Five thoughts on the Ravens' 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
State Of Emergency
In a quiet locker room, linebacker Terrell Suggs was asked if he is concerned that the Ravens are 3-4 and two games behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North heading into their bye week. "I am very concerned. We're in a state of emergency," Suggs said. I could not agree more. The Ravens have their share of issues, but their biggest issue is they're not finding a way to win close games. Since their opening-night blowout in Denver, they've lost games by three, two and now three points again. On both sides of the ball, they aren't making enough of the kinds of timely plays it takes to prevail in such games. Meanwhile, the Bengals have won two straight on late field goals. With that in mind, and with the Ravens repeatedly on the wrong side of the NFL's thin margin between victory and defeat, it's hard not to come away with the impression that this simply isn't their year.
Run Defense Not Good Enough
The Ravens entered the game ranked seventh in the league in defending the run, an impressive stat that suggests you shouldn't expect to accomplish too much against them on the ground. But several opponents have enjoyed success on the ground against the Ravens. Buffalo gashed them for more than 200 yards. Green Bay picked up 130. Pittsburgh became the latest to fare well, as rookie Le'Veon Bell rushed for 93 yards and the team totaled 141. The Steelers entered Sunday's game with one of the league's lowest-ranked rushing games, but that was largely the result of Bell missing several games with an injury. He is a quick, strong back who gave the Ravens problems, averaging over five yards per carry. It was his success that enabled the Steelers to control the scoreboard and the clock for most of the game, forcing the Ravens to play from behind. "We weren't good enough. We have to do better," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said of the run defense.
Offensive Game Plan Worked, But …
The Ravens' offensive game plan was clear. They tried to open things up by using three-wide-receiver sets, and use the pass to set up the run. The plan worked pretty well. In a tight, tough game, the Ravens only had seven possessions and generated points on four. They converted half of their third downs, didn't commit a turnover and fared a bit better on the ground with 82 yards rushing and an average of 3.2 yards per carry, the latter still not good enough, but better. But their problem was a lack of playmaking when it mattered most. They settled for three field goals and didn't put the ball in the end zone until the fourth quarter. The Ravens haven't scored an offensive touchdown in the first quarter since the Denver gamer. So for all they did right, the focus ended up on the same, old problems – a slow start, not enough push in the running game, etc., etc.
What I Hope To See After Bye
As always, the Ravens are going to use their bye week to "self scout," go over everything they're doing and see what can be improved. Here's something I'm hoping to see more of after the bye – a deep passing game. It was one of the best things the Ravens had going for them in 2012. Flacco throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. Yet the Ravens haven't connected on many this season, or even attempted many. When they tried Sunday, Jacoby Jones was open on a deep crossing route. Flacco underthrew the pass. Then Flacco tried another down the left sideline in the second half, and Torrey Smith grabbed it. Given the frequency with which officials call pass interference, a couple of good things can happen every time you heave it up – you can complete the pass or draw a flag. There's a relatively high risk-reward ratio when you have fast receivers and a big-armed quarterback. I say go for it.
Didn't Love Onside Kick
Questioned about his aggressive philosophy after the Green Bay loss, Harbaugh said he would continue to play that way. He wasn't kidding. Within a few minutes in the second half Sunday, he took a couple of chances. He went for a fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 19 rather than settle for a field goal, and unlike a week earlier on the goal line against Green Bay, the Ravens converted. But after they wound up settling for a field goal, anyway, Harbaugh called for an onside kick with the Ravens down by four points. They didn't recover and committed a penalty on the play, so it wouldn't have mattered if they did recover. The Steelers took the ball and drove to a field goal. Harbaugh said after the game that he tried the trick play because he thought he could steal a possession in a game with so few. I didn't love the call. In a close game, I would rather force the Steelers to make their own good field position than hand it to them. But either way, one thing is certain: Harbaugh is going to continue to play things aggressively after the bye.