PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers might have finally discovered their offensive identity in Baltimore. After three games of inconsistent and pass-heavy performances, the Steelers handed the ball off to Le'Veon Bell and let the offense flow from there.
Bell carried 35 times for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the Steelers' 26-9 victory. In the first three games combined he had just 180 yards.
"We wanted to get him involved early," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We saw something in the run game. I think that helped him get in a little flow."
Entering the game, the Steelers had one of the worst pass-to-run ratios in the NFL. But in this game, the Steelers ran it 42 times and passed 30. Roethlisberger only threw for 215 yards, but he made enough plays in the passing game to keep the Ravens honest.
"We did a good job of sticking to the run," Bell said. "The gaps weren't big in the first half or even the third quarter. We knew they'd play the run tough. The O-line kept digging at it, digging at it. Eventually the holes got a little bigger and I was able to make some plays on the second level. We had a good day."
The run-first mentality was reminiscent of the Steelers offense in the second half of last season when the Steelers rode Bell to a nine-game winning streak over the final seven games of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.
"That's what we want to do every week," offensive lineman B.J. Finney said. "That's our mentality every week. We have to run the ball. We want to impose our will on the opposing defense."
Don't look now but the Steelers are among the league leaders on defense in almost every statistical category. They are No. 2 in total defense (267 yards per game), No. 2 in pass defense (154 yards per game), No. 2 in sacks (15) and No. 2 in scoring defense (14.8 points per game).
The Steelers also are tied for fourth with seven takeaways.
"We talk all the time how we want to be the No. 1 defense in the league," linebacker Ryan Shazier said Monday afternoon. "I definitely feel like we can be the best defense in the league. When everyone is taking care of their business, I feel like we can continue to play at a high level."
The only area where the Steelers are struggling right now is their rush defense. They are 21st in the league, allowing 95 yards per game. But they are showing improvement. One week after giving up 220 yards on the ground to the Bears, they gave up just 82 yards rushing against the Ravens.
Defensive end Cam Heyward said the run defense might be the only thing preventing the Steelers from being a truly elite defense.
"We'd be 10 times better whether it's missed tackles, angles, staying in our gaps," Heyward said. "We have to keep stressing it. We're an unfinished product.
REPORT CARD VS. RAVENS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus - Ben Roethlisberger threw for 215 yards and a touchdown, but he left a few plays on the field, most notably when he had Martavis Bryant behind the defense and overthrew him early in the fourth quarter. That miss kept the Ravens in the game longer than they deserved. But Roethlisberger did enough to win, and he achieved his goal of spreading the ball around more. He completed passes to six receivers. Bryant led the team with 48 receiving yards. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown was limited to four catches for 34 yards.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A - The Steelers had 176 rushing yards against a Ravens defense that prides itself on stopping the run. Le'Veon Bell had 144 of those yards, but rookie James Conner chipped in with 26, including a 23-yard scamper on the Steelers' first drive. The Steelers had to find a way to get their running game going after three uneven performances to start the season, and they did it on the road against their fiercest rival in a game where the division lead was at stake. Not a bad way to break out of a season-long running slump.
--PASS DEFENSE: A - Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw for just 235 yards and it took 31 completions to do it. The Steelers intercepted him twice. Linebacker Ryan Shazier and Mike Hilton picked him off in the fourth quarter to help the Steelers stave off a late Ravens push. It was the third time in as many games the Steelers allowed 235 passing yards or fewer. After years of struggling to defend the pass the Steelers are among the league leaders in passing yards.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B- - One week after giving up 220 yards to the Bears, the Steelers did a better job against the Ravens, who rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries. The Steelers are still having a hard time defending zone running plays. Alex Collins ripped off two long runs of 23 and 50 yards. But other than those two long runs, the Ravens had just nine yards on their other 13 carries.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Chris Boswell missed a 44-yard field goal in the third quarter that could have given the Steelers a 22-3 lead. The miss allowed the Ravens to remain in the game until late in the fourth quarter. Punter Jordan Berry continues to be inconsistent. He averaged just 37.5 yards per punt against the Ravens.
--COACHING: B - With early-week distractions flying around the team after the national anthem controversy, head coach Mike Tomlin did a nice job of keeping his team focused. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally rediscovered the running game, and it helped the Steelers get an early lead. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler also had a nice game plan against the Ravens, and his players executed it well.