The major goal that the Ravens wanted to achieve Sunday was to come out of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with zero or few major injuries.
But there was something else they did that just as impressive, and that was playing with intensity in their 28-10 win.
The Ravens already had home-field advantage in the playoffs wrapped up, and a lot of teams would have come out and gone through the motions, especially with seven starters inactive, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, guard Marshal Yanda, tight end Mark Andrews and defensive tackle Brandon Williams.
But there wasn’t a drop off in intensity or focus. Instead, the Ravens played their typical game. They ran the ball, forced several turnovers that they turned into points, and eventually mugged the Steelers.
The Ravens’ win helped keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs, even though the Steelers couldn’t have gotten in anyway because the Tennessee Titans defeated the Houston Texans, 35-14.
The Ravens, though, are a young team, and sometimes inexperienced players can’t flip that emotional switch like a veteran team can. In fact, a team with older players in a similar situation might not have played as hard Sunday.
But it’s apparent that this team has completely bought into coach John Harbaugh and his staff. Harbaugh appears to have learned lessons from the past that all alpha males, such as safety Earl Thomas III, running back Mark Ingram II and Jackson, aren’t always as self-centered as the ones he inherited when he became the Ravens coach in 2008.
I thought there was no way that the Ravens could match the Steelers’ intensity on Sunday because Pittsburgh had so much more to play for with a playoff berth at stake. But these were not the Steelers of recent past.
They were without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. To even be in playoff consideration at this point is a major achievement by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
But there were so many good things to take away from this Ravens victory.
First, this offense designed by coordinator Greg Roman is tough to beat. Quarterback Robert Griffin III showed Sunday that he is elusive, but he is no Jackson. If Jackson gets hurt, the Ravens’ chances of winning a Super Bowl title are severely diminished.
But the Ravens still ran for 223 yards on 44 carries against a Pittsburgh defense that was ranked No. 4 and allowing only 102 rushing yards per game. The Steelers knew the Ravens were going to pound the football, and they still couldn’t stop them with a talented front seven.
That speaks volumes.
“It speaks to our offensive line, big time,” Harbaugh said. “It speaks to our running backs — really, the whole team — to go out there and play against a team that really had everything to fight for and play and win for. To play as hard as we did and as well as we did, is special. “
Griffin struggled throwing. He threw behind receivers and held on to the ball too long, but at least the Ravens were still able to run an effective offense with halfback Gus Edwards subbing for Ingram.
Defensively, the Ravens controlled Pittsburgh’s running game. Williams has been the team’s most consistent lineman, but tackle Michael Pierce stepped up his game. Another unheralded player is fellow tackle Domata Peko Sr., a late season addition who is playing extremely well as a run-stopper.
Defensive coordinator Don Martindale, even without several starters, stayed true to his blue print of blitzing and bringing pressure on Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges. In fact, Martindale was still bringing the pressure late in the game, which was uncalled for, but those kind of things come back to haunt a coach in the NFL. Other coaches have short memories, too.
But overall, you like where the Ravens are headed. They are young and loaded with talent. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball. In the AFC North, they have separated themselves from the Steelers, the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals.
They are the top seed in the AFC. But on Sunday, they passed another test. The game against the Steelers was about pride, focus and toughness, and the Ravens played with the same intensity that they’ve had all season, even with seven starters inactive.
It was another big moment in what has been a great season.
“They definitely showed us something yet again today, but I also knew they would,” Harbaugh said. “When you’re around them every day, and you know what they’re made of, you know what they’re about, what they stand for, who they are. We fully expected to go out there and play really hard.”
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And they did.