OWINGS MILLS – It was a rare equal partnership between the Baltimore Ravens' vaunted defense and a traditionally inconsistent offense.
And the sudden emergence of the offense through quarterback Joe Flacco engineering a sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a clutch touchdown pass Sunday night to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith has created an enviable position for the Ravens.
Midway through the season, the Ravens (6-2) are tied for first-place in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) after knocking the defending AFC champion Steelers (5-3) into third place in the division.
Ranked 16th in total offense, the Ravens managed to pull out a 23-20 victory at Heinz Field behind Flacco marching the offense 92 yards in the final minutes.
"I think we'll get the respect from our defense now," running back Ray Rice said. "They've been carrying us. We're happy to do things like this. It builds team camaraderie."
"This is huge," All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "To get this win and see what the offense did, it's just awesome."
And that 26-yard scoring lob from Flacco to Smith gave the Ravens the win after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had erased the Ravens' 10-point lead in the second half behind a 14-point run without an answer.
What was the defense thinking before Flacco connected with Smith after a series of drops by the second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland?
"Either we're going to be the same team from last year or we're going to show how we have grown up from last year," said Suggs when asked what he was thinking before the game-winning play. "We did just that."
"I'm proud of those guys," free safety Ed Reed said. "That was huge what Joe and the guys did. We know they're good."
By doing so, the Ravens now own the top tiebreaker over the Steelers with the head-to-head edge should the teams finish with identical records as they did last season. Last year, the Steelers claimed the division by virtue of their superior conference record.
Now, the Steelers are officially in the Ravens' rear view mirror for the time being after Baltimore swept them for the first time in five seasons.
"We can put the Steelers behind us now," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "Nobody gave us a chance. Everybody thought the first game was a fluke. So, we had to come in here and prove everybody wrong once again and prove that we were the better team. We want to continue to get better and win the AFC North"
That's a strong possibility for the Ravens provided they take care of business going forward, starting this week on the road against the reeling Seattle Seahawks and in their two remaining games against the Bengals.
"I haven't thought about the psychological implications of it, but it might be a plus," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "The mathematical implications are definitely there, but it doesn't mean much if you don't win your next game, and your next game and your next game."
Last January, the Ravens were expelled from the postseason by the Steelers for the second time in the past three seasons in Pittsburgh.
The road to a deep run into the playoffs is usually less arduous through home-field advantage.
"I'm really excited about this win," Flacco said. "What this really means to me is that we are 6-2, we beat Pittsburgh two times and we put ourselves in good position to win the division."
The Seahawks are a struggling 2-6 outfit, but the Ravens have proven in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a narrow win over the Arizona Cardinals that there's a tendency to play down to the level of their competition.
"At the end, it's how many wins you have compared to how many wins somebody else has, and then the tiebreakers come in at that point," said Harbaugh, who was in such a good mood after beating Pittsburgh that he quoted Teddy Roosevelt nearly perfectly during his Monday press conference. "You just have to keep stacking wins."
Although the offense has won big games before, including Flacco hitting T.J. Houshmandzadeh with a touchdown pass in Pittsburgh last year, this was a case of Flacco topping Roethlisberger to pull out a game in the final minute.
"To me, it goes back to: ‘We win as a team, we lose as a team, we do everything together as a team,'" Harbaugh said. "Our guys believe that and buy it. I think every player on each side of the ball wants to do their part and really wants to uphold their end of it. For the offense to be able to do that this game in that way is very valuable, and it means a lot to them. I think it means a lot to all of the guys"
Although the Ravens faltered in losses to the Tennessee Titans and Jaguars, they've also manufactured an impressive pair of wins over the Steelers and have also beaten two other viable contenders: the New York Jets and the Houston Texans.
"We're at the halfway point, and we put ourselves in a good position" outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We got a tough west coast trip, and if we don't go out and play well next week we're just going to put ourselves back in a hole."
Still defensive-oriented with the second-ranked defense in the league headlined by All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Reed, Suggs and Ngata, the Ravens are aiming toward a fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs.
"The record could be better, it could be worse in the end," Harbaugh said. "We've won some big games against some good teams, especially some AFC teams. And we've let some slip away that we shouldn't have.
"What you just try to do is continue to improve, because the next challenge is going to be the toughest challenge. That's just the way it is. So, I think you look at it from that perspective."
Ravens notebook: Ben Grubbs bolsters offensive line
OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens left offensive guard Ben Grubbs boosted the offensive line as he returned to the lineup Sunday night after convalescence from a right turf toe injury that sidelined him for six games.
Grubbs dealt with soreness and stiffness, but didn't aggravate the toe during the Ravens' 23-20 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
"So far, so good as far as that," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "No negative report on the toe. I think he played well. It looks like he was very solid. And you'd like to think that he's only going to continue to improve as he gets healthier and healthier and gets back into game shape."
Grubbs took a pain-killing injection prior to kickoff, starting and making it through the entire game.
"It did all right," Grubbs said. "It was sore a little bit, but with the pain shots I took I was able to play. I guess you can call it pushing off. I did all right. Yeah, I don't think it's any worse, but the shots haven't worn off. Talk to me Wednesday."
