Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens' 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
From John Harbaugh's uncertain job status to the Ravens' sudden vulnerability on defense, here are five things we learned from Sunday's 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As lost as they look, the Ravens can’t benefit from firing John Harbaugh before the end of the season.
The day dawned with a report from Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, saying Harbaugh could be on the hot seat if the Ravens performed poorly against the Steelers.
That followed a week of stories about how essential the game would be to the Ravens’ season. Win and they’d be right back to fighting for the AFC North. Lose and they’d reside on the fringes of the wild-card race, as they have too often in recent seasons.
Faced with such urgent concerns, the Ravens did nothing Sunday to suggest they’re moving in the right direction. Quarterback Joe Flacco missed open receivers on two precious opportunities for touchdowns. The injury-depleted offensive line faltered at an inopportune moment in the third quarter. The defense died by a series of 5- and 10-yard nicks.
The loss to their bitter rival felt more lopsided than the seven-point margin suggested.
So, with the bye week here and the team’s record at 4-5, is it time for Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to step in and make the biggest change possible?
Harbaugh has earned enough rope over the past 10½ seasons that he should be allowed to do what he can with the rest of this year. He’s always managed to keep his teams focused on the big picture through its worst periods. It’s his greatest strength as a coach.
Last season, for example, the Ravens also went into their bye week 4-5, and they rebounded to control their playoff destiny heading into the final week.
It’s possible they could do the same in 2018, and even if they don’t, what would be gained by booting Harbaugh now? It’s not as if there’s an obvious successor waiting in the wings or some hidden pocket of on-field talent waiting to be unleashed by a different coach.
The Ravens are beat-up, old in many spots and probably headed for a significant reset in the offseason. But Bisciotti has always prided himself on acting deliberately when faced with major decisions. And blowing this team up now would not fit his style.
In the postgame locker room, the players certainly did not seem eager for sweeping change. “I love Harbs. I love everything he’s about. He’s one of the best head coaches in this league,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Coaches coach, players play, and we’re just not getting it done on the field. I know he’s our leader, and he’s going to get the brunt of it. But this team believes in him, and we have his back. It would be unfortunate if anything happened, whether it’s during the season or after. I don’t think that would be the right way to go.”
The Ravens can no longer claim to have the league’s best defense, no matter what the numbers say.
Opposing offenses have adjusted their plans significantly since the Ravens mauled the Tennessee Titans for an 11-sack shutout in Week 6.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not even look downfield for most of Sunday’s game. He was content to mix effective first-down handoffs to James Conner (24 carries for 107 yards) with dump-off throws and quick flicks to slanting wide receivers.
Roethlisberger averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt, a figure that would usually suggest ineffective offense. But he controlled the clock with all those short throws and converted on 10 of 16 third downs. The Ravens did not sack him until late in the fourth quarter and failed to create a turnover for the fourth straight game. Like Drew Brees and Cam Newton before him, Roethlisberger exploited the Ravens’ soft belly.
“Their offense is built that way. Those high and low routes over the middle — that’s what they do,” Harbaugh said. “We were in about every coverage you can be in at times, and they completed a lot of them.”
The Steelers deserve a lot of the credit. Roethlisberger is headed for the Hall of Fame, and his top receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, are almost impossible to cover in tight spaces. The Steelers have built the versatile Conner into a worthy replacement for All-Pro Le’Veon Bell.
But when Pittsburgh finally did throw downfield at a crucial juncture of the fourth quarter, the Ravens weren’t ready for that, either.
They had a chance to stop the Steelers deep in their own territory, with backup Joshua Dobbs temporarily in for Roethlisberger, who’d just banged his shoulder into the turf.
Dobbs hit Smith-Schuster for 22 yards in the middle of the field. The ensuing drive ate up almost six minutes of clock and resulted in a field goal that extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 10.
It was a lapse that simply should not happen to a top-ranked defense.
The same could be said for a subsequent play on which Steelers tight end Jesse James left cornerback Brandon Carr flat-footed for a 51-yard catch.
The Ravens were at their worst when they needed to be at their best. And the evidence says we can no longer expect them to control the game against quality offenses.
The Ravens’ patchwork offensive line will continue to let them down at crucial moments.
It was late in the third quarter, and the Ravens had finally stopped the Steelers, three-and-out. They badly needed to answer with a productive drive.
Instead, they moved backward. Left guard Alex Lewis and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. were both flagged for holding on first down. On the next play, two Steelers crashed in to sack Flacco for a 7-yard loss.
With starting tackles Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst inactive because of injuries, the Ravens had to patch together their line. To the surprise of no one, they paid for it when they needed to sustain a drive.
The Steelers sacked Flacco just twice, but he spent much of the afternoon in peril. On the Ravens’ first drive, he shook out his hip after taking a jarring thump from defensive end Stephon Tuitt (who was offside). On the ground, meanwhile, the Ravens averaged a modest 3.8 yards per carry.
It’s not Jermaine Eluemunor’s fault that he’s a major downgrade from Stanley, a starting left tackle who was picked sixth overall in the 2016 draft. Most reserve linemen would be. But it’s striking how much the Ravens miss Hurst, who can fill in competently at any spot other than center.
Fans spent the week bemoaning the team’s inability to acquire a solid offensive lineman at the trade deadline. But there wasn’t much of a market at the position. There are fewer quality linemen than teams that need them.
If the Ravens are to rebuild their depth, they’ll likely have to do it slowly, through the draft. The only answer this season is to hope Stanley and Hurst return healthy after the upcoming two-week break.
On one play in the red zone, they sent him in motion, and he ended up by himself in the corner of the end zone, waving his arms as Flacco failed to look in his direction.
Jackson said the play wasn’t designed for him, and Flacco agreed that he was the last read. But it seemed a shame for the gimmick to work and lead to no production.
Reporters pressed Flacco after the game, asking whether the Jackson plays threw him out of rhythm. But he continued to be a good soldier.
“Whatever we decide to call, that’s what we decide to call, and I’m all for it,” he said. “I’m happy when they work, and when they don’t work, I’m on to the next play.”
Jackson gained just 10 rushing yards on five carries, in part because the Steelers did not respect him as a potential passing threat. He completed a 12-yard throw, but he’ll have to pass more willingly to maximize his impact.
Regardless, Harbaugh said he hopes to use Jackson more, not less, over the last seven games. He noted how much the New Orleans Saints hurt the Ravens with two-quarterback sets featuring Drew Brees and Taysom Hill.
“I don’t think it’s counterproductive, because we’re gaining yards and making plays,” Harbaugh said.
He’s right that if the Ravens are going to go down this season, they might as well do it experimenting with all their weapons.
Matthew Judon was the best player on the field for the Ravens.
The Ravens viewed Judon as a player on the rise after he posted 58 tackles and eight sacks and even held his own in coverage in his second year.
But he made little impact through the first four weeks of this season, either as a pass rusher or an all-around linebacker.
Judon came on from there, making tackles for losses and quarterback hits against the Cleveland Browns, Titans and Carolina Panthers. And he was the only Baltimore defender to trouble Roethlisberger consistently Sunday, with a sack, a pass defended and three quarterback hits.
He bested the combined production of fellow outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs.
There’s not a lot of good to be taken from the Ravens’ defensive play over the past three weeks. But if their 26-year-old linebacker, a potential key piece for their future, is back on track, that’s something.