As the Pittsburgh Steelers stormed the field Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, finally able to breathe after a tense and controversial final minute, finally free of the Ravens after a rough-and-tumble afternoon that epitomized this rivalry’s appeal, Minkah Fitzpatrick looked into the stands and waved goodbye. Then the safety blew a kiss, in case his message wasn’t clear.
After a 28-24 loss, there might be no coming back. The Ravens are now two games behind the unbeaten Steelers in the AFC North. They are now without their top offensive lineman. They are now dealing with an error-prone quarterback and an unhappy No. 1 wide receiver. They are still a good team, but every week they become a little more vulnerable, a little more ordinary.
As the Ravens approach the midway point of their season, and a crucial Week 9 road trip to Indianapolis, they are what their schedule says they are. Against the runts of the NFL, they have proven trustworthy. Against Super Bowl contenders, they haven’t proven anything. The Kansas City Chiefs blew them off the field. The Steelers (7-0) won despite a historic deficit.
According to CBS, the Ravens on Sunday became the first team since at least 1950 to both outrush an opponent by 200-plus yards and outpass them and lose. With All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley suffering a season-ending ankle injury, a win was always going to come with a cost. A loss just compounded the pain and the frustration.
“We didn’t play well enough to win the game in the end,” coach John Harbaugh said.
They had a chance. They had a couple, actually, and controversy made the defeat all the more bitter.
After the Ravens (5-2) forced a three-and-out on a potential game-ending Steelers drive, quarterback Lamar Jackson and the offense took over at their 37-yard line with 52 seconds remaining and no timeouts. A field goal would do nothing for them.
But more time would’ve helped. So would’ve a last-second penalty. The Ravens got neither. After Jackson found wide receiver Willie Snead IV for a 32-yard gain with about 20 seconds remaining, the Ravens rushed to Pittsburgh’s 23-yard line. With defensive tackle Cameron Heyward hurt behind the play, the Steelers were forced to call a timeout with eight seconds remaining.
According to former NFL official Terry McAulay, now a rules expert for NBC, the referees had erred in not adding another 10 to 12 seconds. Instead, the Ravens had enough time for just two throws. The first, Jackson had to throw away, sped up by a Steelers pass rush that sacked him four times and hit him nine times.
On his last drop-back, Jackson targeted Snead over the middle. When the throw arrived, so did Fitzpatrick, reaching for the ball. They collided at the catch point, and the force of Fitzpatrick’s shoulder knocked Snead’s helmet back like a crash-test dummy. The officials jogged off with Harbaugh in their ear and the flags still in their pockets.
“It could have gone either way, to be honest,” said Snead, who had five catches for a game-high 106 yards.
But no drive was more emblematic of the Ravens' waste than their previous possession. Trailing 28-24 after an 8-yard touchdown pass from Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Chase Claypool, the Ravens rumbled downfield, powered by a running game that finished with a season-high 265 yards on 47 carries. (The Steelers finished with just 221 yards overall, a season low.)
Then, after cruising into Pittsburgh’s red zone, the Ravens stalled. Jackson’s third-and-5 scramble went for 2 yards. His fourth-and-3 quarterback draw was doomed from the start. As Jackson reached out for the first-down marker, hoping against hope he’d be close, the ball popped loose.
The Steelers recovered the fumble, but by then the novelty had worn off. Jackson had opened the game by throwing a pick-six; inside linebacker Robert Spillane, making only his second career start, brought it back 33 yards for a 7-0 lead. Two drives later, Jackson fumbled away a likely scoring drive after outside linebacker Bud Dupree caught up to him for a strip-sack.
Early in the third quarter, with the Ravens up 17-7 and in charge of the game, Jackson threw off his back foot, thinking outside linebacker Alex Highsmith was headed to the left flat. Instead, Highsmith retreated, and was there to intercept a floating pass to tight end Mark Andrews. Two plays later, Pittsburgh started a 14-0 run with a touchdown pass to Eric Ebron.
Jackson finished 13-for-28 for 208 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, his lowest completion rate (46.4%) and passer rating (65.8) of the season. He’s completed less than 60% of his passes in four of his past five games and has thrown five interceptions in his two starts against the Steelers.
“The turnovers, I feel, are the reason we lost the game,” said Jackson, who also had 16 carries for 65 yards. “I put that on me. … I’ve got to clean those up, and I feel like we [would’ve] won that game. That’s all to it.”
“That’s the difference in the game in some ways, obviously,” Harbaugh said. “And that’s part of it. We’re disappointed with that part of it. We’re very happy with other parts of it. I thought he competed, made a lot of great throws and runs and things like that. So it’s a mixed bag in that sense, but of course we’re not pleased with losing the turnover battle.”
There was a lot more to be unhappy about.
Stanley, who on Friday signed a $98.8 million contract extension, was carted off the field in the first quarter after Pittsburgh outside linebacker T.J. Watt inadvertently rolled into Stanley’s left leg as he tried to bring down Jackson. Harbaugh called the injury “severe.” Starting right guard Tyre Phillips also left the game early with an ankle injury and did not return; Harbaugh did not have an update on his condition afterward.
There were losses on the defensive side, too, though none as long-lasting. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon was ejected in the second quarter for what the officials deemed “intentional” contact with an official. Replays showed Judon trying to free himself from a Ravens staff member after a sideline scuffle and accidentally striking the official’s arm.
Elsewhere, more familiar problems surfaced. The defense, which held Roethlisberger (21-for-32 for 182 yards and two touchdowns) and the Steelers to 64 yards in the first half, struggled after halftime, just as it had in a narrow win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6. The absence of injured cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Tavon Young loomed large on passing downs, and new Ravens defensive end Yannick Ngakoue did not register a quarterback hit.
Penalties were a problem again, too, with the Ravens flagged nine times for 110 yards after a bye week spent focused on addressing them.
And on offense, the production of running backs J.K. Dobbins (15 carries for a game-high 113 yards) and Gus Edwards (16 carries for 87 yards) was balanced out by the silencing of Brown and Andrews (three catches for 32 yards and nearly a lost fumble). After a game in which he was targeted just twice, Brown wrote in a since-deleted tweet: “What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!)”
These are challenges last year’s Ravens didn’t have to address. Their quarterback was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, their top lineman was healthy, and their frustrations were largely kept in-house. Now there’s plenty to fix, and no way to change what happened Sunday. All they can do is kiss it goodbye.
“It sucks, because we go out here, and we lose this game the way we did, and we’ve been in this situation before and won,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “So, man, it sucks. It’s unfortunate. Looking back on it, what could we have done? I have to go and see the film, but we have to start getting things clicking and getting things going.”
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