Five thoughts on the Ravens' 31-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
One Of Ravens' Most Heartbreaking Losses
By definition, this can't rank with a playoff defeat for sheer disappointment, but as far as regular-season losses go, the Ravens haven't experienced many that are this tough to swallow. With their season on the line, they gave an inspired performance against their bitter rivals in a hostile environment. Several times, they were close to raising their arms in celebration of an epic win. Losing in the final seconds, by the narrowest of margins, is truly heartbreaking for the franchise and the fans. But the Ravens can't argue that the result is somehow unjust. This was their seventh loss of the season, which is a lot, too many, for a team with playoff aspirations. And despite playing one of their finest games of 2016, the Ravens showed in their seventh loss why they have that many. Their offense, which played heroically, failed to make the most of a handful of opportunities, leaving "5 or 10 points on the table," quarterback Joe Flacco said. And their high-ranked defense collapsed in the fourth quarter, letting Pittsburgh's excellent playmakers run wild on three long touchdown drives, culminating with the game-winner in the final minute. It was the Ravens' 2016 season in microcosm. Some very good stuff happened, but the pieces never quite fit into a playoff-caliber puzzle.
Saying Juszczyk Should've Waited To Score Is Silly
If the Ravens had kept the Steelers off the board in the final minute, fullback Kyle Juszczyk's late touchdown run would have become an instant classic, earning a high place in the Ravens' pantheon of memorable plays. Juszczyk took a handoff out of the shotgun formation for the first time all year and refused to be denied, bulling over defenders on a 10-yard touchdown run that put the Ravens ahead. But it came with 78 seconds left on the clock, giving the Steelers just enough time to drive to the winning score. I can already hear the narrative that's going to circulate, that he "scored too soon" and "should have waited" so the Steelers wouldn't have so much time. Well, that's just ridiculous. Did he, in fact, score too soon? Of course. Duh. But the notion that the Ravens could somehow decide when they want to score is preposterous. If you followed them this season, you know their offense has been settling for field goals all year, much to the team's detriment in some games. Reaching the end zone was hardly a certainty. Juszczyk was playing the only way he knows, all out. It's not his fault his great play left the game in the hands of a defense that didn't hold up.
Could've Been A 40-Point Day For Ravens Offense
This was almost … almost ... an offensive performance to frame. With more like it in 2016, the Ravens wouldn't be sitting out the playoffs. They ran the ball effectively and stuck with it, giving the offense a nifty run-pass balance. Rookie Kenneth Dixon produced some rugged runs. When the Steelers took away his deep passing game, Flacco hit open targets on short routes to move the chains. The Ravens converted more than half of their third downs into firsts (9 of 17) and completely dominated the clock, holding the ball for nine more minutes. But here's the deal: It easily could have been a 40-point day. Twice, the Ravens started drives at their 40 after a Pittsburgh kickoff went out of bounds, presenting a potentially big momentum swing. The Ravens did nothing with either break. Other missed chances included a touchdown pass that tight end Darren Waller should have reeled in; a promising third-quarter drive that ended with a field goal because of a holding penalty on Jeremy Zuttah; and settling for a field goal instead of a touchdown that could have given them a 14-point lead after C.J. Mosley's interception in the third quarter. Add all that to a rare mistake from the field-goal unit, a high snap from Morgan Cox that Sam Koch couldn't corral in time, and at the end of one of their best days, the members of the offense could only wonder, "What if…?"
Steelers Showcase (Again) That Ravens Need More Playmakers
I though Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh gave a spot-on assessment of his 2016 team when he said, "We're very close to being a very good football team. We can be a great team. But we're not there yet." No, they aren't. And after watching the Steelers roar back to beat them in the fourth quarter, it's pretty clear what the Ravens are missing – big-time playmakers. No, few teams, if any, can match Pittsburgh for sheer offensive firepower with Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, so the Ravens are hardly alone in feeling lesser by comparison. And the Ravens did control the game for long stretches with their offense, so they do have playmakers of their own. But they ground out long, slow drives, inch by inch, if you will, while the Steelers all but flew through the air when they got going. It's tough to win that way, and everyone was already aware that the Ravens need to develop some young playmakers, but the lesson was driven home in heartbreaking fashion Sunday.
Final Stretch Dulls Fine Season For Ravens Defense
The Ravens defense has accomplished some big things in 2016, but it is officially struggling down the stretch. It had a rough night in New England, barely held on against Philadelphia and simply couldn't stop the Steelers Sunday when the game was on the line. "I have all the confidence in the world in our defense and it just didn't happen," Flacco said. The defining characteristics of this disappointing performance included a tepid pass rush (no sacks), a rushing defense that was gashed for a second straight game, allowing 5.8 yards per carry on 22 rushes, and receivers getting open for big gains in the fourth quarter. Was injured cornerback Jimmy Smith missed? No doubt. But it's not an excuse. The Steelers played without several key targets. The defense actually played well for a long stretch after giving up an opening-drive touchdown. But once the Steelers got going, the Ravens defense didn't really come close to making a stop, dulling the luster on what had been a fine season.