PITTSBURGH — With his top cornerback hurting, his defense gassed and his scuffling offense just 2 yards from victory, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh went for the win. But Lamar Jackson’s two-point conversion pass intended for Mark Andrews glanced off Andrews’ fingertips and fell incomplete, and the Pittsburgh Steelers hung on for a 20-19 win against the Ravens at Heinz Field Dec. 5.
After a defensive slog of a game, the teams exchanged touchdowns in a frenetic final two minutes, with the Steelers (6-5-1) taking their first lead of the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson with 1:48 left. Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey suffered a major injury on the play.
Jackson, who had struggled to find any rhythm all night, then put together an eight-play, 60-yard drive, capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins with 12 seconds left that trimmed the Steelers’ lead to 20-19. Rather than kick the extra point to force overtime, Harbaugh went for the win with a two-point conversion attempt.
With Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt bearing down on him, Jackson floated a pass to the right flat for Andrews, who had a clear path to the end zone, but the ball glanced off Andrews’ fingers and fell incomplete.
“T.J. Watt’s got range,” Jackson said. “He’s a long guy. I had to throw around him and try to make something happen. That’s all. Just came up short.”
Asked about the decision to go for two, Harbaugh said Humphrey’s injury was a factor.
“[We were] trying to win the game right there,” Harbaugh said. “We were pretty much out of corners at that point.”
“It’s a game of inches,” he added.
In a season in which the Ravens (8-4) have made several rallies or late stands to hold on for a win, this time they could not overcome their flaws on both sides of the ball.
“They just found a way to make one more play than us,” linebacker Josh Bynes said.
Here are five quick observations of the game, the Ravens third straight game decided by one score:
1. The Ravens can’t kid themselves: This offense is at a crisis point.
The Ravens mounted an impressive 99-yard touchdown drive in the first half, and a late, quick touchdown drive, but the missed two-point play from Lamar Jackson to Mark Andrews was representative of an offense that is just not executing as crisply or as efficiently as it needs to.
That starts with Jackson, who has not looked comfortable for the past several games. Against the Steelers, Jackson finished 23-for-37 for 253 yards with one touchdown and one interception, with a passer rating of 80.1, but those numbers, while respectable, hide some issues.
Jackson cost the Ravens points on their opening drive. Facing third-and-6 from the Steelers’ 10-yard line, Jackson floated a pass intended for Mark Andrews that was badly underthrown and intercepted in the end zone by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Coming off his first career four-interception game against Cleveland last week, it was an inauspicious start. With five games left in the season, Jackson has already thrown a career-high 13 interceptions, including 10 in his past six games.
Jackson was hounded by the Steelers’ pass rush and was sacked seven times, including 3.5 from T.J. Watt and 2.5 from former Raven Chris Wormley. But head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that some of that falls on Jackson, who appeared to be indecisive and held the ball far too long on some occasions, inviting trouble.
At other times, Jackson misfired when he did have protection, such as a pass intended for Watkins that landed at his feet. A couple of high-percentage throws toward the sideline also sent receivers scrambling to try to make a diving or sliding catch.
At this point it’s fair to question whether Jackson is suffering from a crisis in confidence, but there’s no doubt that the execution, the field vision, the internal clock, all appear to be a little out of whack.
The Ravens have been held under 20 points in four straight games, and every possession seems to be labored, with gains hard won. Nothing is coming easy.
2. Speaking of crisis mode, that sums up the Ravens’ cornerback group.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was rolling on the field in pain after Diontae Johnson’s go-ahead touchdown, and after the game head coach John Harbaugh said Humphrey could be out “awhile,” though he wouldn’t elaborate further on the injury.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Humphrey is dealing with a shoulder injury that could be season-ending.
The loss of Humphrey would be devastating in a secondary that is barely held together at the moment. Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters (knee) has been out all season, safety DeShon Elliott (triceps) is out for the season, and cornerbacks Anthony Averett, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young and Chris Westry have been frequent occupants of the weekly injury report. Kevon Seymour, an early-season acquisition, is on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Averett has taken over for Peters, and while he’s showed well at times as the most targeted cornerback in the league, he had a rough game at Pittsburgh.
