The Pittsburgh Steelers had weathered the storm all season long. By the home stretch, they had gotten to the point where they needed to simply take care of business by beating a couple of floundering teams in order to secure a playoff berth.
It was soon made obvious that it wouldn’t be so easy to put the Baltimore Ravens down as Ryan Mallett continually connected on his third-down throws to keep drives alive. And though the Ravens offense only put up just 20 points—which would have been more than sufficient to win most of the Steelers’ games this season—it was clear that there would be problems.
Though the Ravens ended the day converting nine of 18 third-down opportunities for a 50 percent success rate—an excellent mark on its own—the fact is that the offense was spectacular converting early in the game, and helped set the Steelers behind quickly, from which they never recovered.
Baltimore opened with a 15-play, seven-minute touchdown drive that set the tone for what to expect from this 4-10 team on the day, a resilient unit that would not submit easily. The drive first stalled just past midfield until Mallett connected with Jeremy Butler for 16 yards on a third and nine play.
Three plays later, it was Kamar Aiken picking up six yards on a third and five. Then, on the next third and five just three plays later, Mallett found rookie tight end Maxx Williams for seven yards. Finally, the quarterback making his first start for the Ravens connected with Chris Matthews in the back of the end zone from the eight-yard line on third and goal.
On the next drive, it was Matthews again that Mallett found for five yards to convert a third and three at Baltimore’s 41-yard line. The Ravens had converted their first five third-down conversion attempts, and the second drive only ended that the Steelers’ 19-yard line with a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The Steelers defense did manage to force a three-and-out on the subsequent drive, but the Ravens came back to net another field goal on their fourth drive of the game, a drive that included a nine-yard pass on a third and two play after a 17-yard gain on second and 19 set it up. The Ravens were six-of-nine converting on third down on their first four drives, and it produced 13 points.
Baltimore would fail to convert its next three attempts, but then converted three times on one drive that successfully flipped the field after they were pinned back inside their own 15-yard line at the end of the third quarter. The Steelers’ subsequent possession ended in an interception, from which, starting at their own 42, the Ravens would go on to score the game-winning touchdown, as it would turn out.
There was any number of factors that conspired to witness Baltimore take down the Steelers in a game that Pittsburgh needed, and the poor third-down defense, especially early in the game, was just one of them. But it was a big one in setting the stage for how the rest of the game would play out, and for establishing an early lead.