Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 39-38 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers

"Well, you can’t just play the whole game in the same coverage;" said Ravens coach John Harbaugh when asked about leaving Antonio Brown with no safety help. (Baltimore Sun video)

1) This loss need not derail the Ravens’ playoff trajectory.

It will gnaw at the Ravens that they held 31-20 and 38-29 leads only to lose a game with significant playoff implications. For fans, this latest chapter of the Steelers rivalry offered 3½ hours of sensational Sunday night entertainment. For the players and coaches, that’s minimal solace.


But really, the loss didn’t dim the Ravens’ postseason hopes much at all. They are still in contention for the second AFC wild-card spot, and they couldn’t ask for a cushier closing stretch, with a road game against the winless Cleveland Browns and home games against the hopeless Indianapolis Colts and the reeling Cincinnati Bengals.

If they play as well as they have in the four weeks since the bye, they should go 3-0 and return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.


Beyond the good news about the playoff picture, the Ravens have seemingly discovered a competent offense over the past two weeks. Their offensive line played a terrific game in Pittsburgh, giving Joe Flacco sufficient time to look downfield and clearing lanes for Alex Collins to produce a career-best game.

Flacco still left points on the field, especially on a terribly thrown first-quarter interception in Steelers territory. On a few later completions, he could’ve produced bigger gains if he’d timed his throws better.

But this was not the lost offense we saw for much of the season. The Ravens moved the ball consistently and answered each salvo from the Steelers, at least until the last few minutes of the game.

Some fans and analysts will look at this loss as evidence that the Ravens can’t finish off an elite team. And it’s certainly true that their defense looks nothing like a historic force when pitted against the best skill-position players in the sport.

Regardless, this isn’t the moment for negativity. The Ravens were in danger of fading to irrelevance midway through the season. But we just watched them go toe to toe with one of the best teams in the league, on the road. They’re playing better, more exciting football than they did through the first two-thirds of the season. And they’re on a realistic path to the playoffs.

That’s not so bad.

2) The Ravens defense is far from extraordinary against top quarterbacks.

With No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith gone for the season, his rookie replacement, Marlon Humphrey, was the obvious story going into the game.


Humphrey actually held up beautifully. The problem was that almost no one else did as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger moved his offense relentlessly in the first half and fourth quarter.

After a second straight spotty performance against a top quarterback, it’s hard to believe the Baltimore pass defense is as good as its overall statistics suggest.

The 44-20 final score suggested the Ravens dominated the Detroit Lions in Week 13. But actually, their defensive performance against Matthew Stafford held some troubling signs. Stafford dissected them on throws to his tight ends and slot receivers, and then Detroit’s top deep threat, Marvin Jones Jr., hit them with two big plays on the perimeter. If not for a few well-timed turnovers, the final score might have been very different.

Roethlisberger used a similar formula Sunday night, except he avoided the big mistakes that undid Stafford.

The NFL’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, beat Brandon Carr almost at will on the outside. The Ravens were lucky Brown stepped out of bounds on one long catch in the first quarter, but he made key downfield plays on the Steelers’ second and third scoring drives. And he was flat-out unstoppable as the Steelers rallied in the fourth quarter, finishing with 213 receiving yards even though the Ravens knew Roethlisberger would look his way over and over.

The Ravens have covered tight ends poorly all season. We saw it against the Lions. But the Steelers duo of Jesse James and Vance McDonald truly wrought havoc, catching 14 passes on 18 targets for a combined 149 yards. You’re not going to win many games in which the opponent’s tight ends go off like that.


Le’Veon Bell also hurt the Ravens more as a receiver than he did as a runner, lining up wide to beat safety Tony Jefferson for Pittsburgh’s first touchdown and catching nine passes on 10 targets overall.

Now, the Ravens aren’t going to play another team with a trio as potent as Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell.

But if they struggle to cover a team’s No. 1 receiver on the outside, and they struggle to cover tight ends and slot receivers underneath, that’s a poor formula against any competent offense.

3) Alex Collins showed a national audience how far he’s come in 10 weeks.

Collins had already emerged as a promising alternative at running back when the Ravens played the Steelers in Week 4. But his playing time appeared in jeopardy after he fumbled for the second time in three games in that 26-9 loss.

John Harbaugh has rarely demonstrated much patience for fumblers. At the same time, he couldn’t ignore the jolt Collins delivered to a sputtering offense with his churning second-effort gallops.


To his credit, Collins threw himself into mastering a high-and-tight grip on the ball, and his turnover problems dissipated even as his workload increased.

The second Steelers game, 10 weeks after the first, offered a chance to celebrate his evolution.

Collins made his signature play of the season late in the second quarter when he appeared to be stopped on a short swing pass only to keep his legs churning as he fought through two Pittsburgh defenders and scooted down the sideline for 37 yards.

That was just the tip of an outstanding overall performance in which Collins took full advantage of the space afforded him by excellent blocking. He repeatedly made creative and decisive cuts to add extra yards to his carries and scored his fifth touchdown in the past four games.

Collins did fumble for the first time since that Steelers game in Week 4, but he was fortunate Mike Wallace pounced on the free ball.

4) If this was Terrell Suggs’ last matchup with Roethlisberger, it was a worthy one.


With so many famous faces from the Ravens-Steelers rivalry now enjoying retirement, Roethlisberger and Suggs are the deans.

They know it, and as both said last week, they share a rare competitive bond. Both have also reached the stage at which retirement is an annual possibility, one Roethlisberger has openly acknowledged.

But, man, those two old goats are raging against the dying of the light.

Roethlisberger threw for an astonishing 506 yards after no other quarterback had topped 300 against the Ravens all season. More importantly, the 35-year-old made exceptional plays against pressure as the Steelers cut through the Ravens for 19 fourth-quarter points.

Suggs didn’t play his best game of the season, but he was still in Roethlisberger’s face more consistently than any other Raven, still a bear for Pittsburgh tackle Chris Hubbard to handle on the edge. With three games to go, we can safely say this is his best season since 2014 and possibly since 2011, when he was Defensive Player of the Year.

Suggs and Roethlisberger are the same age. One has mastered creating pressure. The other has mastered overcoming it. Given that and the geographical proximity, their legacies were fated to be intertwined. On another thrilling Sunday night in Pittsburgh, they reminded us why that’s been a fortunate thing for AFC North viewers.


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5) The Ravens haven’t figured out how to use Danny Woodhead consistently.

It seemed the Ravens might lean heavily on Woodhead when Flacco found him for three completions on the first two drives. But he was nonfactor after that as Collins and Buck Allen ate up most of the subsequent snaps.

It was hard to argue with that approach given what Collins and Allen produced as runners and receivers.

Still, it’s noticeable that Woodhead has not recaptured the magic he showed on the first drive of the season, when he caught three passes for 33 yards before going down with a hamstring injury. He hasn’t matched that total of 33 yards in any of the four games he’s played since he returned after the bye week.

His lack of a role was especially striking as we watched Bell catch pass after pass out of the backfield. Woodhead was supposed to be the Ravens’ answer, torturing linebackers and safeties with his exceptional route running. To date, that vision hasn’t materialized.

It’s not clear whether the Ravens are being careful with him because of his injury history or if they simply like their other options better.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Ravens hold the second wild-card spot. They are currently one behind the Buffalo Bills. The Sun regrets the error.