At times this season, Ravens players and coaches have talked about how the offense is a work in progress.
How much work that unit has to do was evident in the final 16 minutes, 52 seconds of the team's 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night.
In that time frame including the last 1:52 of the third quarter and the entire fourth, the offense had three possessions, but managed just two first downs. The Ravens never moved past their own 32-yard line and compiled just 17 yards in 4:38 with the football.
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"I think we probably hurt ourselves," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "That's the way I look at it. I'd have to look at exactly what we did, but in the second half, it didn't seem like we had very good third-down situations. We probably have to look back and see what we did."
Informed of the offense's performance in the fourth quarter, coach John Harbaugh was matter-of-fact in his postgame comments.
"It was obviously not good enough," he said. "We obviously needed more. We needed points. We needed to score some points, and that would have made a big difference in the fourth quarter. We didn't convert."
Especially galling was the inability to turn the last of three Pittsburgh turnovers into points or even a long drive. After scoring touchdowns off of a Corey Graham interception in the second quarter and an Ed Reed fumble recovery in the third, the team appeared to dodge a bullet when Reed leaped to intercept a Charlie Batch throw in the end zone and returned it 34 yards to the Ravens' 27 in the fourth quarter.
But three plays later, Flacco held onto the ball a second too long, allowing outside linebacker James Harrison to sack and strip him. After defensive end Ziggy Hood pounced on the loose ball at the 27, the Steelers needed just four plays for Batch to connect with tight end Heath Miller for a 7-yard touchdown to knot the score at 20.
Flacco took the blame for the fumble, saying, "I was trying to take one for the team there. I probably should've gotten down. Everyone was covered downfield, and the defender was able to get his hands on me and knock the ball out."
As they have done in the past, the Ravens veered away from utilizing their Pro Bowl running back. After he scampered 34 yards for a touchdown to give the team a 20-13 advantage with 4:50 left in the third quarter, Ray Rice touched the ball just one more time — a run for 10 yards — and was not targeted by Flacco for a pass.
Rice, who entered the game fourth in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, finished with 12 carries for 78 yards and one catch for 5 yards, and the Ravens fell to 12-10 when Rice gets fewer than 20 touches. (Conversely, the team is 32-10 when he gets at least 20 touches.)
Rice took the diplomatic approach and didn't complain about being ignored in the fourth quarter.
"My touches go with the game flow," he said. "Obviously, I turned up a huge bunch of yards today, and we could have ran the ball a little bit more. But you know what? Situational football came into play. We put ourselves in the best situation to try and win the game. It was all about execution today. We just fell a little short. Our offense is still a young, growing offense, and we're going to continue to try and get better each week."
In that final stretch, the offense threw the ball 11 times and ran it just twice. The unit's troubles contributed to the defense spending 12:14 of the fourth quarter on the field. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was well aware of the opportunity that the Ravens had missed with their inability to go for the jugular.
"Yeah, we felt like we left plays out there," he said. "We felt like we could've put them away early. Missed opportunities at the end of the game there. Like I said, we'll go back and correct them."
The work continues for the offense.