The Ravens' playoff hopes evaporated in a hail of fourth-quarter passes by clutch quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but there will be some soul-searching about the late-season struggles of their once-stout run defense.
The Pittsburgh Steelers became the third team in a row to run up big yardage on the ground against a Ravens unit that was ranked second in the NFL in rushing defense (73.8 yards allowed per game) through the first 12 games of the season.
LeGarrette Blount didn't run wild in the Week 14 loss to the Patriots, but he averaged four yards per carry when Tom Brady wasn't rolling up more than 400 yards through the air. Concerns intensified last weekend when the Philadelphia Eagles' Ryan Matthews became only the third running back to run for 100 yards or more at M&T Bank Stadium since 2013.
Obviously, the Eagles figured something out, because Matthews rushed for 128 yards on 20 carries, and the team totaled 167 — more than twice what the Ravens had given up on average. Enter Steelers star Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 122 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's season-shattering 31-27 loss at Heinz Field.
"They schemed up some things from what the last two teams we played did [against] us," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. Steelers offensive coordinator "Todd Haley, that's kind of been his reputation of what teams previously have done. They played a really good game — a combination of what New England did to us and what Philadelphia did to us. We got a little bit of that and their back is a little bit better than those other two teams' backs. That definitely worked in their favor."
It was most obvious right at the outset. Bell took the ball on the first play of the Steelers' first offensive possession and ran off right tackle for 10 yards. He also broke off runs of 7 yards and 10 yards before Roethlisberger completed the nine-play, 87-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Grimble.
"He made his plays,'' said cornerback Shareece Wright. "He got out on the perimeter, and he was gashing us. We've got to do a better job than that."
Bell had 67 yards on 13 carries in the first half and scored two of the Steelers' three fourth-quarter touchdowns — one on a 7-yard run and the other on a 7-yard reception. He also set up his second touchdown with runs of 23 and 13 yards.
"I'll look at that," coach John Harbaugh said. "The ball bounced a couple of times on us on the edge. The first drive was the worst drive. After that, I think we got it under control pretty well. We lost the edge once or twice and they made a couple draws on us in the fourth quarter. You'd like to get off blocks there and make those tackles."
The ease with which the opposition has run the ball recently is a surprise and a mystery to the players who seemed to have such a great handle on the running game just a few weeks ago.
"I really don't have an answer for that," inside linebacker Zachary Orr said. "That's something that obviously we have to figure out and it's something we've been trying to figure out the last couple of weeks, because teams have been running the ball on us and we're not accustomed to that. Going into every game, that's the No. 1 thing we want to stop. I can't finger-point what it is, but we've got to figure it out."
The Ravens have one more game to work on that before they head into the offseason. They had hoped to be playing for the division title next week in Cincinnati, but now they need to take care of business to finish the regular season with a winning record.
"We pretty much have to go back to the film and see the reason why," outside linebacker Albert McClellan said. "We knew Le'Veon Bell was a counter runner. He sits there and waits. He's very patient to pick and choose his holes, and he's an explosive back. Once he chose his holes, he pretty much hit it hard and ran through it."