After loss to Steelers, Ravens and coach John Harbaugh reach a crossroads where 'anything can happen'

For the first 10 questions of his postgame news conference Sunday, Joe Flacco stood at the lectern with his characteristic stillness, calm even amid the storm brewing around him. His voice softened by a 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens quarterback spoke in measured tones about about the pressures levied by a three-game losing streak and the threat of a coaching change.

But after the 11th question, after 5 minutes, 30 seconds of Joe Cool, Flacco grew agitated. He had just been asked a third straight question about Lamar Jackson’s usage. His voice quickened. He began to gesticulate, his left hand moving in small circles, as if it were being sucked down a drain.

“If I were watching the game on TV, I could probably have a million opinions, but I’m the one playing in it,” Flacco said. “I’m taking each play at a time and trying to go down and score a point. And whatever we decide to call, that’s what we decided to call, and I’m all for it. I’m happy when they work, and when they don’t work, I move on to the next play. There are a lot of plays out there on every Sunday that do not work, and it’s our job as players to move on to the next one, get the next one, move the chains and forget about it.”

After an afternoon that began with an NFL Network report about coach John Harbaugh’s tenuous job security and ended with the Ravens one step closer to their fourth straight postseason absence, the team could comfort itself with only the opportunity for a respite. From the outside chatter. From the injuries. From the losing.

The Ravens (4-5) do not play again until Nov. 18, against the Cincinnati Bengals, and until then they must divine what is right and what is wrong, what is fixable and what is not, where change is needed and what changes can wait.

A bye week can help with some things. The Ravens entered Sunday’s home game against the AFC North-leading Steelers (5-2-1) with their starting tackles (Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst) too banged up to play, their newest running back (Ty Montgomery) inactive and an injury report with a list of “questionables” as big as M&T Bank Stadium. They left it with yet another injured defensive back (cornerback Tavon Young) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs a bystander for much of the fourth quarter, then a no-show in the locker room afterward.

“We’ve got to get healed up,” safety Eric Weddle said. “A lot of guys are banged up. Get some guys back on offense, and obviously, defensively, we’ve got a lot of guys who are hurting. We’ve got seven games left. There’s still an opportunity, and nobody knows what’s going to happen, right?”

Said inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who practiced just once last week because of a thigh injury — and not even as a full participant — but still started Sunday: “I think the bye week came at a good time. I think mentally more than physically, [we want to] make sure we all come back right.”

But will they all, from players to coaching staff? Harbaugh said he had not seen the report about his hot seat. Flacco said he hadn’t given it any thought. Mosley told the media not to worry. Weddle called Harbaugh one of the NFL’s best coaches and said the team has his back. Two of the few acknowledgments of pressure came from safety Tony Jefferson, who said, “Anything can happen,” and from cornerback Brandon Carr, who waxed poetic: “We’re all on the hot seat every single game.”

Harbaugh himself acknowledged that the Ravens would “look at everything — we always do in the bye week.” But two weeks might not be a long enough reset. After four games this season, three of them wins, Harbaugh could turn on his team’s film and find the staples of classic Ravens teams: a smothering defense, a ball-protecting offense and reliable special teams play. The Ravens’ loss Sunday served only as a haunting reminder of what once was, even as recently as their Week 4 win over the Steelers.

Then: two turnovers forced in a 26-14 win. Now: no turnovers forced for the third time in four games.

Then: 44 all-purpose yards by Pittsburgh running back James Conner allowed. Now: 163 all-purpose yards, many of them on third downs the Ravens just could not stop.

Then: 363 passing yards for Joe Flacco. Now: 209 yards and a pair of crucial missed end-zone throws for Flacco, whose offense hasn’t eclipsed 363 total yards since Week 5.

“There are plenty of other things that we can look at that we didn’t get done today, and that’s what we’ll do,” Flacco said. “We’ll go through the whole body of work, obviously. You can pick a couple plays out in this game where it might make a difference down in the end. Like I said, there were plenty of plays that we wanted back.”

If Sunday is the tipping point for owner Steve Bisciotti, if Harbaugh’s last game in Baltimore ended in front of before fast-departing crowds who booed Ravens misplays throughout, then his demise will have begun with moments whose importance only grew with each loss.

Harbaugh, calm and unflustered after a fourth loss in five games, lamented Sunday that he hoped the Ravens would have entered the bye week with three more wins. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a season that unfolded with a Week 5 road win against the Cleveland Browns, or a Week 7 game against the New Orleans Saints decided on something besides a missed extra point by the NFL's most accurate kicker.

But the Ravens are who they are, and their record is what it is, and neither is very good. Harbaugh’s biggest priority — getting healthy — is something he cannot control, something that might in fact worsen. He said the Ravens would “try to come out swinging” after a week off. He was disappointed that it had reached this point. At times, his answers felt as if they were goodbyes.

“It has been nothing but a joy and privilege to come to work every day with these coaches and players,” Harbaugh said. “It has been one of the best seasons that way, ever. I think you have to look at it that way from a process standpoint and just understand that’s what you go work on. You hope the results and the outcome takes care of itself in that sense. So we’re working on doing that. We’re going to keep doing that. …

“It’s not like we’re going to sit there and not do anything. We’re going to look hard at what we can do.”

And so will the people above him.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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