After the Ravens’ 23-16 loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, their third straight defeat and fourth in five games, coach John Harbaugh pledged that the team would “look at everything” — the good and the bad, the past and the future.
With the season at the two-month mark and the Ravens another week-plus from their crucial Week 11 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, there is indeed no better time to assess the big picture.
A lot has happened, after all. Players have risen and fallen. Games have been won. Beards have been lost.
And, perhaps most important, midseason superlatives have been earned.
Most impressive player: Defensive tackle Michael Pierce’s stats — 14 tackles, including just one for loss, along with no sacks and a fumble recovery — don’t jump off the page. But when you’re an automatic double-team candidate, as the 26-year-old is, it’s easier for the defense around you to perform like the NFL’s best.
Defensive line coach Joe Cullen said Tuesday that Pierce has performed like a Pro Bowl player at times this season. Indeed, Pro Football Focus rates the undrafted Samford product as the NFL’s sixth-best interior defensive lineman this season, ahead of even the Bengals' Geno Atkins.
While Pierce has played over 50 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in just one game this season, part of an effort to keep him fresh for November and December, his week-to-week excellence gives him the slight edge over other more involved standouts like cornerback Brandon Carr and guard Marshal Yanda.
Most disappointing player: Only two seasons ago, it was easy to imagine the Ravens not having to worry about the left side of their offensive line for a long, long time. Ronnie Stanley was living up to his first-round billing as a foundational left tackle, and left guard Alex Lewis, a fourth-round pick, was on his way to posting the top Pro Football Focus rating among all rookie guards.
One lost year and a disappointing half-season later, Lewis’ short- and long-term future on the Ravens’ offensive line are uncertain. He missed six of his final seven games as a rookie with an ankle injury and all of 2017 after tearing the labrum in his shoulder. A scary neck injury sidelined him for two games this season.
How much of his underwhelming play this season is attributable to those injuries is hard to say. Lewis is a tough, proud player. But he has struggled in pass protection, and the Ravens’ rushing game has been least successful when running behind left guard, according to Smart Football Stats.
Best rookie: Mark Andrews was the second tight end the Ravens took in April’s NFL draft. Through nine games, he might just be the league’s best rookie at the position. While first-round pick and teammate Hayden Hurst has four catches for 57 yards and a touchdown through five games, Andrews has 21 receptions on 31 targets for a rookie-best 244 yards and two scores. He’s dropped just one on-target pass this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and has graded out well as a blocker.
Best play: The Ravens defense was perhaps never more dominant than in the second half of its Week 4 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the most impressive play of the game, if not their season, happened in the first quarter. Facing third-and-4 on Pittsburgh’s opening drive, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Vance McDonald open on an out-breaking route short of the first-down marker.
Before McDonald could even turn upfield, safety Tony Jefferson had wrapped his right arm around the ball in McDonald’s grasp. While pulling McDonald down, Jefferson ripped the ball away as if it were a Post-it Note and secured it in the very same right arm. A review overturned his 31-yard return touchdown, but the Ravens scored four plays later. It was only right.
Worst play: The play on which inside linebacker C.J. Mosley hurt his knee might have been the Ravens' most consequential this season. Quarterback Joe Flacco missing a wide-open Lamar Jackson on Sunday might have raised the most questions. Michael Crabtree's drop of a would-be touchdown catch in Cleveland might have most affected their chances of victory.
But no play has epitomized the most glaring struggles of the Ravens’ first half quite like a backfield destruction. On the first play of the second quarter in Week 8, the Ravens called for a counter run. Somehow, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love got to the ball just a split-second after running back Alex Collins. There were three Ravens linemen who could’ve impeded Love’s demolition path; none did. Collins fumbled, Carolina recovered, and a 7-7 game was about to get out of hand.
Best quote: Before the Ravens’ Week 5 game against the Cleveland Browns, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was asked whether the Browns have become harder to game-plan for in recent years.
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“Without a doubt,” Martindale said. “We’ve watched so much Cleveland film, I think Ozzie [Newsome] has been in a couple of them.”
Surest sign of the apocalypse: Justin Tucker’s wide-right extra-point attempt in the Ravens’ 24-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints was his first such miss since junior year of high school. Before the last-minute misfire in Week 7, he was 316-for-316 over his NFL and college careers, a staggering testament to his ability to ruthlessly execute the position’s most rote responsibility.
Tucker missing was like a Supreme Court Justice putting their robe on the wrong way, or Alex Trebek bungling a pronunciation on “Jeopardy,” or a Baltimore crab cake not being delicious — a reminder that even the most reliable things in life aren’t foolproof.
Most surprising loss: Entering Week 5, the Browns had gone 18 straight AFC North games without a victory. They hadn’t won on a Sunday since December 2015. Worse, they were hosting a 3-1 Ravens team that had won all three of the teams’ previous meetings by at least 14 points.
But one week after dominating the Steelers at Heinz Field, the Ravens did what they could to start clearing out the bandwagon. The closest the offense got to a touchdown came in the final minute of regulation, when wide receiver Michael Crabtree couldn't secure Flacco's pass in the back of the end zone. The defense held until overtime, when quarter Baker Mayfield’s third-down, 39-yard completion to receiver Derrick Willies set up kicker Greg Joseph's game-winning 37-yard field goal.
Second-most surprising loss: Eric Weddle had grown his legendary beard since early 2016, a month before he left the then-San Diego Chargers to sign with the Ravens. But after two straight losses, and perhaps inspired by Flacco’s own somewhat-clean shave, the Ravens safety trimmed his bushy tangles to heavy stubble ahead of Sunday’s game against the Steelers.
Unfortunately for Weddle, the beard wasn’t the only thing the Ravens would lose.