough, as evidenced by their loss against Baltimore on Sunday night. But the outcome would have been even worse for the Steelers if they hadn't played the Ravens' receivers so masterfully through all four quarters.