Five thoughts on the Ravens' 20-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
In the end, it all hinged on one decision. After the Ravens scored a touchdown to pull within one point with 12 seconds remaining, Head Coach John Harbaugh elected to go for two and try to win the game instead of kicking the extra point and going into overtime. I admit, I screamed. What a gutsy decision. It didn't work out when Lamar Jackson, under pressure, skipped a pass just off Mark Andrews' fingertips, but I get Harbaugh's rationale for going for it. I totally get it. The Ravens' defense was fading fast, having allowed 17 points on three Pittsburgh possessions in the fourth quarter. The Ravens' offense had struggled all day to score points, even while building a huge edge in time of possession. With all that in mind and the Ravens' top pass defender, Marlon Humphrey, gone from the game with an injury, asking Jackson to try to gain two yards to win is a dice-roll I'm willing to take. Sure, anything could have happened in overtime, and believe me, the old-school part of me wanted to kick the extra point. But the Ravens were never going to be closer to winning than they were when they lined up to go for two. Two yards, they needed, to win and drive a stake into the heart of the Steelers' hopes of winning the AFC North. Two yards. And Andrews was open. Tough. On to the next.
The Ravens didn't disclose the nature and extent of Humphrey's injury after the game other than Harbaugh saying the cornerback could be out "a while." According to the NFL Network, it's a shoulder injury and he might be out for the season. It happened as the Steelers scored their final touchdown to take the lead with less than two minutes to play, and in a way, it was a fitting conclusion to a week in which the Ravens' entire crew of cornerbacks battled injuries and illnesses. Every cornerback who had taken a snap for the team this season was questionable for the game. In the end, only Chris Westry was inactive and the others gutted it out, but the defense paid a price as the Steelers' passing game dominated late. Now Humphrey might be out, potentially a massive blow. His absence was the first factor Harbaugh mentioned in explaining why he went for two. "We were pretty much out of corners at that point," Harbaugh said. Injuries have nearly brought the Ravens to their knees on multiple occasions in 2021, and it just keeps happening.
Not surprisingly, the Steelers blitzed a lot more than usual, employing the same strategy other teams have used to slow Jackson and the Ravens' offense over the past month. They'll get kudos because they won while sacking Jackson seven times, but actually, the strategy didn't work so well at first. The Ravens drove 75 yards on the game's first possession, looking crisp and in charge, but they came away with zero points when Jackson didn't see Marquise Brown open on an underneath route and tossed an interception in the end zone. Later in the first half, Baltimore drove 99 yards to score a touchdown, taking up more than 10 minutes. With two minutes to go in the first half, the Ravens had run 36 plays to Pittsburgh's 10, but all they had to show for it was a 7-0 lead – not enough on the road against a desperate opponent. The Steelers' aggressive defensive approach began to work better after that, partly due to Jackson's habit of holding onto the ball too long on dropbacks, which produced multiple sacks; and also partly due to the Ravens repeatedly setting themselves back with penalties. When Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense flipped the script and began dominating the clock late, they did a better job of turning that advantage into points, i.e., finishing drives. The Ravens' inability to do that has become a recurring problem.
It was impressive to see one Baltimore player after another step up after the game and totally support Harbaugh's decision to go for two. It's bound to create controversy, but there won't be any in the locker room. As disappointing as it was, the moment provided a glimpse into what makes the Ravens so tough and competitive nearly every week. They're on the same page. They aren't into pointing fingers. They don't lateral blame. "I love Harbaugh and every decision he makes," inside linebacker Josh Bynes said. Andrews, who was open on the play, said going for two was "what we should do. We're in a hostile environment." Jackson agreed, saying he was "cool with" Harbaugh's decision, the play-call, everything about the play except the outcome. "I didn't want to go into overtime," Jackson said. It was such a dramatic moment and such a frustrating ending that it's fair to wonder whether negative feelings might arise and linger. But I'd be surprised. The players didn't blink. They were all in.
Short takes: In a tough setting, veteran running back Devonta Freeman had one of his most impactful performances, rushing for 52 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and catching five passes for 45 yards. Freeman has clearly emerged as the Ravens' No. 1 back and is only getting better … After right tackle Patrick Mekari left the game and didn't return due to a hand injury, his replacement, Tyre Phillips, had his hands full with the Steelers' T.J. Watt … Very quietly, nose tackle Brandon Williams had his best game of 2021 with 11 combined tackles, six of which were solo tackles … Despite losing, the Ravens maintained a one-game lead in the AFC North race because the Bengals lost to the Chargers … The Ravens caught a major break when Pittsburgh receiver Diontae Johnson dropped what would have been a perfectly thrown touchdown pass from Roethlisberger in the final minute of the first half ... I had no quibble with Patrick Queen's late interception, a potential game-winner, being overturned due to a pass interference call on Anthony Averett. It was a fair call.