The Ravens finally found a game they could not win close and ugly.
We have wondered for weeks how long the Ravens could keep winning in the face of unproductive first quarters, erratic offensive performances, negative turnover differentials and depth-sapping injuries.
Somehow, they went into Sunday as the AFC’s No. 1 seed. After the Cincinnati Bengals fell to the Los Angeles Chargers earlier in the afternoon, they had a chance to widen their lead in the AFC North to two games with five to play.
Yes, they were entering the devil’s den known as Heinz Field — Terrible Towels, cussing fans, “Renegade,” the whole bit. But these were not the scary Steelers of old. The leading storylines in Pittsburgh were the possible impending retirement of 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the sudden failure of a defense that had allowed 82 points over two consecutive defeats.
The Ravens were favored by four points, and they should have been.
Instead of an assertion of superiority, however, we witnessed a reminder of just how tenuously they have been living. Again, the Ravens failed to build a meaningful lead despite monopolizing the ball for most of the first half. Again, the turnover margin and the explosive plays went against them. Except this time, they neither held their fourth-quarter lead nor finished off their rally in the final minute.
We will remember John Harbaugh’s decision to go for two in the final seconds and Lamar Jackson’s pass that brushed off the fingers of tight end Mark Andrews. But in the big picture, our debate over one play is beside the point. The Ravens have not played like a team that deserved a No. 1 seed since their Week 6 demolition of the Chargers. With their injury toll worsening by the week and Jackson on a run of decidedly non-miraculous performances, we don’t know if we’ll see another performance like that this season. Any clear-eyed assessment of the data — point differential, Football Outsiders’ DVOA, etc. — told us they were operating on shaky ground.
This time, they could not wiggle free, even against a team as flawed as the 2021 Steelers.
John Harbaugh was right to stick with his nature in going for two.
Harbaugh was nearly out of able-bodied cornerbacks. He had watched the Steelers mount three straight scoring drives against his defense, which looked exhausted. With one play, he had a chance to steal another improbable victory in a season full of them.
If he had turned away from that moment and asked Justin Tucker to send the game to overtime, he would have turned away from his very nature as a coach.
Harbaugh does not shrink from making decisions. He projects confidence that his team will find a path to victory, jagged or otherwise. It’s hard to say exactly how much his outlook fuels the Ravens’ resourcefulness, but players respond to him season after season.
In this case, down 20-19, the Ravens called a play that worked in design. Jackson faked a handoff to Devonta Freeman and saw his most reliable receiver, Andrews, swing into open space in the flat near the goal line. T.J. Watt, one of the league’s great pass rushers, jumped in Jackson’s face quickly enough to disturb a throw that trickled off the tight end’s outstretched left hand.
“You saw the Al Pacino speech in ‘Any Given Sunday,’ right?” Harbaugh said. “It’s a game of inches.”
He did not win this time, but he did not lose the confidence of his players, who have always appreciated his faith in Jackson when the Ravens need a crucial few yards. They know the next time they are in a tight spot, he will not coach out of fear.
“I was cool with it,” Jackson said. “I want to win. I didn’t want to go to [overtime] anyways. He was open.”
The Ravens’ offense was defined by the flaws of its best player, Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens came out cooking, with offensive coordinator Greg Roman calling one of his best opening drives of the season. On one particularly nifty play, Jackson faked a jet-sweep handoff to Devin Duvernay, only for Freeman to scoot up the middle for 18 yards.
Jackson quickly undermined that and the rest of the good work they did on an 11-play drive by throwing an interception as he was backpedaling from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. He had Marquise Brown open underneath but forced a low-percentage throw to the end zone toward Andrews. It was as if a synapse in his brain misfired with no warning.
He said he had allowed his four-interception performance against the Cleveland Browns to fester, hoping the bad memories would jar him into a reset. Instead, he stepped right back into his personal nightmare.
This is a quarterback who threw six interceptions in 15 starts two years ago. He has thrown 10 in his last six starts, six in his last three.
