The Baltimore Ravens hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in a primetime divisional bout to kick off Week 18 and ended the regular season with a 17-10 loss at home to their longtime AFC North rivals. In a game where they had nothing to play for after wrapping up the division and clinching the No. 1 seed last week, the Ravens suffered their first defeat in nearly two months in a sloppy game on a rainy night that featured multiple turnovers, dropped balls, and stingy defense.
Despite resting several starters including soon-to-be two-time league MVP Lamar Jackson, their backups were able to keep it close until the very end. A Tyler Huntley-led offense still managed to keep their league-leading consecutive games with 100-plus rushing yards streak alive. Meanwhile, the defense was still able to generate pressure, force turnovers and hold a fourth-straight opponent to under 20 points while getting impressive and expensive contributions from several players.
Below are some of the top takeaways from the Ravens’ loss in Week 18.
Ravens emerge in good health with no major injuries
Since they could only not dress and play a limited amount of players for this essentially meaningless game in terms of playoff implications for them, the Ravens’ top priority more so than even winning the game was not sustaining any more devastating blows on the injury front. Although they had a handful of players leave the game with minor issues, they all were able to walk off the field under their own power. Head Coach John Harbaugh was relieved to reveal that none of them are going to be long-term setbacks and should be available in two weeks when the Ravens play in the Divisional round.
"It looks like we got through okay health-wise... Right now it looks like we would have all those guys back for the Divisional Game." pic.twitter.com/NcjyDJg9S1— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 7, 2024
“I think it looks like we got through okay,” Harbaugh said. “Some of them looked a little tough but right now, it looks like we would have all those guys back for the playoff week and divisional game.”
The most notable player that got banged up was fourth-year safety Geno Stone who leads the team with a career-high seven interceptions and was arguably the most egregious snub from this year’s Pro Bowl roster. He was involved in a collision in the third quarter and did not return after being listed as questionable to return with a knee injury.
Geno Stone walks into the blue medical tent pic.twitter.com/m4NRjlwlIb— Baltimore Beatdown (@BmoreBeatdown) January 6, 2024
Backup inside linebacker and special teams ace Del’Shawn Phillips was a part of the same collision that Stone got hurt on. Even though he got to his feet first, that would be the end of his night as well despite being listed as questionable to return with a shoulder injury.
His exit caused 2023 Pro Bowler Patrick Queen to have to re-enter the game since the Ravens were down to just him and rookie Trenton Simpson at linebacker with Roquan Smith and Malik Harrison inactive. Phillips was having a very strong game before he went down and still finished as the Ravens’ leading tackler with a game-high 13 total including one for a loss and eight solos.
In the fourth quarter, 10th-year veteran defensive end Brent Urban left the game to be evaluated for a concussion and did not return, finishing with one assisted tackle.
Ball security was an issue and ultimately led to their loss
With the wet weather conditions and hard-hitting nature of this storied rivalry, taking care of and holding onto the ball was paramount for both teams heading into this game. While both teams struggled mightily to do just that with eight fumbles between them, the Ravens’ lack of ball security from the running back position was especially damaging and kept them from finishing with just the second 14-win season in franchise history.
“You’ve got to protect the football to win games,” Harbaugh said.
Even though they only put the ball on the ground twice compared to Pittsburgh’s six loose balls, the timing of theirs was especially debilitating. Former two-time Pro Bowl veteran Melvin Gordon had the first in the second quarter and didn’t touch the ball again until the fourth. Thankfully, Phillips got the offense the ball right back with one of the defense’s four forced fumbles of the game and ended up not costing them points or resulting in any for Pittsburgh.
The second came from sixth-year veteran Gus Edwards at the worst possible time in the fourth quarter with 7:19 left to play in the game and the Ravens down by a touchdown. It marked his second straight game with a fumble and gave the Steelers offense the ball with a short field and already in field goal range.
Even though their defense was able to hold them to just a field and fall behind by two touchdowns, they still wound up falling behind by two scores and the offense didn’t get the ball back until there was only 3:13 left on the clock.
While Gordon has a well-documented history of having ball security issues that have led to 19 career lost fumbles and 26 overall, Edwards has typically been as reliable in that area as there is in the league with just five career fumbles lost and seven overall. The Ravens will certainly be emphasizing keeping the ball high and tight as well as using both hands to cover and secure the ball in practice in the event of less-than-ideal weather conditions in the postseason.
