1. It's time to stop making excuses for the offense. They aren't getting the job done, and it seems to be creating a tense situation in the locker room.
Derrick Mason and Terrell Suggs were the last two players to leave the locker room Sunday night, and that was somewhat fitting, because they're probably the two players who are the least afraid of telling the truth. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed practically sprinted out of the locker room without taking questions, but they tend to fall back on cliches anyway. Not Suggs and Mason. They each did a little bit of truth telling Sunday night, and you can bet what they said will ringing in the ears of the coaching staff on Monday.
"It's sad to say, but we're just not a good offense at times. We really aren't," Mason said. "For whatever reason it is, I don't know. But we're not a good offense at times. I'm not pointing any fingers at anybody because I'm part of the equation, but we're just not a good offense at times. ... We look like the Bad News Bears at times."
Mason looked more frustrated than I've ever seen him look during his Ravens career as he answered questions from a handful of reporters in front of his locker. I was one of only a handful of people who wasn't on a brutal deadline, so I decided to wait him out while he slowly got dressed and tried to figure out what to say. It was more than an hour after the game, and Mason was still so disappointed with what had just happened he said it made him almost wish he'd retired.
"You wonder why you come back and play after stuff like this," Mason said. "Pittsburgh is a good team, but there is honestly no way we should have lost this game. This makes me wonder personally why I even came back. It hurts worse than any other game."
Mason stopped short of blaming the coaches, but he did say there is no reason -- with the personnel the Ravens have -- that they shouldn't be scoring 30 points a game, even against a team such as the Steelers.
"All these people we've got on offense -- I might get crucified for this one -- but all these people we've got on offense and we're not a good offense at times," Mason said. "Just call it how you see it. Call a spade a spade. If we were a good offense, we'd move the ball up and down the field. Especially with the people we have and the quarterback and the personnel we have. But we're just not a good offense. We were mediocre out there. Everybody."
Mason said the offense is fully aware of the burden they've been putting on the defense, and there is no point in denying it right now. He said the offensive players can see the look in the eyes of the defense players when they walk off the field after yet another three-and-out.
"We've just got to come to a point where it's stop all the [expletive] and play football," Mason said. "Put some points on the board and not allow teams to come back in the second half, not put the pressure on our defense to have to stop somebody in the last second of the game. Just [expletive] put some points on the board and move forward. ... I know it gets frustrating for (the defense). It has to. I can see their faces coming off the sideline. They have to get frustrated. We can't put our defense in that situation."Mason said he can't help but wonder if some people on the team -- players and coaches -- don't understand how quickly opportunities pass you by in the NFL.
"We have a young team," Mason said. "I don't know if they understand that you only get so many shots at this. I don't know if the coaches understand you only get so many shots at this. I've been at this 14 years. I made it to a Super Bowl my fourth year and haven't been back. I understand that nothing is promised. You're not promised to make the playoffs. I don't know if people are looking at it like 'Well, we lost and we'll get it back next week.' You know what? No. It's done. We have to stop thinking like that. Every game is a meaningful game and one we've got to win."
The best way to describe the look on Suggs' face would be heartbroken. Even though he had just played one of the best games of his career, he was clearly mad at himself for not pulling Ben Roethlisberger down in the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger squirmed away and flicked the ball out of bounds. But he kept coming back to a play he wasn't involved in at all -- the sack and fumble by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu.
"We let one of the best safeties in the National Football League run scot-free and [hit the quarterback]," Suggs said. "You've got to question what were we thinking there. What were we doing? ... I'm not the offensive coordinator. So I don't know. But I do know we've got to be better at being a team. That's a tough way to lose. You can't give that play up. That's the equivalent of [the defense] giving up an 80-yard bomb, or a run breaking for 50 or 60 yards. That's a tough way to lose. We have to do a better job of having each other's backs."
Now, the Ravens defense hasn't exactly been lights out this year, and no one on the offense was pointing figures when the defense let Atlanta go 80 yards in less than 1 minute. This was, technically, the sixth time this season the Ravens have given up a fourth quarter lead. But the defense has clearly improved as the season has gone on, while the offense has arguably regressed.
