Five thoughts on the Ravens' 39-38 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
Game Morphed From Unpredictable Start to Familiar Finish
It was, for the longest time, a game no one saw coming. The Ravens absorbed a brutal early shot, falling behind by two touchdowns, then came roaring back to take the lead with an overwhelming offensive flurry. Beforehand, did anyone envision these Ravens winning a wild shootout over the Steelers and their band of playmakers? Didn't think so. But then, in the end, the game no one saw coming morphed into a game that was all too familiar. Just like a year ago at Heinz Field, the Ravens needed to make a stop, one stop, to secure the upset win, but their defense couldn't manage it. The Steelers drove to the game's final two scores, a touchdown and a field goal, to leave the Ravens devastated. It's doubly frustrating because the Ravens bulked up their defense during the offseason to prevent this exact scenario from unfolding, and it still did; and also, the Ravens have talked all year about making "finishing" a priority, but the Steelers still found a way to be the ones who finished.
Some Will Question the Final Offensive Play-Calling, But It's Hard to Complain After a Brilliant Performance
I'm sure there'll be second-guessing of the Ravens' play-calling on their three-and-out with three and a half minutes to play. They could have locked up the win with a first down or two, but a first-down pass fell incomplete, and after Alex Collins rushed for 6 yards on second down, quarterback Joe Flacco threw for the sticks instead of handing off to Collins. The pass fell incomplete. When the Steelers got the ball back, they drove to the winning score.* *The problem was Collins was the Ravens' best weapon by far in this game, totaling 166 yards on 20 touches, and he only touched it once with the game on the line. But honestly, I'm not going to quibble too much with anything the Ravens offense did in this game. It was brilliant, nothing short of that. Collins performed like an All-Pro, shedding tacklers and finding daylight as he showed a national TV audience what a find he's been. The line dominated for a second straight week, opening holes and giving Flacco time to throw. An unusual array of guys made plays, including Chris Moore, Javorius Allen, Mike Wallace and Patrick Ricard. It's been a tough slog for the offense this season, but the unit has finally come together, it seems, with impressive results.
The Secondary and Pass Rush Need Fixing
When the Steelers won in Baltimore in early October, they basically just handed the ball to Le'Veon Bell and let him carry them. It was widely believed that Bell, the NFL's top rusher, would again be the focal point in this game. Instead, the Steelers abandoned the run almost from the outset. They ran 85 plays, and Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on 69 of them. Their strategy, quite clearly, was to keep passing on the Ravens until that didn't work. But it never really stopped working. Oh, it did for a couple of series in the third quarter when Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees began dialing up pressures and blitzes in an effort to slow the Steelers down after they'd scored on every possession in the first half. Pees, understandably, continued to bring pressure the rest of the game, but Roethlisberger began finding open receivers again, either in the middle of the field or deep down the sideline. Marlon Humphrey more than held his own replacing Jimmy Smith, but Brandon Carr had a tougher time. The defense has now given up 69 points in the last six quarters, with the secondary and pass rush particular points of concern. Those areas need to get fixed in a hurry.
Alex Collins and the Ravens Offense Took Advantage of Ryan Shazier's Absence
It was assumed to be an advantage for the Ravens that the Steelers were without linebacker Ryan Shazier, their top tackler, who is out indefinitely with a serious back injury. But at the outset of the game, it seemed the Steelers were palpably motivated by their desire to win for Shazier, who was injured in their last game. They were more physical than the Ravens and took a 14-0 lead. If the Ravens were surprised by the Steelers' intensity, though, they soon adjusted. Their line began opening holes for Collins, and he broke so many tackles that Mike Tomlin, the Steelers head coach, yelled at his defense to start tackling better. In the end, it was, in fact, quite an advantage for the Ravens that Shazier was out, as they rushed for 152 yards on 26 attempts, finding openings in lanes that Shazier normally fills. For the longest time, the Ravens were dominant inside. But again, they couldn't finish.
One of the best things the Ravens had going for them was Martavis Bryant running back kickoffs for the Steelers. He had a disastrous night of decision-making, often leaving his offense in a hole … You could make a case for the deciding element in this game being that the Ravens, who lead the NFL in forcing turnovers, didn't generate one takeaway … Continuing his ascent, Chris Moore caught a 30-yard touchdown pass and made two other receptions before leaving with an injury … The Ravens clearly wanted to get Jeremy Maclin involved, as he was targeted a team-high 11 times, but he only had three catches … After a run of success against the Steelers over several years, the Ravens have now lost three in a row in the rivalry.
Check out all the best photos from Heinz Field as the Ravens battle the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.