Grubbs said that the injury was extremely difficult to deal with over the past several weeks after straining ligaments in his toe against the Steelers in a 35-7 win to launch the season.
Five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode had been starting in Grubbs' place.
"It was the first actual injury where I couldn't go even if I wanted to," Grubbs said. "I didn't know what the future held for me. I prayed and my family prayed.
"With the help of our trainers and the help of time, the No. 1 healer, I was able to go this week. I really wasn't sure how I was going to make it through this game."
Grubbs' presence seemed to give the offensive line a lift.
"Obviously, Ben is a proven player," offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "We've been missing him, and to have him back is always good."
The Ravens are now 2-0 against the Steelers with Grubbs in the lineup this year.
"It's a lot of responsibility to put on one person," Grubbs said. "We got the win. I'm 2-0 right now, both against Pittsburgh. It's a great win. It was a collective effort. My teammates came through. No man was too small or too big. Everybody did their jobs."
Pitta caught five passes for 46 yards from quarterback Joe Flacco with each one moving the chains on third down.
"It's all about making money on third down," Pitta said. "Those are critical plays. Joe did a great job of seeing the field and delivering the ball right on the money. We were able to take advantage of some mismatches out there."
Pitta is not the starting tight end. That distinction belongs to Ed Dickson, but Pitta is becoming a more important part of the offense now.
Pitta has caught 21 passes for 195 yards, ranking behind Dickson's 30 receptions for 277 yards and a touchdown.
"Dennis has a knack for getting open," Harbaugh said. "I think he and Joe have really built a chemistry with timing and anticipation, because some of those routes are routes that you have to kind of run on the fly based on what the defense gives you. For those two guys to be on the same page like that it says a lot, and it bodes well for our offense going forward."
Pitta's longest reception was a 23-yarder on the Ravens' opening drive on 3rd-and-6.
"Dennis is great," Flacco said. "Both those young tight ends are going to be a huge asset for us. It's like putting three wide receivers out there. They know how to run routes. They know how to get open. And he was big on a couple third downs tonight."
The Ravens envisioned both Dickson and Pitta operating as the replacements for former Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, who was cut before training camp due to age and a $4.6 million salary-cap figure.
"I think they are doing great," Harbaugh said. "Both those two tight ends, Ed and Dennis, are really making progress. Couldn't be more pleased with them. I think it validates drafting those two guys, obviously. They are big targets. They are athletic guys, and they are going to be a big part of what we are doing going forward."
AYANBADEJO UPDATE: Pro Bowl special-teams ace and reserve linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo suffered a mild concussion, but is likely to be able to play Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks
"I'm sure we'll do all the testing, as far as Brendon's issue," Harbaugh said. "But it doesn't appear that there is anything serious there."
Ayanbadejo seemed alert after the game.
"I think my brain should be all right," Ayanbadejo said. "I don't think I did too much damage."
HELMET TO HELMET: Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward left the game with a stinger after absorbing a punishing helmet-to-helmet hit from All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis in the first half.
Ward didn't return, and Lewis could draw a fine for the collision.
And Steelers safety Ryan Clark might be fined for his hit on Ravens tight end Ed Dickson.
How tough is it to avoid such hits considering the speed of the game?
"I am probably not going to get into that conversation right now," Harbaugh said. "It's tough. There is no doubt about it, it's tough. It's fast, and it's physical and all that, but the rules are in place for a reason. So, that's the way it works."
CUNDIFF COMEBACK: Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff connected on three of four field goals, booting a 51-yard kick through the uprights before halftime after a miss from 40 yards wide right in the first quarter.
All of Cundiff's misses this season have been wide right with previous errant kicks from 52, 51 and 51 yards.
Cundiff had hit 32 field goals in a row from under 50 yards prior to Sunday night.
For the season, Cundiff has made 20 of 24 attempts
"The one at the end of the half was probably the biggest one," Harbaugh said. "That was huge for us, because it was a 51-yarder, and I think there's only been four 50-yarders kicked there in history at Heinz Field. That tells you how tough it is.
"The footing was really tough. The first kick, I think, his dry foot slipped a little bit, and that contributed to the push. It was obviously huge."
COPY CATS?: The Ravens have no intentions of imitating the Steelers, at least Harbaugh doesn't.
Despite the Steelers' six Super Bowl championships to the Ravens' one and owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledging after last season that the franchise is trying to reach the Steelers' level, Harbaugh said the Ravens will maintain their own identity.
"No way, you have never heard me say that," Harbaugh said. "I would never say that. We are going to be like us. With all respect to the question, that premise I would reject. We are going to be like us."
QUICK HIT: At the end of the Ravens' win Sunday night, the Ravens contemplating having Cundiff squib his kickoff after Torrey Smith's touchdown pass with eight seconds left.
Cundiff booted a touchback, though.
"Yes, there was consideration," Harbaugh said. "We talked about doing that, and Billy felt very strongly that he could hit the touchback there, which on that footing, was tough to do. He had been doing it throughout the game. We had a little bit of wind at our back, so that's what we decided to do."
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