Primetime in Pittsburgh, a not at all uncommon spot for the Ravens. Riding the high of a three game winning streak, the Ravens walked into Heinz field with as much momentum as the team has had all season.
It was an important game for both teams, as the Steelers could clinch the AFC North, while the Ravens could give themselves more stable footing in the wild card race.
This Steelers team is the best group the Ravens have faced all season. It would take a great performance by the Ravens in order to win.
The game that Baltimore proceeded to play can only be described one way however: mind-boggling.
The ending was both stunning and heartbreaking. It was a story that has been told before. Ravens fall behind early, come back and take a lead, and then blow it.
It wasn’t just the end result leaving me stunned. Whether it was the roller coaster ride that the team took on both sides of the ball, or the inexplicable play calling, the Ravens were unable to play a complete game.
The Ravens found some offensive momentum on the opening drive. Upon Joe Flacco’s interception, it all died away. Pittsburgh capitalized to take a quick 14-0 lead, and it looked that we were in for a blowout.
The Steelers exposed the weaknesses of the Ravens defense in the early stages of the game: inability to cover tight ends, and leaving Brandon Carr alone on Antonio Brown.
Pittsburgh opened the game with points on their first four possessions, and the defense, the unit that has been the key to any success the Ravens have had this season, suddenly became the weak link.
With the way the Ravens offense has played all season, and the way the defense looked in the first half, it seemed far fetched to think that the Ravens would be able to turn the game around. All of the sudden, Alex Collins flipped the momentum for the Ravens. Against a Steelers defense lacked Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the Ravens decided to throw towards the sidelines, instead of run the ball. These throws to the sides were brutal, especially to Jeremy Maclin, who could not get on the same page as Flacco. Maclin had 11 targets, but only three catches for 27 yards.
The decision to let Alex Collins run paid huge dividends. Pittsburgh was completely unable to bring the Ravens running back down. Collins gave the Ravens offense the spark it needed. The Ravens stormed back, and it wasn’t far into the second half until the Ravens took a 24-20 lead, before extending it to 31-20.
In the second half, the defense finally found success. The Steelers passes to tight ends of the middle were shut down, and Le’Veon Bell was bottled up. The missed tackled that had been brutal in the first half declined. One notable exception being Eric Weddle’s failure to bring down Martavis Bryant for a safety in the third quarter, a play that, in a one a point, was huge. The Steelers started the second half with three straight punts, while the Ravens were rolling on offense.
Here comes the crazy part, but simultaneously the awfully predictable part. The Ravens had found success on both sides of the ball, and once a lead had been built, abandoned what worked entirely.
The defense returned to the form from early in the game which allowed the Steelers to jump out in front. The offense went away from Collins and the running game, and suddenly screen passes to tight ends (undoubtedly the play I most want to shred out of the playbook) resurfaced. The Steelers roared back.
In the biggest moments of this game, Marty Mornhinweg returned to his conservative play calling that has haunted the Ravens all season. In the fourth quarter, after taking the 31-20 lead, Baltimore had two three and outs, as well as the debacle that was the final drive. With 3:29 left in the game and leading by two points, the Ravens offense got the ball with a chance to win the game.
They, to the surprise of exactly zero people, went three and out, only eating 1:04 off the clock. Pittsburgh got the ball back, with plenty of time.
Such a scenario doomed the Ravens a year ago. Without Jimmy Smith, the defense needed one more stop to hold on late for a victory in Pittsburgh, but they couldn’t do it. Ozzie Newsome spent the whole offseason reloading his defense to make sure that the Ravens defense wouldn’t cost the game a big game again. He went out and signed Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson. Bell scored all three of his touchdowns against Jefferson, and Carr couldn’t do anything about Antonio Brown. In fact, it was Carr that allowed Brown to make a long catch, setting up the eventual game winning field goal opportunity. All those months of revamping, just to fail in the exact same situation.
The offense moved six yards on five plays in the final 42 seconds, before forgetting the rules of football and allowing the final seconds of the game to run off while still in the huddle.
The defense was surely the Achilles heel, allowing over 500 passing yards alone. This was a top five secondary coming into this week, this performance certainly hurt that status. The play calling and execution all over the field were at times brutal. The Ravens failed to stay aggressive, again, and this time, after the defense had provided the bail out so many times before, it cost the Ravens. Just as the Steelers exposed the Ravens weakness, the Ravens exposed the Steelers weakness. The difference comes in that the Steelers continued to hit that weak area, while the Ravens relented.
The Ravens saw Brandon Carr couldn’t do anything against Brown, but yet continued to leave him alone. The Ravens saw that the linebackers were struggling to cover the middle of the field, but made no adjustments. The Ravens saw the success of the running game, but turned away from it. The decisions came without any good explanations, whether it be the coaches making calls, or the burden that Jeremy Maclin put on the offense in this game. It was simply mind-boggling.
Actually, it was much more than mind-boggling. It was heartbreaking. It was exasperating. It was frustrating. It left so many Ravens fans speechless. It left so many Ravens fans with too much to say.
I turned off the TV following the loss stunned. I couldn’t believe the Ravens had really managed to lose that game. Though I quickly realized, I totally could believe it, I’ve seen it before. Just last year on Christmas Day, the storyline was so similar. This year, just like a year ago, the Ravens loss allowed Pittsburgh to win the AFC North title, and it came as the whole team, not just the defense, fell apart late. The offense couldn’t move the ball when they had to, and the defense couldn’t get stops when they had to. The Ravens put up another great fight in Pittsburgh. For another year, they were so close, yet so far.
Yes. That really did just happen.