PITTSBURGH — It really doesn’t matter to the Baltimore Ravens who starts at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the mission remains the same.
So do the results.
While injured starter Ben Roethlisberger watched from the sideline, Baltimore pounded backup Byron Leftwich during a 13-10 victory on Sunday night that put the Ravens in complete control of the AFC North.
The Ravens (8-2) sacked Leftwich three times, intercepted him once and sent him crumbling to the Heinz Field turf on a handful of occasions as Baltimore built a two-game lead over the Steelers (6-4) heading into the season’s final six weeks.
“We took the mentality as a team that we’re going into a fistfight,” Baltimore safety James Ihedigbo said.
And the Ravens have no trouble brawling. On a night the offense could get little going against the NFL’s No. 1 defense, Jacoby Jones returned a punt for a touchdown and Justin Tucker kicked two field goals to help the Ravens win their 12th straight game in the division.
Three of those victories have come at Heinz Field, one of the most difficult places to play in the NFL. Still, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh wasn’t exactly in the mood to declare the division race over.
“It’s like halftime,” Harbaugh said. “It’s like we won the first half and the second half is coming up.”
The Steelers certainly hope it goes a little better than the first.
Leftwich, making his first start in more than three years, completed 18 of 39 passes for 201 yards and an interception. He spent much of the second half slowly picking himself up off the grass and was checked for a rib injury after taking a nasty shot from Ihedbigo late in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin sent the 32-year-old veteran out for one last-gasp drive, but it ended in chaos as the Steelers’ four-game winning streak came to an ugly end. Pittsburgh is 0-5 against the Ravens since 2005 when Roethlisberger doesn’t play.
“We didn’t find a significant play, particularly in the waning moments and in any of the three phrases to be the difference,” Tomlin said. “We accept responsibility for our performance, but we also tip our hat to those guys. They did enough to win the football game.”
Even if the Ravens didn’t do it with offense.
Joe Flacco wasn’t much better than Leftwich, completing 20 of 32 passes for 164 yards. Running back Ray Rice managed just 40 yards on 20 carries, forcing the Ravens to rely on an old standby make the difference.
Typically, that’s not a problem. But this is not a typical year in Baltimore.
The defense came in ranked 27th in the league in yards allowed and is missing spiritual leader Ray Lewis, who is on the injured reserve-return list with a triceps injury.
The emotional linebacker made the trip anyway, giving his teammates a lift in the locker room. It translated onto the field on a night the Steelers converted 5 of 17 third downs and turned it over three times.
“We haven’t been playing the best the past couple weeks, or the whole season, some people say,” said Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham, who intercepted Leftwich in the third quarter. “We’ve just got to find a way to get wins and that’s what we were able to do today.”
The Steelers hosted a number of franchise greats, including Hall-of-Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Joe Greene.
Their presence was appreciated, though it did little to make up for the absence of safety Troy Polamalu — out again with a right calf injury — or Roethlisberger, the franchise’s current standard bearer.
“We just couldn’t get our rhythm,” Leftwich said.
Roethlisberger offered to do everything he could to help Leftwich win his first game as a starter in more than six years and insisted all week the offense wouldn’t change.
For a fleeting moment, Roethlisberger appeared to be right.
Leftwich went deep on the game’s first snap trying to hit Mike Wallace, drawing a pass interference penalty on Baltimore’s Cary Williams. Two plays later Leftwich — who joked all week about his lack of speed — bought time in the pocket, rolled to his right and made for the sideline.
Rather than slide or duck out of bounds, the 250-pound Leftwich got a block and raced — in a manner of speaking — 31 yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead. Roethlisberger lifted his good arm in the air in celebration after the longest run of Leftwich’s career, and the play seemed to give Pittsburgh a sense of confidence.
It didn’t last. At least, not on offense.
The Steelers’ second possession ended with a Wallace fumble that Ed Reed returned to the Pittsburgh 14. Baltimore managed only a field goal, but it seemed to bring the Steelers back to earth.
If that didn’t, Jones did.
The explosive return man drifted under a Drew Butler punt late in the first half, sprinted up the field, cut to the right and zipped untouched to the end zone for his third return touchdown of the season to give Baltimore a 10-7 lead.
“They were trying to set up the outside wall, but I saw nothing but open field to the right so I thought, ‘Why not go this way?’” Jones said.
Baltimore moved in front 13-7 in the third quarter on Tucker’s second field goal, more than enough to help the Ravens take a major step toward their second straight division title.
“They talked about how it was going to be a physical game, how it was going to come down to the end and it lived up to it,” Graham said. “It was definitely a great experience. I look forward to it in a couple weeks.”
NOTES: Baltimore TE Dennis Pitta left the game with a concussion in the first quarter and did not return … Pittsburgh RB Isaac Redman also left with a concussion and did not return … Pittsburgh RB Rashard Mendenhall had 33 yards in his first game in a month … The Steelers travel to Cleveland next week while the Ravens play in San Diego.