Five Things We Learned in the Ravens 31-24 loss




1. When you think back on this Ravens' season, when you attempt to analyze what exactly went wrong, you should probably start by reading these two sentences aloud:

In the most important game of the year, Baltimore had 126 yards of total offense, including just 28 yards in the second half. They also committed three turnovers, which led to 17 Steelers points.

How can any team expect to win a playoff game like that? The truth is, they simply can't. It doesn't matter if the Ravens have done it in the past. Those past performances are irrelevant. You can only get lucky so many times. You can't expect to consistently win games like this if you can't move the ball.

The Ravens can say all they want about the Steelers hard-hitting defense, and how difficult Pittsburgh is to move the ball against at home, especially in the postseason. But in the end, that's not good enough. Why can the Patriots and Jets move the ball against Pittsburgh and Baltimore can't? The Ravens spent millions of dollars, and a handful of draft picks, trying to upgrade their offensive attack, trying to finally end a decade of impotence whenever they have the football, and ultimately that plan has to be judged as a failure after a performance like this. At least for this season. It really doesn't matter how good you look against the Chiefs in the wild-card round if you can only muster 28 yards of offense in the second half against your division rival in the divisional round.

If you watched this game closely, you should have learned once and for all that the Ravens offensive problems aren't limited to one area. There is no easy fix here. It's a little bit of everything, including -- obviously -- the coaching.

And even though Cam Cameron didn't fumble the football on the opening drive of the second half (that was Ray Rice) or drop what would have been a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter that hit him in the chest (that was Anquan Boldin) or miss open wide receivers (that was Joe Flacco) or let the quarterback get hammered (that was the offensive line), it's probably time for John Harbaugh to put aside his friendship with Cameron and say thank you for your service, but I believe we need to go in a different direction. It's not personal, it's just time for a philosophical change.

Look, it's not all Cameron's doing. Joe Flacco still plays jittery in big moments. In fact, "Joe Cool" may be one of the least appropriate nicknames in sports right now. Anyone who still wants to cite his regular-season quarterback rating at this point, and talk about how favorably it compares with other quarterbacks' first three years in the league, clearly doesn't understand what actually matters in football. Quarterback is a poise position, a pressure position, not a numbers position. Flacco's throw to Todd Heap in the third quarter, which was intercepted by Ryan Clark, showed almost no understanding of the larger moment. After Rice's fumble, with all the momentum swinging Pittsburgh's way, the one thing he couldn't do there was give the Steelers another turnover. And what does he do? He floats a deep corner route to his tight end 30 yards down the field on the first play of the drive. And then the next drive he and Matt Birk screwed up the exchange for another turnover.

Flacco is a good quarterback. And he'll likely get better. But his decision-making is still too often about reactions instead of anticipations. He sees guys come open, and then he throws the ball. And when he doesn't see them come open, he hesitates and tries to move around in the pocket, which is not his strength. Three years into his career, it's still a major struggle for him to carry his team to victory when everything is falling apart. He's not good at broken plays. He made one Saturday, on a 3rd-and-7, where he found Rice for a first down. But it stood out because it was so rare. And that's what separates him from someone like Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers, who are his actual contemporaries, not Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

If he's going to reach his potential, he's probably going to need to play in a system that emphasizes timing, quicker reads and getting the ball out faster. His touchdown throw to Heap in the first half was a good example of a quick read, because he threw the ball before Heap even turned his head. His throw to Boldin on the goal line was a great read and perfect throw in rhythm, even if Boldin flat out dropped it. It's always a little unclear why the Ravens don't run more plays like that -- three steps and the ball is out. But they don't. They don't create matchup problems for opposing teams often enough early in plays.

Cameron has done some great things with Flacco. He's taken a Division 1-AA quarterback and turned him into an above-average NFL starter. But he also may have taken him as far as he can. That's the harsh reality of the business. Flacco isn't going anywhere, so when Harbaugh evaluates this season and makes plans for next year, he needs to be brutally honest and ask himself this:

Even if Cameron isn't totally at fault, are things going to get better next year ... or will it be more of the same?

2. As long as Terrell Suggs is healthy and motivated, he is worth every last dime the Ravens paid him two years ago.

Over the final month of the regular season, and in two playoff games, I'm not sure there was a better defensive player in the NFL than Suggs. He's simply too strong, too fast, and too quick for most offensive linemen to handle. He plays the run better than virtually every pass rusher in the league, and if he had someone else on the other side who generated a consistent pass rush, and helped he and Haloti Ngata collapse the pocket, the Ravens might have doubled their sack total this year.

