Three Thoughts: Big Ben tosses six more TDs as Steelers roll Ravens
Led by 340 yards passing and another six touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers cruised to a 43-23 win on Sunday night, their third straight victory.
Three thoughts on the Week 9 meeting:
1. How about those Steelers' receivers?
Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown were picks Nos. 79, 118 and 195 in their respective drafts. Spurred on by the emergence of Brown as arguably the best wide receiver in football right now, that trio serves as the latest evidence that Pittsburgh's franchise is about as good as it gets when it comes to uncovering talent at that position.
Sunday night, they combined for 16 catches, 250 yards and four touchdowns. During the Steelers' impressive three-game homestand (3-0 with wins over Houston, Indianapolis and Baltimore), the Brown-Bryant-Wheaton grouping posted a combined 10 TDs.
"Gotta give guys credit for putting the work in, the extra work," Ben Roethlisberger said.
How about Roethlisberger over that stretch, by the way? He has thrown for 12 touchdowns in the Steelers' past two games -- six in each -- to break an NFL record. For the season, Big Ben is carrying a 22:3 TD-to-INT ratio, numbers that ought to have him hovering around the MVP race as the second half unfolds.
A lot of the credit for Roethlisberger's eruption belongs to Brown, who even after a 110-catch 2013 season has pushed his game to another level.
It is no mere coincidence, though, that the surge from Pittsburgh's passing game coincided with Bryant's arrival in the lineup. A fourth-round pick out of Clemson in the most recent NFL draft, Bryant was slowed by a shoulder injury in the preseason and was scratched for the first six Steelers games. He was activated in time for the Week 7 matchup with Houston, scored that night, then found the end zone twice in Week 8 and twice in Week 9.
The five touchdown catches for Bryant matched Eric Green's NFL record for the most posted by any player over the first three games of his career. And the upgrade for the Steelers' offense, from Lance Moore/Justin Brown to Bryant, has been striking.
It's just the latest chapter in Pittsburgh's ever-growing history of wide receiver draft success stories.
2. The return of James Harrison
Less than a month earlier, Harrison had announced the (as it turned out, temporary) end of his career.
"My love for my family and the need to be there for them outweighs my desire to play the game," he wrote on Facebook.
No one could have envisioned Harrison's return paying off the way that it has. The 36-year-old veteran picked up two sacks of Andrew Luck last week and was a complete menace against the Ravens. Harrison sacked Joe Flacco twice and hit him four times.
"I'm old and slow," Harrison told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game, "so I got God doing most of the work right now."
Baltimore had no answer for Harrison, repeatedly watching as he looped his way around inside to lay the lumber on Flacco. There may not be enough left in the tank for Harrison to maintain this level of play, but the Steelers will take whatever they can get for as long as Harrison can provide it.
3. Baltimore's uphill climb in the AFC North
All of a sudden, courtesy of back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Ravens' season is teetering on the brink. This loss drops them to 5-4, which places them dead last in the highly competitive North, a division in which each team is above .500.
Worse yet, Baltimore has just one game left within the division (Week 17 vs. Cleveland) and can finish no better than 3-3. The Bengals swept the Ravens; the Steelers secured a season split.
Turning over tiebreakers will be difficult, should it come to that. But even getting to the nine- or 10-win mark looks like a tough challenge.
A Week 10 home game against Tennessee offers a chance to right the ship before a Week 11 bye. After that, however, road trips to New Orleans, Miami and Houston still loom, plus a meeting with San Diego and that season-ending clash vs. the Browns.
The Bengals sit at 5-2-1, those two wins over Baltimore in their back pocket. Any shot the Ravens had at stealing the division down the stretch may already be gone. A few more slip-ups and the Steelers (6-3) and Browns (5-3), plus the other wild-card contenders, will begin to pull away from the Ravens, too.
Baltimore has a lot of work to do over the next few weeks.