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Ravens find reasons for optimism in win over Steelers

Still basking in his team's 20-17 upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that completed a regular-season sweep of the Ravens' biggest rivals, coach John Harbaugh met with head certified athletic trainer Mark Smith Monday and got more good news.

"We won the game, and nobody's getting an MRI today — the first time all year," Harbaugh said. "That's pretty good, huh? … We're excited about the win — very proud of the effort and the outcome. It's nice to be proud of both of those things for a change."

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Victories, both on the field and on the injury front, have been hard to come by for the Ravens, but when Harbaugh and the team's top decision makers begin to evaluate the disappointing 2015 season, a process that will begin in earnest following Sunday's season finale against the AFC North-winning Cincinnati Bengals, they won't have to look hard to find a silver lining.

The rash of injuries that hit the Ravens (5-10) and placed eight Week 1 starters on injured reserve has given team officials an extended opportunity to evaluate some of the organization's younger and less experienced players, and they had to like much of what they saw in the victory over the Steelers.

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Running backs Buck Allen and Terrance West, in their first and second year, respectively, totaled 121 rushing yards against the NFL's fifth-ranked rush defense. Second-year wide receivers Jeremy Butler and Chris Matthews combined to catch six passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. A young offensive line that included fill-in starters Ryan Jensen and John Urschel opened holes for the running backs and protected quarterback Ryan Mallett.

And on defense, rookie outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan combined for two sacks of Ben Roethlisberger and three tackles for loss.

In what has been an inadequate year for many of the less-established Ravens, and a particularly deflating one for members of the widely-praised rookie class, Sunday's performance left Harbaugh both optimistic and excited.

"I don't feel like I'm a half-full guy so to speak. I'd like to think that I can see reality most of the time, and I'm excited about the core of our football team," Harbaugh said. "We've got a lot of good football players that will be here when [organized team activities] start and when the offseason program starts. Their challenge is going to be 'can they get better between Monday and when the offseason program starts in mid-April?

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"Are they going to be the same player, or are they going to fall off, or are they going to actually be better football players — in better shape, bigger, faster, stronger, trained up, and be better?' That's what they're going to have to do, those young guys."

Even after the Ravens were eliminated from playoff contention this month, Harbaugh made clear that evaluating players and giving younger players opportunities would not override trying to win games. For the most part, Harbaugh has stuck with veterans, while giving young players more opportunities here and there.

The Ravens locker room following Sunday's game told the story of just how much beating the Steelers meant, and what it would also do for the team's psyche to end the season with a win in Cincinnati this weekend.

"It means a whole lot," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Since we can't go to the playoffs, the only next thing that's going to be great is us beating Cincinnati ... That's the next goal."

A day later, Harbaugh acknowledged that it's tough to evaluate exactly what beating the Steelers — and possibly the Bengals — in an otherwise lost season might mean to the Ravens going forward. But he joked that it's a lot better than the alternative.

"I've been talking to the team this way ever since we were mathematically out of the playoffs, we're not looking to end here and have to build from there to there once we start OTAs," he said. "We want to step off up here somewhere, as high as we possibly can. Let's step off up here. Let's get as good as we can get as a football team.

"The goal doesn't change that way, whether you're in the playoffs or not in the playoffs. We need to play the best football that we can play because it's a journey. It's not over. It just keeps going. … Winning those games is definitely a measuring stick for how good of a team you are."

While the Ravens are playing out the string, the team's front office is learning more about what the roster needs and doesn't need heading into an extremely important offseason.

If Mallett can build off his winning performance against the Steelers, and prove he can be trusted both on and off the field, the Ravens should be comfortable with their quarterback situation even if starter Joe Flacco's knee rehabilitation takes a little bit longer than expected.

With running backs Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro out, Allen and West have proven that the Ravens have more than enough running back depth. At wide receiver, the Ravens will inevitably look to add a top target, but the experience that young players such as Butler, Matthews and Daniel Brown are getting, plus the healthy returns of Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro (River Hill), Darren Waller and possibly Steve Smith Sr. bodes well for the future.

Along the offensive line, Kelechi Osemele's solid play since moving to left tackle, and Jensen's improvement provide options going forward. And while the Ravens clearly will need to make some moves to upgrade their defense this offseason, Jernigan and Za'Darius Smith look like players who are only going to get better.

"There will be a bunch of guys fighting for spots on this football team — starting spots, backup spots and special teams positions," Harbaugh said. "There will be a lot of competition for those spots, and then who we add through the draft and free agency, we're not going to lose many guys. It's not like we have a bunch of guys who are going to be free agents this year. We have some key guys, and that will be interesting to see how it plays out. But I'm excited, yes."

twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsun

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