Missed opportunity renews old questions down stretch for Ravens

December 02, 2012 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were searching for answers in the locker room after squandering a second-half lead to lose 23-20 to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, suffering their first loss at M&T Bank Stadium in nearly two years.

There would be no earning a 16th consecutive home victory or clinching of an AFC North title or even punching their ticket to the playoffs — at least this week. Instead, offensive struggles and a defensive collapse in the fourth quarter pushed the Ravens’ record to 9-3, snapping a four-game winning streak and renewing concerns as they begin the final quarter of the season.

“It sucks to let this one go,” safety Bernard Pollard. “We let this game go. Right now, we’re just trying to figure out how and why.”

If it’s any consolation, there’s plenty of blame to go around as the Baltimore offense was held to just seven points and 97 yards in the second half. The performance did nothing to alleviate chronic concerns of inconsistency as the Ravens finished 3-for-11 on third down and Joe Flacco turned in a road-like performance for the first time all season at M&T Bank Stadium, finishing 16-for-34 for 188 yards with a touchdown, an interception, and a critical fumble. Even when an erratic Flacco was able to deliver on-target throws, Baltimore receivers dropped several passes at critical junctures.

The defense failed to pressure geriatric backup Charlie Batch as he threw for 276 yards and a touchdown to pick apart a pass defense that was exposed repeatedly over the middle intermediate portion of the field. The Ravens managed only two sacks against a patchwork offensive line for Pittsburgh after a combined 12 sacks in their previous three games.

Baltimore even fell short in the coaching department as two timeouts were burned early in the second half, one a result of a befuddling challenge of a Charlie Batch incomplete pass that head coach John Harbaugh hoped would be ruled a fumble.

It all added up to failing to lock up a playoff spot and to put the Steelers’ postseason hopes on life support in the process. Instead, the Ravens now find themselves two games behind the AFC-leading Houston Texans — who also own the head-to-head tiebreaker — and tied with Denver and New England for the second-best record in the conference.

Sunday’s game could have been a means of separating themselves and remaining on Houston’s heels, but the Ravens instead came back to the pack and saw their hopes of a No. 1 seed take a catastrophic hit with four games remaining.

“We had an opportunity,” Flacco said. “I said it before, the more games we win, the more important each game becomes and this was an important one. We just didn’t capitalize on the opportunities. You have to give them a little bit of credit, too.”

The defense relapsed after playing so well in recent weeks and will now wait on the status of linebacker Terrell Suggs, who left in the fourth quarter with a right arm injury. Needless to say, an extended absence for the intimidating pass rusher would be a major blow to a defense that appeared to finally be hitting its stride after the bye.

The offense has now struggled for large portions of each of the last three games as Flacco appeared out of sync for most of the day against the Pittsburgh defense. But unlike the first game against the Steelers, the Baltimore quarterback even failed in protecting the ball.

Following an interception of Batch by safety Ed Reed, the Ravens had a third-and-5 with just under 10 minutes to go at their own 32. Finding no one open, Flacco held the ball entirely too long and allowed linebacker James Harrison to come from the blind side to strip him as the fumble was recovered by Ziggy Hood.

The costly turnover led to a touchdown pass to Steelers tight end Heath Miller a few plays later to tie the game.

“Everybody was covered downfield,” Flacco said. “I was getting ready to tuck it and chalk it up as a loss. The guy came around and hit my wrist; he hit the ball and just got it out. I tried to hold on, but I couldn’t.”

The response after the score wasn’t much better as Flacco went 1-for-4 and the Ravens gave it right back to Pittsburgh with 6:14 remaining. They wouldn’t get another possession back as the Steelers orchestrated a 12-play, 51-yard drive that ended with a 42-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham to win the game for Pittsburgh, snapping the Ravens’ three-game winning streak against their biggest rival.

It was the polar opposite of what we witnessed in San Diego a week ago when the defense stepped up its game in the second half and Flacco and the offensive attack came alive late. And the Ravens found themselves on the losing end this time around.

The questions will once again be asked about the offense finding consistency and the defense being able to pressure the quarterback.

After still managing to win two of three in a brutal stretch that included a pair of Pittsburgh games sandwiching a trip to San Diego, the Ravens now hit the final quarter of the season with three games against 2011 playoff teams and a trip to Landover next week against arguably the hottest quarterback in the league in Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III.

Games against the red-hot Denver Broncos and the defending Super Bowl champion Giants won’t be any easier, though they’ll both be played in Baltimore. The Ravens will then finish with a tough test at Cincinnati as the Bengals could be fighting for their playoff lives.

A playoff spot and the division title are still within their grasp barring a catastrophic collapse, but the Ravens will need to move past a bitter loss quickly in order to keep themselves in position for a first-round bye. It was only one loss and they remain in excellent position with a 9-3 record, but after so much good fortune and doing the little things well in narrow victories throughout the season, you can’t help but feel the pendulum swung in the opposite direction on Sunday.

“It’s going to take us to not to fall apart after a game like this, especially after [losing] to a team like this, playing against Pittsburgh,” Reed said. “Guys are frustrated, because we hate to lose. That’s the thing that eggs you – we hate to lose. So, to see these guys frustrated, I know it’s there, but at the same time you have to be able to talk about that in the mirror when you get home.”

Only the final four weeks will prove how costly it may have been as their postseason picture unfolds.