PITTSBURGH — Robert Griffin III walked the sideline late in the fourth quarter with grass stains all over his jersey and giant ice wrap on his left thigh. Griffin had begun this most strange Wednesday afternoon game as one of the healthy Ravens, charged with leading the offense in place of quarterback Lamar Jackson, one of 14 Ravens sidelined by the COVID-19 outbreak that has paralyzed the Ravens throughout the past week.
Griffin, though, struggled to generate much offense and threw an early interception that was returned for a touchdown, and the short-handed Ravens didn’t have nearly that much margin for error as they fell, 19-14, to the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0) at Heinz Field Dec. 2.
The Ravens’ defense, which was missing three starters and several key reserves and lost cornerback Jimmy Smith to a groin injury during the game, put up a game effort, holding the Steelers’ offense out of the end zone for three quarters, but a 1-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger (36-for-51, 266 yards) to JuJu Smith-Schuster gave the Steelers a 19-7 lead that proved to be insurmountable.
The Ravens fell behind 6-0 when Griffin’s pass was intercepted by Joe Haden and retuned 14 yards for a touchdown, then they took their only lead of the game on a 1-yard touchdown run by Gus Edwards and the ensuing conversion by Justin Tucker.
That drive was set up when recently signed Ravens cornerback Davontae Harris forced a fumble on a Steelers punt that was recovered by Anthony Levine at the 16-yard line.
The Ravens blew a chance to score at the end of the first half, with time expiring with the ball at the Steelers’ 1-yard line, and a late 70-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Marquise Brown from backup Trace McSorley wasn’t enough.
The fact that this game was played at all seemed improbable at times, with at least one member of the Ravens testing positive for COVID-19 for 10 consecutive days from Nov. 22 through Dec. 1 in one of the biggest COVID outbreaks in professional sports.
That caused the game to be postponed from Thanksgiving night to Sunday, Nov. 29, then postponed again to Dec. 1, and then finally, after the Ravens reportedly balked about playing with zero conditioning time with their facility shuttered, bumped to Wednesday, Dec. 2.
After having no Ravens players test positive in morning rapid testing before the game, the league gave the teams the green light to play, and the Ravens called up 10 players from their practice squad to fill in for some of those sidelined by COVID-19.
Here are five quick observations of the game, which was the fourth loss in five games for the Ravens (6-5) and eliminated them from AFC North title contention:
1. The offense predictably struggled.
Backup quarterback Robert Griffin III has dazzled plenty of times in his remarkable athletic career, and he no doubt relished the chance to take center stage again with Lamar Jackson sidelined by COVID-19.
Griffin, though, had to do so with a badly short-handed lineup that was missing the top tight end, one of the top wide receivers and two of the top three running backs. In addition, Griffin was taking snaps from a rookie center seeing the first action of his NFL career and doing so after a two-week stretch in which the Ravens were unable to hold a real practice because the outbreak had shuttered the facility.
Especially early, the offense showed every bit of that.
On the Ravens’ second possession, Griffin and Gus Edwards muffed a handoff exchange, and the Steelers recovered at the Ravens’ 22-yard line. A strong goal-line stand, punctuated by a fourth-and-goal interception in the end zone by Tyus Bowser, ended the threat.
On the Ravens next possession, Griffin tried to force a pass to James Proche that Joe Haden read all the way. Haden jumped in front of Proche, picked off the pass and raced for a 14-yard touchdown. In both Ravens-Steelers games this year, the Steelers opened the scoring with an interception return score.
“We had the issues in the first quarter with the turnovers, that hurt us,” Harbaugh said. “That probably ended up being the difference in the game. But once we got our sea legs, so to speak, I thought we did a good job with that.”
Griffin’s biggest play of the game came when he kept on the read-option and raced 39 yards, but late in that drive he appeared to pull his hamstring on a read-option keeper to the right. He stayed in the game into the fourth quarter but appeared to be limited.
Griffin, who was sacked three times, finished 7-for-12 for 33 yards, with no passes longer than 8 yards.
“I pulled my hamstring in the second quarter,” Griffin said. “I felt like if I hadn’t done that, then we would have won this game.”
“The reason that we lost today, in my opinion, was because of me,” he added. “Whether it was the turnover or the injury, I felt like I let my teammates down.”
Trace McSorley, who replaced the hobbled Griffin, threw a 70-yard touchdown to Marquise Brown, who spun away from safety Terrell Edmunds for the Ravens’ longest play from scrimmage this season with 2:58 left, but offensive success was fleeting on a day when so many key parts were back in Baltimore.
2. A stout defensive effort kept the Ravens in the game.
The Ravens’ defense was also short-handed, missing starting defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams (ankle) as well as edge rushers Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward. Then cornerback Jimmy Smith hobbled off with a groin injury.
Despite that, the Ravens held the Steelers’ offense out of the end zone for three quarters, relying at times on players such as cornerback Tramon Williams, who has only been with the team for three weeks, and practice squad callups Chauncey Rivers and Aaron Crawford.
