PITTSBURGH — When the ball dropped, falling to the field and all but punctuating another AFC North classic, a wall of sound boomed through Heinz Field, shaking Pittsburgh with the ecstasy of a game that had been won, then lost, then won again.
The Ravens had led the Steelers for most of Sunday’s divisional showdown, only to watch Pittsburgh take back the lead with all the flair of a body-blow boxer. And with just 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had a chance to put them away, possibly for good, or at least get a chance in overtime. A hurry-up touchdown drive had put them within a point of tying Pittsburgh.
But rather than send on kicker Justin Tucker for a gimme extra-point attempt, the Ravens rolled the dice. The offense stayed on the field. John Harbaugh, wary of the team’s defensive back depth, wanted the win then and there. So quarterback Lamar Jackson faked a handoff, tight end Mark Andrews crossed behind the offensive line in an effective bit of misdirection, and Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt bore down on Jackson. Jackson relocated, flung a pass to Andrews in the flat … and watched it bounce off his left hand.
Steelers 20, Ravens 19.
“It’s that close,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a game of inches. You saw the Al Pacino speech on ‘Any Given Sunday,’ right? There you go. That’s football. It’s just that close.”
In a defeat that knocked the Ravens (8-4) out of sole possession of first place of the AFC, dropping them into a three-way tie with the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, they watched their shortcomings finally catch up to them. Maybe more importantly, they steeled themselves for potentially bad news on star cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who left the game with an undisclosed injury. The NFL Network reported Sunday night that he could miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury; Harbaugh said he would undergo an MRI to determine the severity of his injury.
The Ravens’ problems Sunday, though, went far beyond personnel. Rather than seizing on a chance to knock off a reeling Pittsburgh team (6-5-1), they instead fell back into familiar problems: inconsistent offensive execution, defensive breakdowns, questionable decision-making from Jackson. The Ravens’ star quarterback finished 23-for-37 for 253 yards, a touchdown and an interception, along with eight carries for 55 yards. He also took a career-high seven sacks.
“Seven sacks is too many,” Harbaugh said. “It’s way too many. That’s on us as a coaching staff to get that cleaned up.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, playing maybe his final game in Pittsburgh against the Ravens, was just a smidge better than Jackson: 21-for-31 for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh took a 20-13 lead, its first of the game, with an 11-play, 69-yard drive that looked almost inspired by the Ravens’ run-heavy 2019 and 2020 offenses. Pittsburgh ran and ran, carving up the middle of a Ravens defensive front that had bottled up the Cleveland Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack a week earlier.
At the end, Roethlisberger found wide receiver Diontae Johnson for a 5-yard touchdown, then tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 2-point conversion. Excluding its one-play kneel-down drive to end the game, Pittsburgh scored on all three of its fourth-quarter possessions, putting up 17 points in just over 13 minutes after managing just three in the first 45 minutes.
“It just comes down to execution [and] doing the little things right,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said after helping hold Pittsburgh to 321 yards and just 3.4 yards per carry. “They get paid, too. So, they’re going to make some good plays against some different fronts. So, kudos to them as well. But like I said, we were still rolling. We were still doing everything we needed to do; they just got us a few times.”
Trailing 20-13, the Ravens made the most of the 108 seconds remaining, covering 60 yards in just eight plays. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ 6-yard score cut the deficit to 20-19. But the Ravens passed on a chance to win another in overtime. Tucker watched from the sideline as Jackson’s hurried throw glanced off Andrews’ fingertips.
“It was an opportunity to try to win the game right there,” said Harbaugh, one of the NFL’s more aggressive coaches.
“[It] was a good play call,” said Andrews, who finished with four catches for 55 yards, behind only wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (five catches for 55 yards). “I came wide open. Lamar threw a great ball; I just didn’t make the play.”
“Perfect play call,” Jackson said. “Just came up short. … We weren’t on the same page right there.”
The Ravens returned to Pittsburgh on Sunday under far better circumstances than their last visit. In an early-December trip north last year, a Ravens team decimated by a coronavirus outbreak — about a dozen starters were out, including Jackson — gave the then-unbeaten Steelers a scare in a 19-14 loss.
