The Steelers had five takeaways Sunday and defeated the Ravens 28-24 at Baltimore.
Wait a minute. The stat sheet says that the Ravens committed just four turnovers.
That’s right. The Steelers’ fifth takeaway came Sunday night, when they acquired inside linebacker Avery Williamson and a 2022 seventh-round draft pick from the Jets in exchange for a 2022 fifth-round pick.
A fifth-round selection by the Titans in 2014, Williamson led Tennessee in tackles in 2015 and 2016 and led the Jets in tackles in 2018. The 28-year-old missed most of last year with a torn ACL.
The Steelers (7-0) needed a replacement for inside linebacker Devin Bush, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Robert Spillane made some highlight-reel plays in that role, including two of the four takeaways on Sunday. He intercepted Lamar Jackson for a pick-six to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game, and with two minutes remaining in the game Spillane recovered a fumble when Jackson tried to run for a first down on fourth-and-3 from the Steelers’ 8-yard line.
Undrafted out of Western Michigan, Spillane also stuffed Derrick Henry at the goal line as part of another late-game, red zone stop in Week 7 at Tennessee. On Sunday, Spillane led the Steelers with 11 tackles, including 10 solo. He’s earned a place in this defense, but apparently it won’t be Bush’s replacement as a starting inside linebacker for the rest of the 2020 season.
For all of his game-saving plays, Spillane also has been part of the reason that the Steelers’ defense has sprung some leaks over the last couple of weeks. The Steelers allowed 265 rushing yards Sunday, the most yards they’ve allowed on the ground since 1993. Since Chuck Noll took over as head coach in 1969, the Steelers have allowed 265 or more rushing yards just five times.
Take away Jackson’s 65 rushing yards Sunday and the Steelers still yielded 200, including 113 by rookie running back J.K. Dobbins.
Not all of this was on Spillane. Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu left the game with a knee injury, which hindered the Steelers’ run defense. Isaiah Buggs performed admirably in his place. He had five tackles, including the one on fourth down where Jackson fumbled with two minutes left.
Another understudy, rookie third-round pick Alex Highsmith, played a season-high 25 snaps Sunday and intercepted Jackson early in the third quarter to turn the tide of the game.
The Steelers trailed 17-7 at halftime. The sight of the rain and the Ravens gashing the Steelers defense on the ground was reminiscent of Week 17 last year at Baltimore, where the Steelers’ faint playoff hopes dissipated in a 28-10 loss.
The Steelers forced a punt and James Conner ended a 10-play drive with a 1-yard run later in the quarter to give the Steelers a 21-17 lead.
The Ravens (5-2) took the lead back when Marquise Brown, Antonio Brown‘s cousin, caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Jackson. The Steelers answered when Chase Claypool caught an 8-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger midway through the fourth quarter. That gave the Steelers their final margin of victory, which they had to protect by turning the Ravens away twice at the goal line in the final two minutes.
Even after forcing Jackson to fumble, the Steelers needed one more stop, and they got it when Minkah Fitzpatrick broke up a pass to Willie Snead (five catches for 106 yards) to prevent a game-winning touchdown on the game’s final play.
Contributions from guys like Spillane, Buggs and Highsmith are nice, but the Steelers’ seventh Lombardi Trophy becomes more reachable with every win, and they’re going to need more than stopgaps.
It’s not like the Steelers had to push all their chips to the middle of table to get Williamson. The winless Jets are in fire-sale mode, and this defensive piece cost the Steelers a lot less than the first-round pick it took to get Fitzpatrick last season. Williamson will be a free agent next year, so as long as Bush’s recovery remains on schedule there will be no need to re-sign Williamson.
This is the first time since 1978 that the Steelers have been 7-0 and the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL, which means that not since the days of Noll have the Steelers been such a clear championship front-runner.
Even when they went 15-1 and beat the Patriots in the 2004 regular season, Roethlisberger was a rookie while Tom Brady and the Patriots still lurked. Roethlisberger’s inexperience began to show in the divisional round of the playoffs while the Patriots dominated Peyton Manning and the Colts, so it wasn’t surprising to see the Patriots take down the Steelers in the AFC title game.
With Brady now in the NFC, Jackson and Patrick Mahomes are the most feared quarterbacks in the AFC, and the Steelers put a feather in their cap with their first win over a Jackson-led team on Sunday.
They’ll have to guard against a letdown at Dallas (2-6) next week. It will be their third straight road game. Then on Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh, the Ravens might still have something to say about who wins the AFC North.
Even if they pass those tests, it can be argued that the Steelers can’t be considered favorites to get to the Super Bowl until they can beat Mahomes and the Chiefs. They won’t get that opportunity in the regular season, but by shoring up their defense with Williamson the Steelers will have a better chance to stay ahead of the Chiefs (7-1) in the race for the top seed in the AFC and the first-round playoff bye.
If Mahomes is the final hurdle between the Steelers and the Super Bowl, the Steelers have what they need to make sure that game is played in Pittsburgh.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.