Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about focusing on the upcoming game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
A younger Jimmy Smith would have paid little mind to the stakes his Ravens face as they prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Whether the Ravens won or lost the previous week, whether they stood first or last in the standings, he just did his thing, fast and loose.
But at age 30 — with eight seasons of ups and downs behind him and his own play at cornerback falling short of his usual standard — Smith cannot ignore the weight of his team’s present test.
“I’d be lying to say we don’t know what this game means, it being the Steelers for one thing and also being the fact that we’re 4-4,” he said Wednesday. “You know you have eight games left and 4-4 is not where you want to be, obviously. It doesn’t mean your season is over. It just means that every game now is so much more critical. You can’t go in slumps. You can’t go on two-game losing skids now, because you don’t want to leave it up to the chances of someone being 9-7.”
Smith hardly stood alone among the team’s many veterans in reckoning with the big picture.
Between the foreboding math that would face them if they lose and the familiar threat posed by their division-leading nemesis, the Ravens know their season stands at a crossroads. After two straight losses, the more recent a 36-21 beatdown at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, they’re back to the .500 mediocrity they’d hoped to escape in 2018.
Quarterback Joe Flacco’s production has slipped after his resurgent start, and cracks have appeared in a defense that still leads the league in fewest points and yards allowed. Injuries have weakened the team’s secondary and offensive line for this crucial stretch. Fans, cognizant of the team’s three-year playoff drought, have turned gloomy in their social-media posts and talk-radio pronouncements.
If the Ravens drop another game and fall to 4-5 heading into their bye week, the narrative might turn to how long Flacco and coach John Harbaugh have left as the faces of the franchise.
Meanwhile, the ever-resilient Steelers have climbed back to first place in the AFC North after an uncertain start, which included a 26-14 thrashing at the hands of the Ravens in Week 4.
Pittsburgh has won three straight by a combined 46 points since that loss at Heinz Field. Questions about still-absent running back Le’Veon Bell no longer seem urgent, because his replacement, James Conner, has averaged 122 yards a game during the winning streak.
“They’re playing really well. They’re not giving up the big plays, like they did a little more, earlier in the year,” Harbaugh said. “To me, they’re playing Steeler football in that sense. They’re playing hard defensively. They’ve made big plays on offense. They’re running the ball very well. That’s probably the biggest thing that sticks out.”
With the Steelers finding their way, it’s hard not to think of the critical blows Pittsburgh dealt to the Ravens’ playoff chances each of the past two seasons.
Steelers week used to bring out the creative trash talker in Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. But Suggs has been quieter in general this year, preaching the value of never feeling too high or low.
“Maturity,” he said Wednesday when asked why he’s toned down his anti-Pittsburgh rhetoric. “You don’t want to give them any extra locker-room material. … It don’t help none. It’s not scoring any touchdowns or making any tackles.”
Despite his Zen turn at age 36, Suggs conceded Sunday’s game would be “a little bit more edgy than others.”
Approaches to this high-stakes week vary among the team’s leaders.
“I really try to avoid the big-picture stuff,” Flacco said. “It’s very tough to play in this league when you’re constantly thinking about the outcome of so many different things. Our job is to go play football. Obviously, the scoreboard’s in the stadium, so there’s only so much you can do. … But when you worry about the outcome of things before it’s actually happened, that’s when you start making mistakes. That’s when you start playing tentative. If you’re thinking about all kinds of, ‘Where are we going to end up after this? Who do we have next?’ — all that stuff, it just gets in your way. It puts little blocks in your head.”
The Ravens quarterback joked that he shaved his beard this week because “it’s not like we’ve been winning with it.”
But that seemed to be his only concession to the broader state of affairs.
Safety Eric Weddle’s beard remained intact, and he said the rivalry with the Steelers is largely beside the point this week, when the Ravens need to get their own house in order.
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“It really wouldn’t matter the opponent, coming off last week’s loss,” he said. “We didn’t play well in all three phases, so it could be anyone, and we’re ready to get to Sunday. But this opponent, with the division where it’s at, we’re one game out. With Pittsburgh leading the way, and we get a win, we’re right in the thick. The sky’s not falling. We’re 4-4 with eight games to go. So who knows the way the season’s going to end up?”
If recent seasons have taught us anything, it’s that even a loss to the Steelers would not drive the Ravens out of the playoff picture. Only the 5-2 Los Angeles Chargers have created any real separation from the mass of so-so teams colliding in the AFC wild-card race.
But the Ravens know their narrative will be more hopeful if they play the way they aspire to Sunday. Practically, a win would put them a half-game behind the 5-3 Cincinnati Bengals, who will come to Baltimore on Nov. 18.
More than that, it would restore the Ravens’ self-image. They yearn to be the team that dominated the Steelers and the Tennessee Titans rather than the one that scrapped through the second halves of 2016 and 2017, only to fall short.
Smith laughed when asked if he likes operating with such little margin for error.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Who likes that? It’s like going to bat and there are already two strikes. … You don’t want to go through that. You want to make it easier. But that’s not the road we’ve chosen right now.”