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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ 28-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers

After a game in which the Ravens did much right but made too many mistakes to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s difficult to decide where their 2020 season is headed. Here are five things we learned Sunday:

Despite doing plenty of good work against the Steelers, the 2020 Ravens are hard to figure.

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The air in M&T Bank Stadium went limp with dread when All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley crumpled to the ground with a season-ending ankle injury late in the first quarter. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had already put his team in a hole with a pick-six on his second attempt of the game. He seemed rattled by Pittsburgh’s pressure, and with his best blocker gone, it was not hard to imagine the game getting out of hand quickly.

What actually happened was much more complicated and another illustration of the competing narratives that make the 2020 Ravens so hard to read.

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They did not fold in the wake of Stanley’s injury. In fact, they dominated the second quarter with bully-ball offense and held Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to 4-for-10 passing for 24 yards in the first half.

But the Ravens could not hold the advantage they built. Jackson continued his error-riddled play, and Roethlisberger found enough rhythm with his dinks and dunks to pull the Steelers ahead. The game turned into classic Ravens-Steelers theater marked by fights, momentum swings and controversial calls that invited howling boos from a smattering of socially-distanced fans.

Was it just another eventful chapter in the NFL’s best rivalry? Or was it an indictment of a flawed contender that could not win a game in which it built crushing advantages in total yardage and time of possession? Do we focus on the Ravens' championship-caliber defense and league-best ground attack? Or do we dwell on the continued regression of their passing game? Did they lose because the officials swallowed their whistles on a high hit that deprived Willie Snead IV of a potential game-winning touchdown? Or was the non-call a distraction from deeper reasons for defeat?

With a 5-2 record and strengths that shine through even in their lesser performances, the Ravens cannot be dismissed. But with an offensive line diminished by the loss of Stanley and a quarterback grasping to rediscover his 2019 form, they’re not the juggernaut many expected. They’ve lost to the two really good teams they’ve played this season, and they’re just starting the most difficult stretch of their schedule.

“Now, we’re in a situation where you look at it from the perspective that this is where our season begins and we go from here,” coach John Harbaugh said.

The Ravens can’t beat their top rivals if Lamar Jackson plays like he did Sunday.

The Ravens built a 17-7 lead almost in spite of their best player, something we could not have said at any point last season. Jackson’s mistakes led directly to two Pittsburgh touchdowns, a handicap the Ravens could not overcome despite rushing for 265 yards against a defense that had not surrendered more than 104 in any previous game.

“The turnovers, I feel, are the reason we lost the game,” Jackson said. “I put that on me.”

His sense of responsibility was admirable, and of course, the Ravens would not have gained 265 yards on the ground without Jackson presenting a unique threat. But he’s looked out of sorts as a passer for much of the season, and his stat line against Pittsburgh’s devastating defensive front — 13-for-28, two interceptions, two fumbles lost, four sacks — was downright ugly.

On the Ravens' first possession, Jackson did not see Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane lurking just a few steps behind James Proche II, who had no chance to break up the pick-six that put Pittsburgh up 7-0. Later in the first quarter, Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree caught Jackson unawares and stripped him from behind, short-circuiting a drive that had reached the Pittsburgh 9-yard line. On the Ravens' first drive of the third quarter, Jackson misread the intentions of Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith and dumped a touch pass directly into his arms. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass two plays later to pull Pittsburgh within a field goal.

Those were the plays that exploded in Jackson’s face but not his only dangerous misfires. In the second quarter, he threw a ball up for grabs to avoid a sack on third down and was lucky tight end Mark Andrews reached it before a defender. In the two-minute drill, he threw behind Miles Boykin and was fortunate Steelers cornerback Joe Haden could not control the ball on his way to the ground.

It’s hard to look good against the Steelers, who generate more pressure with their front four than any team in the league. Recall that Jackson threw three interceptions in Pittsburgh last season. But the 2019 Most Valuable Player made unforced errors on almost every drive and missed badly on throws he routinely completed a year ago.

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A team should not run 79 plays, outgain the opponent 457 yards to 221 and lose, but the Ravens did.

They need Jackson to be great against their best opponents. Instead, he’s played his two worst games against the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Ravens' path forward grew much steeper with Ronnie Stanley’s injury.

The cruelty of football never ceases to amaze. Stanley spent Friday afternoon responding to congratulatory tweets after he signed a $98.75-million extension that locked him in as a building block of the franchise. Less than 48 hours later, he writhed on the field as trainers applied an air cast to his left ankle.

This was the worst news possible for an offensive line that had already struggled to protect Jackson through the first six games of the season. Stanley is a short-list candidate for best pass blocker in football. Though Orlando Brown Jr. is a capable fill-in who excelled as a left tackle at Oklahoma and D.J. Fluker is an experienced NFL right tackle, the shift weakens the Ravens at both spots. With right guard Tyre Phillips also sidelined by an ankle injury, they played much of the Steelers game with one reserve offensive lineman.

The offensive line played fairly well considering, but there’s no way to spin the loss of blue-chip talent such as Stanley.

“That’s somebody who’s helped me throughout my career,” Brown said. “Someone that did what he needed to do to put himself and his family up for the rest of their lives. And losing someone like that, a leader like that to this team and this offensive line, it’s hard to put into words the affect that takes on you a little bit as [far as] morale.”

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Added Snead: “Ronnie is one of those guys in our locker room who everybody looks up to and everybody has a good relationship with. We were all happy for him this week, because he got a huge deal. And I know he was ready to play in this game, because of the rivalry and everything that it means. Just to see him go down like that, it hurts everybody.”

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The Ravens coped with the emotional punch of losing their comrade. The structural punch to their roster will be harder to overcome in a league short on quality offensive linemen. With Marshal Yanda retired and Stanley out until 2021, there’s no adequate bandage to be found.

Yannick Ngakoue did not make a major impact in his Ravens debut, but this was the wrong opponent.

Optimism reigned among Ravens players and fans after general manager Eric DeCosta traded for Ngakoue, the edge rusher they’d long coveted, during the team’s bye week.

DeCosta traded for Marcus Peters at the same point last season, and the cornerback returned an interception for a touchdown in his first game as a Raven, a 30-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks that kicked off a 2½-month rampage through the NFL.

Could Ngakoue provide a similar boost?

The immediate answer was no. Ngakoue fought hard to get around the edge on almost every passing down but finished with one tackle and no quarterback hits.

Don’t blame him too much. The Steelers make life extremely difficult for pass rushers with an attack built around short drops and throws of less than 10 yards. Roethlisberger releases the ball faster than any quarterback in the league, and he was content to nick the Ravens throughout the second half.

“He was competitive out there,” Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell said of Ngakoue, his former Jacksonville teammate. “It’s kind of tough, because I feel like ‘Big Ben’ was getting rid of the ball fast. He did exactly what you see on tape — just made quick decisions. So, it was like you’re getting good rushes, you’re getting close, but just can’t get there.”

Ngakoue will face another difficult test next Sunday against an Indianapolis Colts offensive line that’s allowed eight sacks in seven games, so we might not get an accurate read on his impact for several weeks.

Jaylon Ferguson stepped in for Matthew Judon with the best game of his career.

The Ravens lost their most productive outside linebacker when Judon was tossed from the game for making contact with an official. But his absence provided an opportunity for Ferguson to showcase how much he’s grown in his second season.

The third-round draft pick out of Louisiana Tech struggled as a rookie. It was unclear if he had the quickness to get around the edge or the power to bull rush.

Ferguson didn’t exactly blow up the stat sheet to start this season, but he made good use of his part-time work, earning solid grades from Pro Football Focus as both a run and pass defender. His snap count rose from 14 in Week 2 to 30 in Week 6.

He was easily the team’s most productive pass rusher against the Steelers with a sack, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. Campbell singled him out for praise in his postgame comments, saying: “I was happy to see Ferguson come in and make a bunch of good plays. It was really good to see the young guys stepping up and making plays.”

With so many stars competing for attention on the Ravens' defense, it’s easy to overlook Ferguson’s more modest advances. But he demanded our notice in a game filled with elite pass rushers.

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