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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Two weeks ago, I thought the Ravens might be one of the best teams in the NFL. Now they sit last in the AFC North, behind even the Cleveland Browns.

As he does each week, Childs Walker shares five takeaways from the Ravens' 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night:


1. The 2014 Ravens are suddenly in trouble.

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Two weeks ago, I thought the Ravens might be one of the best teams in the NFL — potentially above average in every aspect of football. They played mistake free, they attacked equally well from the ground and air and their pass rush seemed more fearsome by the week.

Now they sit last in the AFC North, behind even the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens have already played five of their six divisional games, so they're about out of chances to pass their rivals with head-to-head wins. Worse still, nine teams in the AFC have better records with six playoff spots up for grabs.

Again we saw the bad version of the 2014 Ravens in an important game against a quality opponent. They put themselves in a hole with turnovers and silly penalties, failed to put consistent pressure on arch-nemesis Ben Roethlisberger and watched him eviscerate their threadbare secondary.

If you've been a skeptic about the 2014 team, this was your game.

All is not lost. The Ravens remain in reasonable striking distance of the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals, and their remaining schedule is devoid of elite opponents. Home games against Tennessee and Jacksonville sound like good chances to get well, while road games at New Orleans and Miami are more daunting but still winnable.

As we've seen, narratives shift quickly in this league. Just know the Ravens are now running uphill rather than down.


2. Without Jimmy Smith, the Ravens' secondary is outgunned.

I felt bad for Chykie Brown, a back-up corner trying to stay stride for stride with the Steelers' Antonio Brown, only the league's most productive receiver.

The match-up worked about as well as you might think for the Ravens, with Antonio Brown leaving his defender spinning helplessly on a 54-yard catch and run that gave the Steelers a three-possession lead in the fourth quarter.

Chykie Brown wasn't alone. Lardarius Webb, a bona fide starter, also looked fairly helpless when Pittsburgh receiver Markus Wheaton streaked by him for a 47-yard touchdown just before halftime.

Both plays illustrated a simple reality — without Smith, who is sidelined by a sprained foot, the Ravens don't have a single standout in one-on-one coverage. Entering Sunday's game, opposing quarterbacks had posted a rating more than twice as good against the Ravens' other corners as against Smith.

His absence didn't matter much in the first quarter, when Ravens pass rushers swarmed Ben Roethlisberger and kept him from looking downfield. But once Pittsburgh blockers gave Roethlisberger a modicum of comfort, he destroyed the Ravens with precision intermediate passing.

The reality is they won't face many quarterbacks as good as Big Ben or many receivers as good as Antonio Brown.

But boy do they need Smith back for later showdowns against Phillip Rivers and Drew Brees. Now we know for sure: He's their most indispensable defensive player.

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3. This team shoots itself in the foot too often.

I hate to copy what I wrote last week, but reality is reality. When the 2014 Ravens make mistakes in bunches, they lose. When they don't, they're a heck of a team.

This formula couldn't have been clearer Sunday night as the Steelers directly capitalized on two Ravens turnovers in the second quarter to seize a lead they'd never relinquish.

Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro fumbled to start the chain of follies, and then the Ravens committed three penalties on the same play, essentially handing Ben Roethlisberger a five-yard touchdown pass that evened the game.

On the next possession, Joe Flacco tossed an interception when he was under pressure and trying to dump the ball out of bounds. The Ravens then completely lost Martavis Bryant in coverage, allowing the Steelers to score another easy touchdown.

Two mistakes and the Ravens had squandered a superb defensive start in a matter of minutes.

A bit later in the quarter, the Steelers flubbed an extra-point attempt but recovered for an improvised two-point conversion. John Harbaugh, special teams coach extraordinaire in an earlier life, groaned on the sideline at that one.

The Ravens, once the least-penalized team in the league, also drew 10 flags for 108 yards.

This messy play presented a stark contrast to the spotless football the Ravens played in their 26-6 win over the Steelers in Week 2. In that game, the Ravens finished with no turnovers and just four penalties for 35 yards.

Why are they so different from week to week? I don't think they know either.


4. The Ravens' offensive line is headed in the wrong direction.

This rebuilt line's turnaround was the most pleasant surprise of the first seven weeks, with the Ravens excelling at both run and pass blocking.

I assumed the unit would only get stronger with the returns of left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele from mid-season injuries. But Monroe hasn't been the same player he was in 2013, when he was a steadying force after arriving from Jacksonville via trade. Veteran Steelers linebacker James Harrison — retired until the third week in September — flat out beat Monroe to sack Joe Flacco in the first quarter.

Things didn't get much better from there, as Harrison and the Steelers remained in Flacco's face for much of the game, hitting him 10 times and sacking him four.

It's not as if this is a vintage Pittsburgh pass rush.  The Steelers hardly touched Flacco in Week 2 and entered the game with a mere 12 sacks in eight games. Perhaps Harrison was the key difference.

It hardly matters. No matter whom they're playing, the Ravens can't afford to let Flacco take 10 hits. And the left side of the line is the place to watch for the rest of the season.


5. Looking for a bright spot? Check the run defense.

If you had told the Ravens going in that Le'Veon Bell would finish with 20 yards on 10 carries, they would've happily taken it as a starting point.

Bell is one of the best runners they'll face all year and they essentially took him out of the game. This has become a common story for the Ravens, with Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata creating huge obstructions up front and linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley cleaning up behind them.

It's fun to watch young players such as Williams and Mosley carry on the franchise's long tradition of top-10 run defenses.

Of course, Ben Roethlisberger rendered their good work moot with six touchdown passes. And that highlights another reality of the 2014 NFL — you can smother the run and still get eaten alive. Even in black-and-blue Pittsburgh, it's a passing league.

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