Jadeveon Clowney cashes in with strong performance
The Ravens had three veteran players who came into this game with the opportunity to trigger one or more pay incentives in their respective contracts but the three-time Pro Bowler was the only one that accomplished that lucrative goal. Clowney needed just half a sack to reach nine on the year and earn an additional $750,000. On the Steelers’ final drive of the second quarter, he notched the first of back-to-back strip sacks by the Ravens defense to prevent them from breaking the 7-7 tie and regain the lead.
750,000 dollars sack from Jadeveon Clowney. pic.twitter.com/60JzSYqEVM— FootballSZN (@FtballSZN) January 6, 2024
Clowney was so ecstatic after he came up with the clutch play that he continued to celebrate afterward prior to the next play after a review confirmed that it was a sack and not an incomplete pass.
Ninth-year veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor needed 58 receiving yards and 10 catches to trigger incentives of $250,000 and $500,000. While he would finish as the team’s leader in both stats, he still fell short of his goals in each with five catches for 39 yards.
Fifth-year veteran running back Justice Hill needed 113 rushing yards to trigger an incentive worth $250,000 in his two-year contract that he signed this offseason. Not only did he not come close, he didn’t even receive a single carry although he was targeted a game-high 10 times in the passing game and finished with three catches for 26 receiving yards.
Future at WILL linebacker looks bright no matter what
The Ravens have the best inside linebacker tandem in the league with Pro Bowlers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen who have been the cream of the crop dating back to midway through last season when they joined forces. With Queen slated to become an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to be franchise-tagged, this may very well be his last year in Baltimore.
With that potentially eventually in mind, the Ravens used their third-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to select former Clemson standout Trenton Simpson. Aside from checking into the fourth quarter of a couple of blowouts, the rookie predominantly played on special teams prior to this game where he saw his most extensive action on defense in the second half on Saturday and absolutely made the most of the opportunity.
Simpson recorded a career-high seven total tackles including two for a loss, six solos, a quarterback hit, and his first career sack to effectively kill the Steelers’ second drive of the third quarter a week after recording his first career fumble recovery.
First career sack for Trenton Simpson❗❗— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 6, 2024
Tune in on ABC/ESPN! pic.twitter.com/1sh9pCoOHq
The former do-it-all collegiate defender was far from done making clutch splash plays after that and would make a pair of impressive plays in space at and behind the line of scrimmage against the Steelers’ dynamic running backs in the fourth quarter. The first was a great open field tackle of Najee Harris for no gain on a third down to force a punt and the second was on Pittsburg’s final third down of the game when he tackled Jaylen Warren five yards behind the line of scrimmage to force a short field goal.
“It was a blessing, man,” Simpson said. “I’m just so excited to get out there and get an opportunity and then go out there and make a couple of plays. The excitement that my teammates have for me meant the most for me from like Roquan [Smith] to ‘PQ’ [Patrick Queen], like them guys is hyping me up and give me the confidence all week to just go out there and just play ball was just the best thing I could have. And then just to go out there and have a performance.”
Whether Queen is brought back or not, the Ravens will have an explosive playmaker lining up next to Smith for the foreseeable future after what Simpson proved he is capable of when given the opportunity to showcase his talents. He was still a force on special teams as well, making a pair of tackles covering punts including the first one of the game.
Inconsistency in run defense continues
For the ninth time this season and the fourth time in consecutive weeks, the Ravens allowed an opposing team to rush for over 100 yards against them as the Steelers racked up 155 yards on the ground on 39 carries for an average of 4.0 yards per attempt. While the Ravens’ defense was short-handed in the second and third level, they started and played their starting outside linebackers and defensive linemen for most of the first half and some even played into the second half.
They struggled when it came to getting off blocks and limiting yards after contact as it would take multiple defenders to bring down Pittsburgh’s ball carriers at times. There were several instances where it looked like they were getting blown off the ball and dominated in the trenches without giving much resistance.
Giving up more yards on the ground may seem like sacrilege and blasphemy when it comes to the first playing traditional Ravens’ defense given that it has historically been the first commandment. However, it may very well be a by-product of them being more stout and consistently dominant in coverage which is an area that analytics suggests that modern pass defenses should focus on.
Second-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald certainly doesn’t want to see his unit get gashed on the ground and would definitely rather see them dominate in every aspect of the game. Nevertheless, conceding more yards on the ground slows down the game to an extent as long as they’re also getting their fair share of stops, and tackles for loss, and aren’t regularly giving up long runs for scores.
The Ravens were able to blowout the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins in back-to-back weeks despite giving up an average of 137.5 yards in each. Although odds are, potential rematches in the playoffs might not play out the same way if they don’t tighten up and seal some of those cracks.