The Ravens came up with a couple of big fourth-down stops to kill Steelers drives, including an end-zone interception by Tyus Bowser in the first quarter. Two other Steelers drives inside the 10-yard line ended in field goals, keeping the Ravens in striking distance.
Safety Chuck Clark finished with a career-high 13 tackles, and Marlon Humphrey had seven tackles and forced two fumbles, though both went out of bounds. Tyus Bowser had three tackles and registered three of the Ravens’ six quarterback hits of Ben Roethlisberger.
To be sure, the Steelers didn’t help themselves with several dropped passes that scuttled drives, but defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale should be pleased with the performance of this patchwork group.
3. The Ravens sorely missed Mark Andrews.
The Ravens’ Pro Bowl tight end was placed on the reserve/COVD-19 list this past weekend, and the offense looked very much like it was lacking its most reliable weapon.
Andrews leads the Ravens with 38 catches (454 yards), and although he and Robert Griffin might not have the same rapport that Andrews and Jackson have, Andrews is the Ravens most proven, consistent, reliable target in the passing game.
Without him, the Ravens struggled to mount any passing game at all. Through three quarters, the Ravens had 5 net passing yards, and Robert Griffin’s longest pass play went for 8 yards. Of course, the Ravens’ situation was further compounded by the season-ending injury to Nick Boyle two weeks ago.
The Ravens have three tight ends on the practice squad and called up all three for this game but none had a catch. Luke Willson had a potential touchdown catch slip out of his hands at the end of the first half.
Obviously, reigning league MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson was the biggest of a lengthy list of absences for the Ravens, but as they scuffled and struggled to find any rhythm offensively, it was clear they badly missed Andrews, too.
4. The Ravens’ disastrous end-of-half sequence was costly.
For all their first-half struggles, the Ravens had a chance to take the lead at halftime but badly squandered that chance and came away with no points despite reaching the Steelers 1-yard line.
The Ravens used their final timeout of the half with 26 seconds left, giving them second-and-goal at the Steelers 1-yard line.
On second down, Gus Edwards powered up the middle but was stuffed short of the goal line, and with the clock running, the Steelers took their sweet time unpiling. By the time play was set again, there were just three seconds left. Rather than spike the ball to stop the clock, Griffin ran the second play, a pass to tight end Luke Willson, who lost control of the ball and dropped it as Minkah Fitzpatrick defended. That ended the half, and the Ravens came away with no points.
Before and again after halftime, head coach John Harbaugh pleaded his case with the referees about Steelers gamesmanship in the scrum to no avail.
“We knew we had enough time to run the two plays we wanted to run,” Harbaugh said. “[On] the run, we hoped it would score. If it didn’t, we had a quick play pass. … I just feel like if you’re laying on the ground like that, you’re either injured, or it’s delay of game.”
Whether Steelers gamesmanship or clock mismanagement or just bad execution on two straight plays, the Ravens squandered a great scoring chance in a game when they could ill afford to do so.
5. The league isn’t stopping for anything.
The NFL has continually stressed that all its decisions are made in the best interest of health and safety of its players, but it’s fair to question why a team facing one of the biggest COVID outbreaks in sports was given the green light to board planes and travel for a road game on the 10th straight day that one of its players tested positive for COVID-19.
The league had moved this game from Thanksgiving night to Sunday, to Tuesday, and then to Wednesday, clearly determined to squeeze it into its proper place in the schedule. So was this more about the health and safety of the players, or more about trying to avoid tacking an extra week on to the schedule, which could potentially add all sorts of other logistical hurdles? (What happens, for example, if they do that, and then one of these teams has another game delayed? Do they add yet another week? Cancel that game?)
Ravens players and coaches stressed that they wanted to play the game, and while Harbaugh and others praised the league’s and organization’s approach, there was obvious frustration with how everything has been handled.
“It was a challenge, but they fought through this really unique deal,” Harbaugh said. “From that sense, I’m proud of those guys for doing that.”
“We didn’t bat 1.000, nobody did,” Harbaugh added. “The league didn’t. Nobody did. You can’t bat 1.000 against this thing. But I think our response, in terms of our effort, was a perfect effort. I’m proud of the guys for that.”
Robert Griffin III disclosed that in addition to players testing positive for COVID-19, some family members have also tested positive, so this has become far more than just a football issue.
“The main thing that needs be put in perspective is this isn’t just about football,” Griffin said. “This is about guys’ families. This is about their wives and their children and anybody else that is in close contact with them at home. So when we get a call saying that one of our players [tests] positive, a million things run through your mind.”
The league got its game in, and the better team won. The Ravens should be commended for battling to the end, which should be no surprise in this rivalry. In fact, since 2008, when Harbaugh became the Ravens coach, 21 of the 29 games have been decided by one score.
But the league made clear in playing this game today, after 10 straight days in which one of the teams had positive COVID tests, that this was all about having the product on the field, and on television, and about its business partners and its revenue. It was much less about health and safety of its players.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox