The Ravens, by almost any definition, dropped the ball Sunday in Pittsburgh.
They dropped seven passes, according to TruMedia, their most over the past decade. They lost two fumbles, pushing their AFC-worst total this season to six. And they folded late at Acrisure Stadium, their AFC North lead going up in smoke with a 17-10 loss to the Steelers.
But self-inflicted mistakes alone did not doom the Ravens. Their problems snowballed in the second half, as an untimely injury, questionable play calls and suboptimal execution conspired to undercut the team’s hopes of an AFC North road sweep. Here’s a look at how five pivotal moments changed the flow of Sunday’s game.
A costly injury
Early in the third quarter, the Ravens lost right tackle Patrick Mekari, starting in place of the injured Morgan Moses, to a chest injury. That left Daniel Faalele to handle Steelers star outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
The before-and-after splits for their offense were notable. With Mekari on the field, according to TruMedia, the Ravens averaged 5.7 yards per play and minus-0.01 expected points added per play. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was pressured on 35.5% of his drop-backs, and he was sacked just once (3.6% rate).
With Mekari off the field, the Ravens averaged a woeful 3.3 yards and minus-0.64 EPA per play. Jackson, meanwhile, was pressured on 42.9% of his drop-backs, and he was sacked three times (21.4% rate), including on the Ravens’ final offensive play of the game.
Harbaugh didn’t have any injury updates after Sunday’s loss, but Moses (shoulder) was limited in practice last week and could return for Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans.
More punt problems
In Week 2, the Ravens gave up an 81-yard punt return touchdown to the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 3, they gave up a 32-yard punt return to the Colts, setting up a field goal drive for Indianapolis in a game the Ravens lost by three.
On Sunday, the Ravens’ punting struggles resurfaced before their coverage team could even get downfield. After the Steelers forced a three-and-out early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh called for a punt block. Coming up the middle was Miles Killebrew, a safety and special teams captain who blocked two punts for Pittsburgh in 2021.
“Miles is the best in the world at what he does: blocking punts,” Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said.
Ravens safety Geno Stone picked up Killebrew as he looped up the middle, but Killebrew muscled his way through Stone’s block and worked his right arm free. When punter Jordan Stout booted the ball from the Ravens’ 4, Killebrew was there to meet it.
“We didn’t block the guy we were supposed to block,” Harbaugh said. “To me, that’s kind of an example of the whole game right there. We did not do the things that we needed to do in certain situations that we’re capable of doing, we can do, we will do going forward, but we didn’t do them today.”
The Ravens now have the second-worst punting efficiency in the NFL, ahead of only the Green Bay Packers, according to FTN’s DVOA rankings.
A scoop, but no score
When Stout jogged onto the field to punt again with less than six minutes left and the Steelers trailing 10-8, the Ravens’ win probability was down to 65.2%, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. By the end of the play, those odds had skyrocketed, improbably, to 88.1%.
Pittsburgh was lucky it wasn’t closer to 100%. On Gunner Olszewski’s punt return, he ran into teammate Connor Heyward, as well as Ravens linebackers Jeremiah Moon and Del’Shawn Phillips, and lost control of the ball. Cornerback Kevon Seymour plucked the fumble out of midair at the Steelers’ 27 and started on his way to the corner end zone. There wasn’t a Pittsburgh player in his path.
But it was not a smooth journey. Seymour stumbled as he collected the ball, then appeared to lose his balance again after former Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin dived for a shoestring tackle. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell helped Seymour gather his feet, holding him up as tight end Isaiah Likely came over to deliver a potentially touchdown-sealing block on Steelers tight end Rod Williams, but Williams’ collision with Seymour’s traveling party knocked him to the ground at the 7.
The Ravens’ offense, of course, couldn’t finish off the drive their special teams had started. Running back Gus Edwards rushed for 3 yards on first down. Steelers linebacker Kwon Alexander sniffed out Jackson’s shovel pass to tight end Mark Andrews on second down, stopping him at the 5 for a 1-yard loss.
After a timeout, Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken called on Jackson to complete what was, in both the micro and macro sense, a low-percentage play: the goal-line fade. Last season, according to Sports Info Solutions, quarterbacks at the 5-yard line or closer completed just 16 of 52 fades and back-shoulder fades (30.8%).
Monken’s matchup wasn’t especially favorable, either. Jackson was looking for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who’d briefly left the game earlier with an undisclosed injury and had been limited in practice all week by an ankle injury. Guarding Beckham was rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr., who’s 3 inches taller than the 5-foot-11 Beckham and has longer arms as well.
If Jackson’s interception looked like something of a ‘tweener throw — not quite a fade to the back pylon, not quite a back-shoulder fade away from Porter, either— his inexperience might’ve had something to do with it. According to SIS, Jackson had never thrown a fade inside the 10 over his career until Sunday. Now it might be a while until his next one, too.
Beating the blitz
The Steelers expected to see “Cover 0″ looks from the Ravens. Through four weeks, Mike Macdonald’s defense had used the coverage — no safety help, man-to-man coverage across the board, blitzes from everywhere else — 20 times, second most in the NFL, according to NGS. Not even Don “Wink” Martindale’s New York Giants had been that aggressive.
For the most part, the pressure had worked. Opposing quarterbacks entering Sunday were 12-for-20 for 84 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens’ Cover 0 plays. They’d also taken four sacks and averaged a miserable minus-0.55 EPA per drop-back.
For most of Sunday, Macdonald kept his aggressiveness in check. It wasn’t until the Steelers, trailing 10-8 with 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, lined up for a second-and-9 at the Ravens’ 41 that he called for a Cover 0 pressure. The Ravens moved their safeties into the box, showed a presnap blitz look, then sent six pass rushers after Pickett, with safety Kyle Hamilton and inside linebacker Roquan Smith hanging back, seemingly to cover any potential chip-and-release routes.
“We were kind of preparing for it all week,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “In bigger moments, they’ll go ‘0,’ and we got the protection right.”
The Ravens’ blitz never got home. Pickett didn’t need long to collect the shotgun snap, take a three-stop drop, hitch and deliver a pinpoint pass down the right sideline to wide receiver George Pickens for a go-ahead 41-yard touchdown.
“I’m always a little bit surprised when it’s just a one-on-one matchup, no safety over the top,” said Pickens, who finished with six catches for 130 yards.
“You kind of get beat sometimes when you blitz the house, and that was one of those times,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, whom Pickens beat in coverage. “You obviously don’t want to be on the end of the game-winner, but it happens at the corner position.”