Five thoughts on the Ravens' 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
In and of itself, a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers shouldn't be that disturbing for the Ravens. They won the first game between the teams earlier this season. A split is a common occurrence in their heated rivalry, close to standard operating procedure. But only in that general sense was this not a disturbing and costly defeat. After two straight losses, the Ravens needed a win to maintain realistic hopes of winning the AFC North. Now they're three games behind the Steelers in the loss column with seven to play, pretty much reduced to playing for a wild-card ticket to the playoffs. But no one is going to confuse the Ravens with genuine contenders right now. They've lost four of their past five games due to a familiar set of issues that cropped up again Sunday. The defense couldn't stop the run sufficiently, couldn't pressure the quarterback enough and couldn't force turnovers. The offense couldn't make enough big things happen when the Pittsburgh defense took away receiver John Brown. The Steelers simply were better, honestly by quite a margin, and that's especially discouraging because the Ravens dominated them so thoroughly just five weeks ago. Seems like ages ago, doesn't it?
The Steelers have a flashy offense featuring some of the NFL's top playmakers, but there was nothing flashy about what they did to the Ravens' defense. Instead of taking shots at big plays, the Steelers just methodically and relentlessly sustained drives with a dink-and-dunk playbook. It worked primarily because their offensive line won the battle against Baltimore's defensive interior. After running for 19 yards in Week 4, Pittsburgh's James Conner rushed for 107 yards on 25 carries and was especially effective on first down, leading to short-yardage situations for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on second and third downs. It wasn't a coincidence that the Steelers converted 10 of 16 third downs into firsts, enabling them to control the ball for more than 36 minutes. Other key problems for the Baltimore defense included a lack of sacks (one), a lack of turnovers (zero) and the ability of Roethlisberger's targets to get open in the middle of the field – all familiar issues at this point. Bottom line: another week, another defensive performance prompting more questions than answers.
The Ravens' offensive game plan was based around the fact that they had to play without their starting tackles, Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst, who were replaced by a rookie (Orlando Brown Jr.) and a second-year player recently promoted from the practice squad (Jermaine Eluemunor). The result was more of the Lamar Jackson package, especially early, and fewer deep dropbacks for Joe Flacco; anything to keep the Steelers' pass rush from teeing off. It looked awkward at times, but the results actually weren't that disastrous, as Baltimore moved the ball enough to generate as many trips to the red zone as Pittsburgh. Yup, each team reached the red zone four times. But that's where the game was decided, as the Steelers found the end zone on three of their four trips, while the Ravens scored just one touchdown and otherwise settled for field goals. What happened? On one play, Flacco simply didn't see Jackson wide-open in the flat. Otherwise, the Ravens couldn't run the ball effectively when they most needed it, down near the goal-line. The absence of the starting tackles didn't help, but for whatever reason, the Ravens didn't run much, period, just 16 times on 56 snaps.
The Ravens had several chances to make the game much closer. After their offense scored a touchdown to cut Pittsburgh's 14-point lead to seven late in the third quarter, their defense forced a punt and their offense took over. A 16-yard pass from Flacco to Alex Collins put the ball near midfield. Suddenly, the Ravens had momentum and M&T Bank Stadium was rocking with fans envisioning a rally. But offensive line issues ruined the possession. The pass to Collins was wiped out by a holding penalty, and Flacco was sacked. The Ravens punted. But it wasn't just the O-line that faltered. On the ensuing possession, the Steelers faced a second-and-20 at their 5-yard line. When Roethlisberger went to the sideline with an injury, it seemed certain the Ravens would get the ball back with great field position. But Roethlisberger's little-known backup, Joshua Dobbs, came onto the field for just one play, and incredibly, tossed a 27-yard completion to pick up a first down. The Steelers went on to control the ball for more than six minutes and kick a field goal, squelching Baltimore's rally. Dobbs' play was enormous. You can't help but wonder how the defense let that happen.
Short takes: Veteran wide receivers Willie Snead IV, Michael Crabtree and John Brown combined for 13 receptions, but Chris Moore's lone catch was the true eye-popper. He made a leaping downfield grab, while covered, good for 30 yards … Fans anxious to see what Ty Montgomery can bring to the offense will have to wait another two weeks. The new acquisition was a healthy scratch. He'll surely be active when the Ravens resume their season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 18 … After torching the Steelers in the first game between the teams, John Brown totaled just 17 receiving yards on six targets. He has been held under 30 receiving yards in three of the past four games.
Check out the best shots from Sunday's Week 9 game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.