Tyler Huntley said he was just looking for somebody to make a play. At the last gasp of another constricted night for the Ravens offense, that was all the quarterback could do: Look for help. From someone, anyone.
None came, and now the Ravens head into the final week of their regular season needing as much help from without as from within. Huntley slammed his hands against his helmet as he watched Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick pick off his last-minute pass, clinching Pittsburgh’s 16-13 comeback win Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium and moving the Ravens one step closer to an unwanted playoff road trip.
There’s a lot they need done over these next two weeks, but not a lot they can do about it. The Ravens (10-6) need starting quarterback Lamar Jackson back from a knee injury, or some other remedy for an offense that finished with 240 yards Sunday and has scored no more than one touchdown in five straight games. They need a healthier defense, or at least improvements from a unit that faded down the stretch yet again.
The Ravens need the Buffalo Bills to beat the Bengals on Monday night, or else they’d enter their Week 18 game in Cincinnati without a shot at the division title. They need to beat the Bengals next Sunday to have a shot at either the AFC North crown (and its attendant No. 3 seed) or the No. 5 seed, which would get them a road matchup against the fourth-seeded AFC South champions.
A New Year’s Day defeat had left the Ravens with a very obvious resolution.
“I think everyone knows we need to play better right now,” guard Kevin Zeitler said. “We have another game next week against a very good opponent. It’s going to be a good ‘coming-to-Jesus’ this week. We’ve got to get this figured out, or else nothing good will happen.”
They’d like to forget how Sunday night ended. With a win, the Ravens would’ve forced a winner-take-all Week 18 matchup with the Bengals (11-4), eliminated the Steelers (8-8) from playoff contention and handed 16th-year coach Mike Tomlin his first losing season.
Instead, the Ravens left what might be their final game in Baltimore this year with their fourth last-minute defeat in 16 games. Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett’s 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Najee Harris, who’d slipped by inside linebacker Roquan Smith in coverage with 56 seconds remaining, was the difference.
The Ravens had their chances to put the game away Sunday, just as they had their chances in all five of their previous late-game losses this season. The offense just wouldn’t cooperate.
The Ravens’ fourth quarter had all the expected drama of a prime-time rivalry matchup but none of the required finishing touch. After two Steelers field goals trimmed the Ravens’ lead to 13-9 midway through the fourth quarter, running back Justice Hill returned a kickoff to Pittsburgh’s 40-yard line.
The Ravens needed only a little offense to set up kicker Justin Tucker for a field goal that would’ve restored their touchdown advantage. They instead went backward, losing three yards and sending on punter Jordan Stout.
Nothing could shake the Ravens from their offensive malaise. Taking over at their 36 on the subsequent possession, they went three-and-out again. Running back J.K. Dobbins was stuffed for no gain on third-and-2, and Stout came on for another punt with just over four minutes left.
The next time the Ravens had the ball, they were trailing for the first time since early in the second quarter. Pickett (15-for-27 for 168 yards) completed five of six passes for 64 yards and the late score on the Steelers’ go-ahead drive.
“They finished the game,” defensive lineman Brent Urban said afterward in a morose Ravens locker room. “It’s unacceptable as a defense. We need to finish those games out. I didn’t play well enough. The defense didn’t play well enough, and that’s just what it is.”
The Ravens’ recipe for a playoff berth, secured in Week 16, hadn’t been sexy: Run the ball and stop the run. On Sunday, both strengths faded at inopportune times. “They flipped the script,” coach John Harbaugh said.
In a narrow Week 14 win over the Steelers, Huntley’s first start since taking over for Jackson, the Ravens had run for 215 yards against a stout Pittsburgh front. Tomlin promised changes in the rematch. Relying heavily on six-man fronts and crashing edge defenders, the Steelers held the Ravens to 28 carries for 120 yards (4.3 per attempt). The Ravens went just 2-for-4 on their third-and-2 and third-and-1 opportunities, with just one converted on the ground.
“They were trying to stop the run,” said Dobbins, who finished with 17 carries for 93 yards. “They did a good job. They came with some adjustments. But we still did a good job in the run game. Don’t sit here and act like we got shut down in the run game. I don’t know the stats or anything, but we didn’t get shut down in the run game. Let’s not sit here and act like they shut us down. We’ll make an adjustment and we’ll fix it. We’re going to get better from it.”
Just as surprising was the Ravens’ struggling run defense. The group had stonewalled zone-rushing attacks like the Steelers’ all season, all but forcing Pittsburgh to abandon the run late in the teams’ first meeting (20 carries for 65 yards). But without defensive lineman Calais Campbell, sidelined for the second straight week by a knee injury, the Ravens struggled to clog gaps and shed blocks.
Harris had 22 carries for 111 yards three weeks after finishing with 33 yards. Fellow running back Jaylen Warren, limited to 11 yards in Pittsburgh, added 12 carries for 76 yards. The Steelers converted five of their six third-and-2 and third-and-1 opportunities, including a fourth-quarter red-zone sneak by Pickett on the game’s decisive drive.
“We got our [butt] whupped,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “We didn’t play good football. We didn’t communicate enough; we didn’t play physical enough. We got whupped.”
The Ravens probably won’t see a run defense as good as the Steelers’ in the playoffs. They probably won’t struggle with their own run defense as much as they did Sunday, either. But bigger problems loom for a team ill-equipped to win a shootout in the postseason, whether it’s at home in Baltimore or on the road against Buffalo or Cincinnati or Kansas City.
The Ravens haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game since Week 12, Jackson’s second-to-last start before he hurt his knee. Their only touchdown Sunday, a 7-yard pass from Huntley (14-for-21 for 130 yards) to rookie tight end Isaiah Likely, came only after an unnecessary-roughness penalty on Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward unexpectedly extended the Ravens’ last drive just before halftime.
Until Jackson returns — the timetable for which remains a mystery — little about their offense suggests a challenger lying in wait. Tight end Mark Andrews had nine catches on nine targets for 100 yards, but the Ravens’ next-leading receiver, Likely, had 12 yards. Their motley group of wide receivers combined for two catches on five targets for 18 yards.
“We didn’t do a great job of finding a way to make plays,” Harbaugh said. “We had a few here and there, but we were behind the chains too much. They were ahead of the chains pretty much the whole game. We have to do a way better job across the board in terms of attacking what they did. They did a nice job. It wasn’t anything we haven’t seen; it was exactly what we saw on tape from them the last three weeks. Just very disappointed. Not one of our better performances at all.”
Afterward, defensive lineman Broderick Washington stared at the floor in the locker room, looking up only after a group of reporters approached. Other players tended to minor injuries or packed their bags in silence. Little could offer the Ravens consolation, not much beyond the knowledge that their season would go on past Week 18.
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“We still have all our goals in front of us,” safety Chuck Clark said. “We’re still getting in the playoffs, and we have a chance to go get a [championship]. So we just have to take it one game at a time.”
Now more than ever, those days seem numbered.
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