Chase Claypool got a step on him for a 40-yard gain at one point, and then he and Humphrey had a miscommunication — a recurring theme this year — that left Diontae Johnson open by 10 yards on a 29-yard touchdown pass that cut the Ravens lead to 10-9 early in the fourth quarter. Johnson later slipped out of Averett’s tackle on a 25-yard pass play.
If Humphrey is indeed out for an extended period, the Ravens will be down to Averett, a gimpy, aging Smith, a gimpy Young, a gimpy Westry and practice squad callups such as Kevin Toliver, Robert Jackson or Mazzi Wilkins.
That’s a shocking state of things for a group that was the deepest on the team in July.
3. Devonta Freeman has become the lead back.
The Ravens have tried a lot of options to rebuild the backfield this year, but Devonta Freeman has emerged as the clear-cut No. 1 guy at this point. In this game, Freeman ran 14 times for 52 yards and one touchdown and more notably, caught five passes out of the backfield for 45 yards.
In previous years, Lamar Jackson rarely used his running backs as checkdown targets, usually choosing to just tuck the ball and run instead of dumping the ball to a running back. Lately, Jackson seems more wiling to use the backs as receivers, and Freeman and Latavius Murray (2-34) totaled 79 receiving yards in this game, the most by the Ravens’ running backs all season.
The Ravens elevated rookie Nate McCrary from the practice squad for this game, but whatever spark they hoped that might provide never came about. McCrary had one carry for minus-1 yard. Murray ran two times for 1 yard.
Like Murray and Le’Veon Bell, Freeman came to Baltimore looking to jump-start his career in the wake of all the Ravens’ running back injuries this summer. Right now, Freeman looks to be the one who has taken advantage of that opportunity the most, and the Ravens are increasingly turning to him.
4. The Ravens failed to take advantage of first-half domination.
The Ravens totally dominated the first 28 minutes of the game but had little to show for it.
With two minutes left in the first half, the Ravens had run 36 offensive plays, the Steelers had run 10. The Ravens had 183 yards of offense, the Steelers had 41 and one first down. Yet the Ravens went into halftime with just a 7-3 lead that needed to be larger.
The problems included an end-zone interception thrown by Lamar Jackson on the opening series of the game. The notoriously slow-starting Ravens, who have not scored a first-quarter touchdown in five games, moved the ball well on the opening drive, leaning heavily on running backs Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray as runners and receivers.
But the 11-play drive stalled at the Steelers’ 10 when Jackson floated an ill-advised, third-down pass for Mark Andrews that was picked off in the end zone by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Their next possession was a massive 99-yard, 16-play touchdown drive that lasted for more than 10 minutes and produced their only score of the half on a 3-yard touchdown run by Freeman.
Another first-half possession stalled when Jackson took two sacks in a span of three plays, forcing a punt from near midfield.
Against a Steelers team with significant issues on both sides of the ball, the Ravens had a chance to put them in a deep hole in the first half and they failed to do it. At the time, it felt like that could cost them, and ultimately, it did.
5. For all the flaws, and injuries, the Ravens remain atop the AFC North.
The Ravens (8-4) somehow remain atop the AFC North because no one else wants to be there. At least that’s what it seems, as the Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) were beaten, 41-22, by the Los Angeles Chargers. The Steelers (6-5-1) stayed alive in the divisional race with this win, while the Browns (6-6), who had a bye this week, bring up the rear of the division at .500.
The Ravens had a chance to essentially bury the Steelers with a win, but the resilient Steelers weren’t buying that at Heinz Field against their biggest rivals. Next week, the Ravens have chance to essentially put away another AFC North rival when the visit the Browns for a rematch of last week’s game, won 16-10 by the Ravens.
A Ravens win would give them a three-game lead on Cleveland with four games to play, as well as a season sweep of the series.
The Ravens, though, will limp into Cleveland with a banged-up secondary, a flawed offense, and questions aplenty. Then again, every team in the division has those, and this race looks like it will come down to the final week of the season, when the Ravens face … these Steelers.
This story was updated the morning of Dec. 6.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox