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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ 19-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers

“I know a lot of guys had some symptoms. I don’t think anyone was super sick or anything like that," said Bozeman. "I’ve been keeping up with them."

After an extraordinary 10 days spent in the depths of COVID-19 hell, the Ravens played valiantly to throw a scare into the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. If they fight their way back to the playoffs, they might look back on this Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh as the telling juncture when they refused to quit on their season.

Here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 19-14 loss to the Steelers:

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The Ravens played valiantly after one of the most difficult weeks in their history.

The Ravens drove into Steelers territory, down just five points in the third quarter against the AFC’s top playoff seed. If a holding call did not derail their push or if they’d made good on a golden opportunity in the waning seconds before halftime, they might have taken the lead.

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This in itself was remarkable for a team that had spent 10 days in the depths of COVID-19 hell. When the Ravens cut the Steelers’ lead back to five late in the fourth quarter on a 70-yard touchdown pass from third-string quarterback Trace McSorley, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth could only exclaim: “This is unbelievable!”

He was right, even if the final result provided cold comfort to a team fighting for its playoff life.

Plenty of national commentators and plenty of Ravens fans felt the team should not play at all this week, not after 10 straight days of positive COVID-19 tests, the last of which kept safety Geno Stone from boarding the team flight to Pittsburgh on Tuesday. They took the field with nine starters marooned on the reserve/COVID-19 list and 10 players freshly called up from their practice squad.

But this is the devil’s bargain required to play sports amid a raging pandemic. We knew some NFL team would likely face a week as absurd and unsettling as the one that led the Ravens to Pittsburgh on a Wednesday afternoon. For all the misgivings they felt and expressed, the players wanted to earn their paychecks and compete.

Shortly before the game, Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt derided the Ravens’ chances on Instagram. “Pad the stats — should be an easy one,” he taunted in a message to teammates.

By all rights, this should have been routine business for the undefeated Steelers, who faced Robert Griffin III and a decimated offense instead of Lamar Jackson and all his weapons. But the Ravens would not allow it to be so. They stood strong behind an excellent defensive game plan schemed up by coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. If they hadn’t given away so many points with offensive miscues, who knows?

After the game, players and coach John Harbaugh spoke with weary pride of the effort they’d given. “We’re not going to be pushed around by something we can’t control,” Harbaugh said.

“There’s a lot of fight in this team,” guard Bradley Bozeman said. “They came to fight. We’re getting a lot of guys back, and we’re going to build from here. This is just the beginning.”

The Ravens won’t have much room for error over the next five games, but they’ll play lesser opponents with a roster that could be largely replenished by next Tuesday’s matchup with the Dallas Cowboys. They will have opportunities to get back to the playoffs, and if they pull it off, they might look back to a Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh as the telling juncture at which they refused to quit on their season.

"I think everybody did their best, I can say we're not batting a thousand, nobody did and nobody does," said Harbaugh on the Ravens COVID-19 preparedness.

Without Lamar Jackson, the Ravens weren’t sharp enough on offense to pull a monumental upset.

Griffin and Gus Edwards botched a mesh exchange on the Ravens’ second possession, giving the Steelers the ball just 22 yards from pay dirt. Ravens defenders delivered several terrific hits to keep the Steelers from capitalizing on the opportunity, but the mistake set the tone for a frustrating day on offense.

With the ball back in his hands, Griffin did not see Steelers cornerback Joe Haden breaking on an underneath throw to wide receiver James Proche II. The resulting pick-six put the Ravens down in a game they would struggle to win from behind.

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They blew another essential chance with imperfect clock management before halftime, using their last timeout after a first-down run and running a third-down play with just three seconds left instead of spiking the ball so Justin Tucker could kick a field goal. Harbaugh was rightfully angry at the Steelers’ delay tactics after the Ravens ran on second down, and tight end Luke Willson could have wiped away the miscues by holding on to Griffin’s third-down pass. But the Ravens could not afford to come out of the sequence with nothing.

In the third quarter, a holding call against right tackle D.J. Fluker derailed another promising drive and pushed the Ravens out of field-goal range.

Harbaugh said these mistakes were probably the difference. Griffin went further, saying: “The reason we lost today was, in my opinion, because of me.”

The Ravens could not muster a passing offense behind their backup quarterback, who averaged 2.75 yards on 12 attempts and rarely had time to look downfield in the face of Pittsburgh’s reliably ferocious pass rush. Griffin was more successful as a runner, with 68 yards on seven carries. He felt he was just finding his rhythm when he pulled his hamstring on an outside run in the second quarter. Though he played on, that twist of fate left him glum during his postgame news conference.

“I thought Robert played really hard,” Harbaugh said. “He really fought.”

Would the offense have hummed more efficiently with more than two socially distanced walk-throughs to prepare for the Steelers? Griffin said the workouts Monday and Tuesday “weren’t like a normal practice by any stretch of the imagination.”

“It’s just impossible to say,” Harbaugh replied when asked if more preparation would have made the difference.

"A lot of our players who have tested positive, their family members have also tested positive and those things don't get reported," said Griffin.

There’s no longer any question that defense is the backbone of this team.

The Ravens faced well-deserved questions about their tackling in the last quarter of a Week 11 loss to the Tennessee Titans. They knew their defense, relatively healthy compared with the offense, would have to keep the Steelers out of the end zone to preserve any chance at victory.

Mission accomplished.

The Steelers scored just one offensive touchdown. Three times they drove into the red zone in the first half and came away with two field goals to show for it. The Ravens had allowed touchdowns on 69.2% of red zone possessions coming into the game, fifth worst in the league. The Steelers converted one of four.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger produced a modest 266 yards on 51 attempts as Ravens defensive backs clamped down on his quick, ball-control throws.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey returned to his All-Pro level with seven tackles, two passes defended and two punchouts (neither recovered by the Ravens). Safety Chuck Clark made plays all over the field, finishing with a team-high 13 tackles. Outside linebacker Tyus Bower, playing a hefty snap count in the absence of Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, delivered three quarterback hits and his second interception of the season.

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It’s difficult to stop the Steelers from moving the ball when Roethlisberger finds his rhythm on those flicks to the flats, but Ravens defenders would certainly like one more shot at him with both teams closer to full strength.

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The Ravens’ enthusiasm for Trystan Colon-Castillo was justified.

In the weeks after this year’s draft, we heard Colon-Castillo might be the rookie free agent the Ravens felt most excited about. He’d started 38 games in a row at center for Missouri, and coaches there raved about his maturity and command of a multifaceted role.

With so many of the Ravens’ established linemen capable of playing center, the rookie faced an uphill battle to earn playing time. But the team affirmed its faith in his potential by signing him to the 53-man roster in October.

With Patrick Mekari and Matt Skura on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Colon-Castillo stepped into a genuine trial by fire against the NFL’s best defensive front. He delivered his snaps smoothly, acquitted himself well as a pass blocker and cleared the way for Edwards on the team’s first touchdown. He didn’t always win physical battles, but as his college coaches predicted, he never seemed overwhelmed by his responsibilities.

“Trystan did an amazing job tonight, communicating, making sure we were right in our assignments, that we were going to the right spots,” Bozeman said. “We kind of roll through centers in practice just for these reasons. So I think we were very prepared with him coming in. Like I said, he did a great job communicating and making sure everyone was doing their job. And he did his job very well also.”

Colon-Castillo showed his emotions after the game: “[I’m] feeling really blessed just to be in this opportunity. Just for [Ravens general manager] Eric DeCosta, all my coaches and especially all my teammates to believe in me, and to have trust and faith, and to put me in this position to come out here and have my first start is special.”

The Ravens have tweaked their offensive line throughout the year and will likely continue to do so into the offseason. But Colon-Castillo made a case to be part of that picture.

It was difficult to read the players’ state of mind on the NFL’s handling of the pandemic.

The postgame news conference was the first time we’ve heard Harbaugh and his players answer questions about their confusing and harrowing experiences over the past 10 days.

Harbaugh acknowledged the Ravens, who disciplined strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders for failing to follow pandemic protocols, “didn’t bat a thousand” in combating the virus. But he said he did not perceive any loss of faith from his players.

“Guys have questions. We encourage our guys to ask questions and try to be as transparent and honest as you possibly can,” he said. “I can guarantee you that things changed. The tide changed. The emotions, and those kinds of things are really challenging; we all felt it. I talked to them before the game and after the game about that. We all felt it every single day.”

Most players who spoke said they felt the coaching staff and front office communicated honestly and with the best intentions. But some also described their mixed emotions as the NFL pushed to get the game in. Clark said players wondered why they were allowed back in the team facility when the outbreak was not clearly contained.

“It’s not about whether or not guys want to play,” Griffin said. “It’s about whether our safety’s actually being taken into account.”

It was the sort of crisis that could break bonds of internal trust. We did not see evidence of that on the field or hear it in players’ postgame remarks. But unsettled emotions and doubts about protocols remain. So it’s not as if we can close the book on the last 10 days simply because the Ravens played a game.

COWBOYS@RAVENS

Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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