That thrice-delayed game set the tone for the Ravens’ end-of-season kick, a five-game winning streak in which they averaged 37.2 points and 430.4 yards per game. Heading into Sunday, the Steelers’ defense seemed like it would be a good table-setter for Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Pittsburgh had the NFL’s No. 27 defense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics. They’d allowed 40-plus points in consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, plus 16 at home to the then-winless Detroit Lions.
But the Ravens found heavy resistance in Pittsburgh. After averaging just 302 yards per game over their past three games, including a Jackson-less game against the Chicago Bears, the Ravens finished with 326 yards Sunday, including 135 in the second half. They’ve scored just 61 points over their past four games and are 3-3 in their past six games after winning five straight.
Still, they never trailed in the game until the Steelers’ go-ahead drive. Aggressiveness and sound defensive technique kept a lid on Pittsburgh’s attack for much of the afternoon. But both backfired in a two-play span early in the fourth quarter. On third-and-1, the Ravens sold out to stop a run, only to watch Roethlisberger fake a handoff, find time and space, then connect with wide receiver Chase Claypool, running free across the middle from cornerback Anthony Averett on a 40-yard catch-and-run.
“They hit [Cover] 0 coverages a couple of times,” Harbaugh said of the Ravens’ fourth-quarter struggles. “So you go to the well too many times and they get you. That’s what happened.”
Johnson was even more wide open on the Steelers’ next play. Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud had lined up in the slot, with Johnson next to him, before breaking outside on his route while Johnson broke inside. The route concept confused Averett and Humphrey, both of whom followed McCloud. Johnson didn’t have a defender within 5 yards of him as he waltzed into the end zone for a 29-yard score.
With both offenses stuck in the mud, special teams play loomed large. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell missed the extra-point attempt after Johnson’s score, which would’ve tied the game at 13. On the subsequent Ravens drive, Tucker gave the Ravens a four-point cushion with a 28-yard field goal. Boswell answered on the Steelers’ next possession, atoning for his miss with a 43-yard field goal to narrow the deficit to 13-12 with less than eight minutes remaining.
The Ravens had commanded the first half, more than doubling the Steelers in yardage (191-93) and more than tripling them in time of possession (23:30-6:30). Their running game and passing game also seemed to find versions of their early-season forms, if only in spurts. On their lone scoring drive, Jackson found Andrews down the seam for a 29-yard completion on third-and-6. One play later, running back Devonta Freeman punched it in easily from 3 yards out, capping a 16-play, 99-yard drive that chewed up more than 10 minutes in time of possession.
Some bad habits, though, proved hard to kick. The Ravens’ streak of scoreless first quarters reached six games and 95-plus minutes. They should’ve had at least a field goal on their opening possession, moving to Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with a handful of impressive chunk plays.
But on third-and-6, Jackson threw an end-zone jump ball off his back foot to Andrews. Jackson saw safety Minkah Fitzpatrick waiting, but thought he had enough strength to throw over him. He didn’t, and Fitzpatrick hardly had to move for the ball to fall to him. It was Jackson’s fifth interception in the past five quarters and the fourth straight game in which he’d been picked off, the longest streak of his career.
“Very frustrating,” Jackson said. “We punch so much time out there on the field. We’re driving the ball down the field, converting third downs — long third downs, too, at that. It’s not any third-and-short or stuff like that. We’re just not finishing. And it’s like one play away.”
The Ravens were fortunate to enter halftime up 7-3. They were also perhaps unfortunate to not enter halftime with at least a touchdown lead. Two plays after Roethlisberger watched a well-placed ball slip between the hands of Johnson, ruining a would-be 35-yard touchdown just before halftime, he was hit on a third-down drop-back by safety Geno Stone. Roethlisberger’s wobbly pass bounced off several Ravens defenders before falling to the ground innocently.
Boswell’s 53-yard field goal ended the Steelers’ scoreless start and stopped the wails of Pittsburgh fans. A couple of hours later, they’d be hollering in joy.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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