"When you see Polamalu at the line, in the four-minute offense, he's coming," Suggs said. "It was like 'Man, I hope we've got a plan,' because it didn't feel good when I saw that hair at the line of scrimmage."
John Harbaugh said in his press conference he is never going to publicly question his coordinators' play-calling, and certainly not before he's seen the film on the game.
"I don't really sit in here and criticize my coaches' play-calling after the fact," Harbaugh said. "Never have, never will."
But privately you have to believe it's going to be a tense week at The Castle. I've defended Cameron plenty of times this season, arguing that some of the problems were about execution, but I think eventually, you have to get results. One of the strangest things about him is that he seems to struggle the most when he's calling plays with the lead. He certainly lost any support he had left with Ravens fans when he called two straight ugly fades from the 5-yard line. I don't watch practice, or hours and hours film the way Cameron does, but even I can tell you Flacco simply can't throw a fade from in close.
Cameron made a great, gusty call on Flacco's beautiful throw to Anquan Boldin, but the end around to Donte Stallworth was a disaster, and Ray Rice virtually disappeared. He seems to come up with great plays here and there, but he can't find anything that consistently works well. That's why the Ravens don't really have a strength on offense.
You have to believe Cameron is now coaching for his job the rest of the season. The players appear to be losing faith in him. I think Mason's putting this on Cameron without coming right out and saying it. And Suggs is saying pretty much the same thing.
2. Joe Flacco played OK for most of the game, but in a big moment, his bad mechanics popped up again.
Flacco has made some real strides this year, and for the most part, he's convinced me that he's a permanent answer to the franchise's quarterback search. But if you're a Ravens fan, it has to be a little disheartening to see him throw off his back foot on 4-and-2 and leave that ball three feet short of Ed Dickson. The ball wasn't tipped. And the pressure wasn't overwhelming. He just made a poor throw, and seemed to admit as much.
"I was [looking] for Anquan, the same route we were able to hit T.J. [Houshmandzadeh] on earlier in the game," Flacco said. It worked out for us before, but that wasn't open. I never got my hips turned around enough to get enough pop on the ball over to Ed."
Fair enough. Give Flacco credit for putting it on himself. I love that he's always accountable like that, because that's what leaders do. And in fairness to him, Boldin looked like he was getting mugged on the play, and Flacco went to this third read.
But he still needs to make that throw. Just because he's had success doesn't mean he should be immune to criticism. It's annoying when people immediately act like critical analysis of Flacco's game means you're essentially saying you'd rather have Kyle Boller, or that making the playoffs twice (once when all he could do was hand off) means he's arrived as a quarterback. Flacco has high standards for himself, so it's OK to have high standards evaluating him.
So that's why it's fair to ask: Why is he still making little mistakes like that? It is because even though he has all the tools to play quarterback, some of it just doesn't come naturally? Is it coaching? Why, three years into his career, does he still throw such a terrible fade?
Flacco threw one of the prettiest balls he's thrown his entire career Sunday, the post in the first half to Anquan Boldin that landed in his hands like a softly falling snowflake. He also threw two awful fades to the end zone in the fourth quarter, and the ball to Dickson's feet.
Harbaugh said something earlier this year about Flacco, and I still think it's the truest thing he's said all year about his quarterback. His progression will not look like a straight line if you plotted it on a graph. It would look more like a staircase. Some weeks he improves, and some weeks he plateaus or regresses. This game featured a little growth and a little regression.
3. You can hate him as much as you want, but you have to acknowledge that Ben Roethlisberger is a heck of a football player. And he owns the Ravens until proven otherwise. Sorry, but it's a fact.
Roethlisberger reminds me of every meathead jock I ever loathed playing with or against as a football player. And even though he wasn't charged for his behavior this off-season, just reading the police report makes you ill. The guy is not someone I have a high opinion of as a person.
