Five thoughts on the Ravens' 28-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
The game started with a stunning setback, Lamar Jackson tossing a pick-six. The Ravens overcame it and led by 10 points at halftime. But the setbacks kept coming. Before halftime, Jackson lost a fumble in the red zone and threw an interception that was overturned on replay. Then he tossed another interception early in the third quarter, and that one was a crusher. The Steelers woke up, came back and won. I think the Ravens might well have prevailed if not for Jackson's struggles, which included a 13-for-28 passing day. They controlled the clock and gained more than twice as many yards as their running game blew away the Steelers' top-rated defense. But the Steelers were opportunistic and that mattered most. The loss was just the second of the year for the Ravens against five wins, but they now trail the Steelers by two games in the AFC North, which means they'll have to rally to win a third straight division title. They have time, but no doubt, this result clearly establishes the Steelers as the team to beat in the division – certainly not where the Ravens expected to find themselves in early November.
To be clear, more than just Jackson's turnovers brought the Ravens down. After shutting down (and shutting out) Pittsburgh's offense in the first half, the Baltimore defense had a much harder time in the second half. Maybe that's no surprise; the Ravens know better than anyone how difficult it is to finish off Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been tossing daggers in this rivalry forever. Big Ben was extremely effective in the second half, completing 17 of 22 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. He's running a short-route passing game at age 38 and it worked in that the Ravens' main pass rushers actually did a good job of beating their blockers and zeroing in on the quarterback, but the ball was gone by the time they arrived. It's hard to get too upset with a defense that allowed just 221 total yards and limited the Steelers to 3-for-9 on third downs, well below their average. But the defense couldn't keep Roethlisberger from making the plays to win the game.
As tough as the defeat was, it wasn't even the worst thing to happen to the Ravens Sunday. They thought they'd secured the anchor of their offensive line for years to come when they signed All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a massive contract extension late last week. But just two days later, Stanley was carted off the field with a major ankle injury that'll sideline him for the rest of the 2020 season. Talk about a cruel fate. It's a sequence of events that could easily depress a sideline and cause a game to get away, but the Ravens rose above it; they lost for other reasons. They had a solid Plan B ready to go, one they'd already executed earlier this season when Stanley missed a game with another injury. D.J. Fluker came off the bench to play right tackle. Orlando Brown Jr. switched to left tackle. It didn't seem there was much, if any, drop off Sunday. In fact, the Stanley-less O-line was dominant, and that was with another starter, guard Tyre Phillips, also missing most of the game with an ankle injury. But let's not kid ourselves. Stanley's subtraction means the Ravens have to go forward in 2020 without one of the NFL's most valuable commodities, an elite blind-side tackle. They paid him for a reason, and they'll miss him.
I understand why Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon was ejected from the game for striking an official on the arm during a fight near the Baltimore bench in the second quarter. He definitely made contact, and while films clearly show (in my opinion) that he didn't mean to do it – he was being restrained and inadvertently hit the official when his arm broke free – the NFL needs to maintain a zero tolerance policy on players, coaches or anyone hitting officials. It can't happen, period. And no doubt, as Judon said in a statement released after the game, he needs to do a better job of controlling his emotions and not getting into such situations in the first place. He's the team's highest-paid player, a locker room leader. But having said all that, here's hoping the league office takes the nuanced view when it reviews the film and recognizes that the blow wasn't intentional.
Short takes: If you had told me before kickoff that the Ravens would rush for 265 yards, I'd have predicted a double-digit win. That's more than quadruple what the Steelers were giving up on the ground per game … Jackson did a great job of getting the offense into position to take an end-zone shot on the game's final play, and yes, that was very close to defensive pass interference (or an illegal hit) as Willie Snead IV went up for a catch. But you know my take on this stuff: officials giveth and taketh and giveth and taketh through the course of every game. You just have to hope for the right kind of luck/break when you really need it, and this time, the Ravens didn't get it … The Steelers won despite totaling just 48 yards rushing and 5.1 yards per pass attempt, paltry figures … A stat line that explains a defeat: the Ravens had four fumbles (two lost), two interceptions, four sacks allowed and nine penalties for 110 yards. A lot to overcome.