On the Ravens’ next drive, Andrews, he of the jaw-dropping one-handed catches, mishandled a pass that could have helped Jackson get going. Again, the offense started its afternoon in quicksand; the Ravens haven’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter since Week 6.
Jackson took four sacks in the first half, and not because his offensive line did a uniformly poor job in pass protection. He held the ball too long, sometimes after missing quick reads with which he could have punished the Pittsburgh rush. Harbaugh said the coaching staff must work with Jackson to devise better, quicker answers to pressure, a problem the coach and quarterback have been asked about since the team’s Week 10 loss to the blitz-happy Miami Dolphins.
The Ravens went into the locker room with a 7-3 lead after controlling the ball for more than 23 of the game’s first 30 minutes. Maddening stuff.
This time, the missed opportunities came back to bite them as the Steelers surged in the fourth quarter (by then, the Baltimore offensive line, with Tyre Phillips in place of injured Patrick Mekari at right tackle, really was a problem). Jackson found his compass on the Ravens’ final drive and came within those aforementioned few inches of pulling another rabbit out of his helmet. But that last gasp obscured a harder truth: the Ravens’ franchise player has not performed well enough over the last month.
The Ravens aren’t forcing turnovers, and that means every game is a grind for their defense.
Several Ravens had shots to pull down a deflected Roethlisberger pass on Pittsburgh’s last drive of the first half, an interception that would have kept three points off the board.
On the first drive of the third quarter, safety Chuck Clark had both of his hands on a potential interception that would have set the Ravens up inside the Pittsburgh 30-yard line.
These missed opportunities continued a pattern we have seen all season. The Ravens entered the league tied for 28th in the league with just 10 forced turnovers. With Jackson throwing so many interceptions, they’re operating at a deficit almost every week.
They desperately miss cornerback Marcus Peters. He was unremarkable by his standards in 2020 but still picked off four passes and forced four fumbles in 14 starts. No matter how well Anthony Averett plays in coverage — and he was not at his best in Pittsburgh — he is not that kind of X-factor. At the other cornerback spot, Humphrey has intercepted one pass and forced one fumble this season; he intercepted a pass and forced eight fumbles last year. Clark, who has played almost every defensive snap this season, has not forced a single turnover.
If their defense had made even one transformational play, the Ravens might have escaped Pittsburgh with a victory, despite their foul-ups in other areas. Instead, they wore down in the fourth quarter. Harbaugh pointed to the explosive plays they allowed when they went to Cover-0 blitzes, but their run defense — the team’s most reliable strength in recent weeks — was also less stout on Pittsburgh’s final drive.
After another significant injury, it’s fair to ask if the Ravens are going to get a clean shot at this season.
This time, Humphrey was the subject of dismaying postgame news as Harbaugh said his Pro Bowl cornerback might be out “a while” with an unspecified injury. A postgame report from NFL Network said Humphrey would miss the rest of the season with a pectoral injury.
If that is the case, the Ravens will play the rest of the way without their two best cornerbacks (Peters and Humphrey), a starting safety (DeShon Elliott), their two best running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) and their left tackle (Ronnie Stanley). Those are just the headliners; shorter-term injuries have robbed them of depth week after week.
Humphrey was not great every week of this season, but it’s difficult to picture the Ravens’ defense without his rambunctious confidence at the center of the operation. The front office staked almost $200 million on long-term deals for him and his podcast partner, Stanley, and it seems we won’t see either of them again until next August.
The Ravens fell inches short of building a two-game lead in the AFC North and sustaining their claim on the AFC’s No. 1 seed, a marvelous achievement given the list of fallen stars on their roster. We know they will soldier on from here, believing that with Jackson at quarterback, anything is possible.
But even the most resilient team can take one too many punches in a given season. “Next man up” is a necessary mantra in this brutal sport. Eventually, you run out of men. We are not going to see the Ravens as they were supposed to be in 2021. That ship has left the harbor and crossed the ocean.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Browns by 2 ½