"We've got to be better off early in games," said Ravens QB Joe Flacco. "When we're trying to climb back in games like we were today, there's opportunities to do it, and we weren't good enough to do it." (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

1) Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense are going nowhere good.

For two years now, we've heard Flacco and the team's coaches talk about how they're a few lapsed plays away from unlocking a consistent offense.


But those missed chances — a seemingly sure touchdown flung well over Breshad Perriman's head, a long pass dropped by Mike Wallace along the sideline — keep happening.

At some point, we just have to call that the team's reality.

Flacco was a hunted man Sunday, and he played as if he knew it. Rarely did he have the chance to stand tall and look downfield.

He took four sacks and six hits, some of them violent.

Finally, almost inevitably, a retreating Flacco threw a weak pass off his back foot, right into the arms of Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. The interception blunted one of the team's few promising drives.

Later in the fourth quarter, Flacco inexplicably tried to find Michael Campanaro in the middle of four Pittsburgh defenders. With that interception, the Ravens were effectively done for the day.

The harsh reality is that Flacco has rarely been even an average quarterback over the last two seasons. Would that be different if he was playing behind a healthy offensive line and paired with an elite big-play threat? Maybe.

But neither of those things is going to happen this season. So we're left with an offense that's going nowhere.

On Wednesday, Flacco bit back at reporters who questioned the Ravens' production, noting that they played conservatively on purpose the first two weeks. That was perhaps a fair point at the time. But no longer. The Ravens have played exactly one good offensive half — the first 30 minutes against the woeful Browns — in four games.

Even if the defense was a world beater, which it isn't, that would not be good enough.

2) The Ravens were surprisingly nonchalant about the pounding Flacco took.

It was startling to hear left tackle Ronnie Stanley, probably the man most responsible for protecting Flacco, almost shrug off the ineffective pass blocking.

"It's nothing unexpected," he said of the hits on his quarterback. "It's a physical sport."

That's true as far as it goes, and Stanley didn't play a bad game individually. But I don't know how you watch that performance and come away thinking Flacco had adequate time to do his job.


The problem is that with starting guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis out for the season, the Ravens are playing at a talent deficit against the better defenses in the league. Jacksonville proved as much last week.

With Khalil Mack coming up next week in Oakland, the picture isn't getting prettier.

Mike Preston grades the Ravens after their 26-9 loss to the Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

3) John Harbaugh was smart not to banish Alex Collins to the bench for fumbling.

Anyone familiar with Harbaugh's habits knew what it likely meant when the ball was ripped from Collins' hands on a routine carry in the second quarter.

It was the young running back's second fumble in three games, and that's as close as you get to a mortal sin with Harbaugh.

But the Ravens coach did not consign Collins to the bench for the rest of the game. He recognized that Collins is one of the few players who've given the team any offensive spark over the last two weeks.

Sure enough, Collins rewarded him with a 50-yard gain to set up a touchdown in the third quarter.

Terrance West, the starting running back entering the season, hasn't exactly made anyone forget Jamal Lewis. And the Ravens seem to prefer using Javorius Allen in clear passing situations.

Collins was the one generating excitement with his jitterbug feet and intense desire to extend each run. He led the Ravens with 28 yards on five carries in the first half Sunday after also leading the team in rushing the previous week.

Then, he fumbled and handed the Steelers an easy touchdown drive.

Harbaugh spoke sternly about the turnover after the game, saying "the leash isn't going to be long on that." But give him credit for keeping his mind on the big picture rather than giving in to momentary disgust.

4) Remember that rejuvenated pass rush? It was nowhere to be seen in this game.

In contrast to Flacco, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger often had time to read through three or four potential targets before he finally completed a pass.

The Ravens hit him seven times but sacked him just once and did little to rattle him.

Given how optimistic the Ravens were about their young pass rushers coming into the season, they had to be disappointed with that production. Rookie linebackers Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser hardly did anything to mark the box score, and second-year starter Matthew Judon also failed to lay a hand on Roethlisberger.

Perhaps most startling was the degree to which the Steelers neutralized Terrell Suggs. Not only did they keep him out of the backfield, they ran to his side with impunity.

If this were a one-game thing, we could shrug it off. But the Ravens were similarly ineffective getting to Blake Bortles the week before.

Suggs didn't seem overly concerned.

"I think they had a good game plan as far as just timely getting the ball out," he said. "We're familiar with each other. The two teams are familiar with each other. And they just executed. They came in with a game plan and they stuck with theirs."

But the Ravens won't win many games the rest of the season if they operate at this kind of sack deficit.

5) For a second straight week, the Ravens struggled to defend the middle of the field.

The defense played well overall for most of the second half, keeping the Ravens in striking distance. The outside cornerbacks — Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey — prevented Antonio Brown and the rest of the Pittsburgh receivers from taking over the game.

But Roethlisberger successfully picked on nickel cornerback Lardarius Webb. And Le'Veon Bell eventually wore the Ravens down with counter run after counter run.

The defense has suffered from the absence of defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who clogs the gaps Bell is so adept at finding.

But the loss of Williams does not explain the coverage gaps we've seen the last three weeks. It's not a one-man problem. In addition to Webb, linebacker C.J. Mosley and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson have all faltered at times.

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