Preston: Ravens need to raise game against top opponents to make up for lack of playmakers

The Ravens have met expectations so far during the 2017 season, but it is uncertain whether they have the coaching or play-making ability to reach the AFC championship game, much less the Super Bowl.

The Ravens lost a close game to one of the best teams in the conference, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday night, but they should win the final three games against the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals to claim a wild-card playoff spot.

Against Pittsburgh, the Ravens scored 38 points and allowed 39. If the final score were 27-24 or 21-17 you’d feel a bit more confident about their postseason chances. But the team’s defense was pummeled by the Steelers for 545 yards of total offense, including 486 passing.

And here’s another scary part: The Ravens were done in by two superstar players, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Unfortunately, they had no answers for them because they don’t have those types of players.

Right now, their best player is running back Alex Collins. He might be headed to stardom, but he isn’t in the class of Roethlisberger and Brown, and certainly not New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. During the past couple of seasons, those have been the players the Ravens have had trouble containing.

The Ravens do have their own pluses.

They have a great attitude, have a strong work ethic and are as prideful as any team in the NFL. Besides Collins, the offensive line has played better and more consistently in recent weeks. On defense, the Ravens have one of the best run-stuffing units in the league.

But the team is void of playmakers in crunch time, especially against top contending teams. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is a marvel at age 35, but he seldom has a presence against top-caliber competition. Inside linebacker C. J. Mosley has had a strong season, but injuries are starting to take a toll on him. Quarterback Joe Flacco is on the downward side of a good 10-year career and has no rhythm with his wide receivers.

It’s safe to say the Ravens would struggle against a dominant defensive team, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also have a complementary running game. And they have had a tough time beating Brady, Roethlisberger and Brown.

A lot of fingers were pointed at Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees after the loss to Pittsburgh and rightfully so. He couldn’t stop the Steelers.

He doubled Brown at times and rolled up the safety to shade him. He blitzed linebackers and brought safeties off the corner to pressure Roethlisberger. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. In defense of Pees, he had other problems because his linebackers and safeties couldn’t cover Pittsburgh tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald, and because the Ravens front four wasn’t able to get pressure on Roethlisberger.

But New England coach Bill Belichick would have found a way to slow Brown. It’s unfair to compare Belichick with Pees but if you’re going to play him, you might want to think like him. I don’t know what Belichick would have done differently, but his unit wouldn’t have surrendered 11 catches for 213 yards. James might have beaten the Ravens or maybe Pittsburgh wideout Martavis Bryant, but it wouldn’t have been Brown.

On offense, the Ravens are failing to do what top teams do: take advantage of potential mismatches.

When the Ravens played the Steelers on Oct. 1 without defensive tackle Brandon Williams, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin kept pounding the ball inside for 173 rushing yards and a 26-9 victory. With top Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon Sunday night, Roethlisberger threw 66 times completing 44.

Good teams zero in on weaknesses.

The Steelers were without top inisde linebacker Ryan Shazier on Sunday night and instead of running the ball right away, the Ravens came out throwing.

Huh?

Then with 3:29 left in the game and the Ravens ahead 38-36, they threw on first down incomplete to receiver Jeremy Maclin and then ran Collins for 7 yards on second down. With a third-and-3 at the Ravens 32, Flacco threw incomplete over the middle to Maclin with 2:38 left.

Huh?

They should have gone back to Collins who was averaging 6.7 yards a carry. On a similar situation on their previous possession the Ravens ran a toss play around left end to Collins for 8 yards at the Pittsburgh 17. On the next play Buck Allen scored on a 9-yard touchdown run.

Decisions like these are strange, like running a 4-yard pattern on third-and-10. The Ravens can’t afford these mistakes. They already lack star power. They don’t have game-breakers. When they play top-caliber teams, everybody, including the coaches, has to bring his “A” game.

If not, the Ravens have no shot at a serious playoff run. It’s one thing to play against the Houston Texans or Detroit Lions, and another to take on Brady’s Patriots or Roethlisberger’s Steelers.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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