Ravens hope to revive long history of in-season rebounds with rival Steelers up next

Ed Reed slammed his helmet on the sideline and said he felt “embarrassed for our city.”

Joe Flacco wiped blood from the right side of his face, moments after he’d run 80 yards in vain, trying to prevent an interception return for a touchdown. “We’re a 9-5 football team,” the Ravens quarterback lamented. “And it feels like we’re 0-14 right now.”

The date was Dec. 16, 2012. The scoreboard at M&T Bank Stadium read: Denver Broncos 34, Baltimore Ravens 17.

The Ravens would qualify for the playoffs later that day, by virtue of a Pittsburgh Steelers loss. But they had just suffered their most resounding defeat in a three-game losing streak. Their defense was racked by injuries. John Harbaugh had fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron the previous week. Fans abandoned the stadium early to drink away their sorrows.

The Ravens were lost. Or so it seemed.

We all know how the story unfolded from there — the miraculous playoff run that included sweet vengeance against those same Broncos and culminated with the franchise’s second Super Bowl victory.

Perhaps the Ravens who remain from that time — Flacco, Harbaugh, linebacker Terrell Suggs and a few others — reflected on it this week as they sought to bounce back from a 36-21 dismantling by the Carolina Panthers that dropped them to a disappointing 4-4 for the 2018 season.

Even the most satisfying of Harbaugh’s 11 years in Baltimore have rarely featured a straight line to glory. Instead, his teams have been defined by how they responded to their lowest moments.

Now, this version of the Ravens faces just such a test with the Steelers coming to town Sunday.

“We have our season in front of us,” Harbaugh said, when asked what wisdom he gleaned from past setbacks. “We’d all love to have a better record than we do right now. We probably should have a better record, but the record is what it is. That’s our starting point. That’s what we fight from. The bottom line is the process and where we’re at and where we need to go as a football team.”

Players and coaches said there’s no magic recipe for recovering from a comprehensive failure, such as the road loss to the Panthers. Honest, sometimes brutal, self-reflection and the will to push on — that’s about it.

“You just keep it in-house, and you do your best to move on,” Flacco said. “You take ownership for the issues and you address them; you get them out of the way early in the week, and then you go out there and work hard and you go play another football game. That’s all we know how to do.”

Through six games, the 2018 Ravens built an identity as the best defensive team in football, a highly adaptable sack machine that smothered opponents down the stretch. But that self-image vanished over five frustrating quarters, during which New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton did what they pleased.

The Ravens felt a similar sense of disorientation on the night of Nov. 2, 2014, when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit them for six touchdown passes in a 43-23 prime-time shellacking.

That defeat was the Ravens’ second straight and dropped them to 5-4 on the season, last in the AFC North.

"We've just got to be better,” Suggs said afterward. “We can't be kidding ourselves anymore.”

The 2014 team regrouped to win its next two games and four of its next five before upsetting the Steelers at Heinz Field in the AFC wild-card round.

Current defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was the linebackers coach for that Ravens team. Facing a similar situation after the Panthers loss, he knew exactly how he wanted to operate.

“We had a great meeting on Tuesday as a defense with all of us in there — the coaching staff and the players — and it was an open forum like it always is,” he said. “Because we keep it real with each other in there. There are no egos or anything else.”

In 12 seasons, safety Eric Weddle has eaten his share of decisive defeats. And he said Martindale’s last point, about egos, is essential.

“When you have a game like that, it’s everyone,” Weddle said. “You look at the tape and you want to get coached up. You don’t want to get emotional about things or sensitive. We all want to play good, and sometimes we don’t. But what are you going to do about it? Sulk? Are you going to be a pansy about it? Or are you going to go back to work on your craft and have a great game the following week?”

He expressed confidence that the Ravens will take the harder, more productive road.

“We’ve just got to get back to playing team defense, honestly,” he said, lowering his voice for emphasis. “Do your job. Do your responsibility. Don’t press, trying to make plays. Plays will come when everyone is doing their jobs.”

It’s striking, when you study the team’s history under Harbaugh, how early this pattern of defeat and rebound was set.

In his first season in 2008, the Ravens lost, 30-10, to the New York Giants, who trampled all over their No. 1 run defense. The loss dropped them to 6-4, and with a first-time head coach and a rookie quarterback in Flacco, the road ahead seemed far from certain.

“It was a thumping,” defensive end Trevor Pryce summarized. “It’s the biggest thumping I’ve been part of for a long time.”

The Ravens won their next three games by a combined score of 94-20, earned a wild-card berth and won two road playoff games to get to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Steelers.

The very next season, they lost, 27-14, to the Green Bay Packers to fall to 6-6 on the first weekend in December. Harbaugh’s team won the next two by a combined score of 79-10 and three of the next four to earn a wild-card spot. They beat the New England Patriots on the road in the AFC wild-card round.

So there is a pattern of resilience in the Ravens’ best seasons with Harbaugh and Flacco.

Lest you think these past experiences reduce the urgency of the current moment, consider what happened last season, when the Ravens didn’t immediately bounce back from their worst defeats.

Those came in Weeks 3 and 4, when they lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Steelers by a combined 70-16. The Ravens did beat the Oakland Raiders in Week 5, but they lost three of their next four to go into their bye week 4-5. If they had won even one more of those games, they would have made the playoffs.

If the Ravens lose to the Steelers on Sunday, they’d be … 4-5 headed into their bye week.

It’s not a road they care to walk again.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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