Ravens Five Things

Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ 26-23 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers

From the Ravens’ satisfaction at winning ugly to the emotional impact of losing Tony Jefferson, here are five things we learned from Sunday’s 26-23 overtime win over the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sometimes, the win is the thing.


The Ravens did not play beautiful football to escape Pittsburgh with their first AFC North victory of the season.

They were called for 11 penalties in a game nearly choked by overzealous officiating. They watched in horror as Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph lay motionless after a ferocious (but not dirty) hit from safety Earl Thomas III. They knelt in prayer again as their teammate, Tony Jefferson, writhed on the field with a season-ending knee injury.


They squandered a potentially commanding early advantage with missed tackles and imprecise offense.

Their young leader, Lamar Jackson, played his worst game of the season.

He made a horrid decision by throwing an outside pass deep in his own territory in the waning seconds of the first half. The resulting interception — his first of three on the afternoon — cost the Ravens three precious points. Later, Jackson had Seth Roberts open in the end zone for a potential game-winning touchdown but threw the ball out of bounds.

With their offense unable to sustain drives, the Ravens needed a desperate strip in overtime just to overcome a second-string quarterback who was playing at Samford this time last year.

No, this was not the portrait of a potential champion hitting its stride.

Yet for all the ugly twists and panicked turns, the Ravens beat their archrival on the road and held their position at or near the front of the AFC North.

“We’re young but we’re figuring it out,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after addressing a jubilant postgame locker room.

In that moment, it did not matter that the Ravens might have lost if a stripped football bounced 1 more yard or a game-winning field goal stayed 3 yards to the left. It did not matter that they were about to spend another week digging into their flaws.


They got out of a wild, unsightly, emotionally ambivalent afternoon with their third win. And that was enough.

Marlon Humphrey’s performance was a microcosm of the defense’s uneven afternoon.

Humphrey stood at the podium with his first career game ball, a prize well-earned for his daring strip of JuJu Smith-Schuster to set up the Ravens’ game-winning field goal.

Yet he could not give himself an A grade overall.

“I can’t really walk away saying I played great,” Humphrey said.

He could have said the same about the entire Ravens defense, which mounted a few important stands and did a better job preventing catastrophic plays but again struggled to rush the passer or smother second-half drives (even with Steelers backup Devlin Hodges running the show).


“We still allowed some chunk plays out there that we still need to keep working on,” Harbaugh said. “But we didn’t have it thrown over our heads, and we didn’t have any real big runs. So that’s a step in the right direction.”

Humphrey’s game-saving strip on Smith-Schuster testified to both his athletic instinct and his short memory. He had taken a similar risk early in the game, only to let Smith-Schuster ramble past him for a 35-yard touchdown. On the sideline, safety DeShon Elliott told him he should have gone for a textbook wrap-up instead. But Humphrey thought to himself that he’d do the same thing again.

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big games,” Harbaugh said in explaining why he was so proud of Humphrey.

The third-year cornerback has been the most spectacular performer on the Ravens defense (see his one-on-one coverage against Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 4) and also, by his own admission, one of the most mistake-prone.

He dinged himself for missing a few tackles against the Steelers, including his whiff on that early touchdown. But this time around, an inspired play at the right moment redeemed his slip-ups.

The Ravens almost lost the game because they could not block the Steelers at the line of scrimmage.


Harbaugh talked last week about how the Ravens would have to sustain drives to beat defenses designed to counteract their big-play potential. That was certainly the case Sunday, when they did not cover more than 24 yards on any single play.

But the Ravens could not deliver the consistent drives their coach demanded in large part because their offensive line was decisively outplayed for the first time this season.

We knew the Steelers presented a daunting challenge with interior playmakers Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and elite edge rusher T.J. Watt. But the offensive line had risen to meet a similar test the previous week against the Cleveland Browns. After four weeks, the unit — maligned for its lack of depth in the preseason — ranked as the most pleasant surprise on the team.

That story changed in Pittsburgh. Tuitt and Heyward combined for 13 tackles, two for loss, and two quarterback hits — remarkable production for a pair of 300-pound defensive tackles. Watt created more havoc still with three tackles for loss and a quarterback hit as he proved too explosive for Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.

The dominance of Pittsburgh’s big three helped explain why Mark Ingram II averaged 2.3 yards on 19 carries, less than half his season average. It helped explain why Jackson averaged just 5.8 yards on 28 attempts, down from 8.3 coming in.

The Ravens won’t face many defensive fronts this talented, so there’s no reason to expect their offensive line to destabilize all of a sudden. But this performance was a setback.


Justin Tucker gave us a vivid display of his all-around craftsmanship.

It’s natural to focus on the 48- and 46-yard field goals Tucker made to tie and win the game, further testaments to his status as the best in the world at his chosen profession.

But look past those grand moments to the unheralded plays Tucker made earlier in the game to give the Ravens meaningful advantages.

The Steelers began their first two drives at their 11- and 12-yard-line, respectively, because Tucker placed his kickoffs perfectly — short enough to invite returns but deep and high enough to give his teammates ample time to converge on the ball. Those kicks helped the Ravens win the early field-position battle as they built a 10-0 lead.

Tucker did it again in the fourth quarter, duping Ryan Switzer into returning a short kickoff to the 15-yard line. That Steelers drive, which could have tilted the game, petered out at midfield.

“Did you see their kickoff team?” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin asked in admiration.


The Ravens came into the game ranked second in the NFL in special teams DVOA, the analytic Football Outsiders uses to measure overall efficiency. Their elite standing, which they’ve maintained for many years, resulted as much from excellence on kickoff and punt coverage as from Tucker’s brilliant field-goal efficiency.

“We’re not just trying to get through the game on special teams,” Tucker said. “We’re trying to make the play that will have an impact on winning the game.”

Of course, those clutch field goals, blasted into the treacherous open end of Heinz Field, were pretty nice too.

Tucker is enough of a perfectionist that he wasn’t thrilled with his 4-for-4 performance on field goals. His plant foot came out from under him several times. His father sent him a postgame text, joking that an archangel must have steered his game-winner inside the left upright.

Tucker admitted to feeling “terror” as he watched his kick head straight for the goal post before veering just enough to the right.

All of this helps explain why he might become the rare kicker to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. Great is not good enough for him.

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Tony Jefferson might be missed more off the field than on it.

Jefferson had not played up to his standards through the first four games of the season. He was the first to say so. After the team’s 40-25 loss to the Browns, the veteran safety spoke in muted tones about his disappointment at making the same mistakes week after week. But he also stated his absolute faith that the Ravens would figure things out.

Jefferson’s struggles mattered not at all as his teammates watched him curl into an agonized ball on the field in Pittsburgh. They thought not of the player but of their friend, who loves football as much as anyone in the organization and who offered a steady presence in their lowest moments. It was no accident that after the Browns game, players huddled around Jefferson’s locker as they processed their disappointment.

Harbaugh informed reporters that Jefferson had suffered a knee injury — “an ACL [tear] and probably more” — that would cost him the rest of the 2019 season, at least. His teammates wore the pain from that news on their faces.

“I love that guy and he loves football,” Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon said. “It just really sucks. It really does.”

Thomas hopes Jefferson will remain around the team as he begins his rehabilitation. “As much work as this guy put in — he’s been such a great leader — he practices when he’s hurt,” he said. “To see him go down like that, it’s definitely a blow to the team.”


Chuck Clark (whom Thomas called the smartest player in the secondary) and DeShon Elliott (whom Thomas termed the most athletic) might do a fine job replacing Jefferson in the Ravens’ defensive schemes. But the team lost a central character in their social order.