But as a football player? I continue to marvel at the plays he makes. The guy is a winner. To escape from Suggs the way he did and then fling the ball out of bounds to avoid a crucial sack was incredible. To get essentially punched in the face in the first quarter, have your nose smashed like it was a fortune cookie, and not have it phase you? That's pretty tough. For the Ravens, it's almost like Roethlisberger is a villain in a horror movie. Every time they think they've killed him off, he comes back and makes another huge throw. The play where he avoided Haruki Nakamura on the blitz, then rolled out and found Emanuel Sanders open inside the 2-yard line was, I thought, the play of the game.
The Ravens threw a ton of stuff at him. It was probably Greg Mattison's best performance as a defensive coordinator. And with a broken foot, and a broken nose, he still found a way to make enough plays to win. Until the Ravens prove they can beat him, I'm convinced he's going to torture them. And he seems to enjoy it.
"At one point, I looked over at [Suggs] and he was bleeding from mouth. I was bleeding from the nose," Roethlisberger said. "That says a lot about a Ravens-Steelers football game."
4. Someone -- either Michael Oher or Ray Rice -- totally blew their assignment on Polamalu's sack.
Harbaugh got a little annoyed with the media during the week when someone asked him about the Ravens pass protection schemes in light of Michael Oher's and Le'Ron McClain's injuries, with the coach implying the reporters didn't really know what the heck they were talking about when it comes to pass blocking, so he wasn't going to explain anyway.
He's probably right. Blitz pick-ups are complicated, especially against the Steelers, and they're never as easy as they look in slow motion. But I know enough about it to know that you always need to slide your protection to the quarterback's blind side, because he can't see the blitzer coming. If you're going to leave a guy free -- if you simply can't block everyone when they're bringing six -- then it has to be a guy coming off the edge on the right side, not the left.
After watching the play several times, I still don't know for sure who screwed up, but I'm leaning toward Oher. Rice immediately moves to his right to pick up Lawrence Timmons, and blocks him fine. Oher, because he was so determined to block James Harrison, never accounts for Polamalu at all. He simply blocks down, pushing Harrison into a mass of bodies. Now, Harrison is obviously someone you have to worry about on every play, so it's tough to criticize Oher too much. Oher claimed he did see Polamalu on the line, but felt he had to block Harrison.
"If you have been watching film on him, you'd see he's been killing quarterbacks," Oher said. "So you have to account for him."
But if he knows he doesn't have help behind him, Oher can't leave the last guy on the line of scrimmage untouched. Certainly not against a Dick LeBeau-coached defense, where pressure always comes off the edge first. The Steelers were anticipating a run on the play, and said as much after the game, but when Flacco dropped back to pass, Polamalu was licking his chops. If Rice was supposed to block Timmons coming off the right, then the whole protection need to slide one man to the left when Polamalu walked up to the line of scrimmage.
"It was a great call by Coach LeBeau," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "We went cover-zero and we sent the house. I think if I was an offensive coach, and I had to pick one guy to let go, Troy wouldn't be that guy. But they let him go and he made an awesome play."
5. This wasn't the penalty-strewn debacle of a year ago against the Steelers, but a bunch of penalties by the Ravens certainly made a difference in this one.
The Ravens looked like they had called a perfect fake punt in the first quarter when they snapped the ball to Nakamura and opened up a hole in the Steelers front line. Problem was, Brendon Ayanbadejo was whistled for a false start. Ayanbadejo wasn't quite ready to accept the blame, however. He seemed to imply something was screwed up before he jumped.
"That's just not how it happened in practice," Ayanbadejo said. "You practice everything a certain way, and it has a rhythm to it, and it just didn't happen like practice. You work on something over and over, ever day, for weeks and weeks. Every play has an ebb and a flow, and it just didn't go how it was supposed to."
But that was hardly the only costly miscue. Corey Redding jumped offside on a crucial 4th down. Nakamura was flagged for defensive holding on a crucial 3rd down. Oher false started twice.
This team is a lot more disciplined this year than it was at this point last season, but Harbaugh's teams still tend to commit too many penalties in big spots. That has to be maddening for Ravens fans.
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