I think it's fair to say Suggs' poor 2009 season was a combination of him showing up in bad shape and also some bad luck. He was finally starting to play well again when Brady Quinn dove at his knees behind the play after throwing an interception in a game against Cleveland. I don't believe Suggs was truly 100 percent healthy the rest of that year, even though he played well in the Ravens playoff victory over New England.

But this year, he was the hardest guy to block on the football field more than not. You could sense a level of maturity in Suggs this year that wasn't there in previous years. He was still his entertaining, engaging self, and it's likely he'll always be unafraid to share his opinions about the league. But it's also obvious he can sense this will one day be his defense to lead, and there are responsibilities involved with that. Ray Lewis will only be around so much longer. The same is true of Ed Reed.

Even though the Ravens say they don't draft for need, they're going to have a difficult decision to make on draft day this year. Do they try to solve one of their glaring holes on the offensive line? Or do they concede that Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle were misses, and try again to draft a pass rusher opposite Suggs?

3. The Ravens still have issues at wide receiver. And it may be time to cut ties with a few of them.

Derrick Mason looked old against the Steelers. He couldn't get separation all game, and despite being targeted several times, he didn't catch a pass for the first time all year. T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin dropped key passes when their team desperately needed them to make a play. Donte' Stallworth was a non factor all year, including Saturday.

Wasn't this supposed to be the best receiving corps in the league?

It seems unlikely that Houshmandzadeh will be back. He just didn't produce enough to justify his subtle gripes about not getting the ball enough. I can't imagine Stallworth would want to come back, assuming another team would have him, considering that he caught only two passes this year. Boldin, whether you think his disappointing season was his own fault or Flacco's -- or a combination of the two -- will be back. But the real question mark for me is Mason.

Assuming the labor situation gets worked out, is it worth bringing him back for another year?

I honestly don't know the answer. Physically, he is still good enough to warrant a roster spot, but I think the Ravens have to seriously ask whether or not Mason will be able to deal with being just another receiver. Can he handle getting thrown to twice a game without getting upset? I'm not sure that he can. It's always going to be in his DNA to want the ball, and I'm not sure it benefits the Ravens long term to have him back for another season, potentially getting in Flacco's face because he's not getting the ball.

All you have to do is look at the Steelers wide receiver corps if you want your answer. Other than Hines Ward, the Steelers have a group of young, fast guys who stretch the field and put pressure on safeties and corners. And if you watched the Packers-Falcons game, you saw Aaron Rodgers hitting guys who looked like they got a turbo boost as soon as they caught the ball. The Ravens don't have a receiver who can run away from anyone after the catch. Boldin can run over them, but not away from them.

Even if the Ravens don't find someone to stretch the field, they need to find a slot receiver who is quick enough that he creates problems for linebackers in the middle of the field. Maybe you can't find the next Wes Welker or Percy Harvin, but you need to find someone who explodes out of his cuts and finds open space.

4. Rushing three down linemen on important plays is a flawed strategy for a number of reasons, but one of the most obvious is that it creates easy throwing lanes.

John Harbaugh said after the game that it didn't matter how many guys they rushed on the Steelers 3rd-and-19 pass to Antonio Brown because the ball came out so quickly. While conceding up front that Harbaugh knows a lot more about football than I do, I'm going to tell you why I still think he's wrong, or at the very least, trying to protect Greg Mattison.

If you get a chance to watch the replay, pay attention to this: It's not just about how much time Roethlisberger has (about four seconds) but it's also about the easy throwing lane the Ravens gave him to make that 58-yard pass. That pass didn't just require time, it required perfect touch. It was a rhythm play, and the Ravens did nothing to disrupt Roethlisberger's rhythm. When the ball was snapped, Suggs came off rushing off the left edge and gave a serviceable effort on the play. Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding ran a twist and the Steelers picked it up.

But that left a huge throwing lane for Roethlisberger to see the field. He could see Brown's entire route and see he was running past Lardarius Webb. It still took an incredible throw by Roethlisberger, but the Ravens made it easier on him. Rushing the passer isn't just about getting sacks, it's about impeding his vision and getting your hands in the way so he has to make subtle adjustments to his release, thus making it harder to be accurate.

In the end, Webb and Landry simply got beat. But taking a passive approach on the pass rush in that moment, letting Roethlisberger set his feet and deliver a throw when he wasn't under duress, can't pass without critical comment.

5. As admirable as it is that the Ravens can win playoff games on the road, if they want to take the next step toward the Super Bowl, they need to take care of business and get a bye and a home playoff game in 2011.

At one point in the third quarter when the Ravens were melting down, the press box at Heinz Field was literally bouncing. It was a little like being in a tiny earthquake, except with a bad pop music soundtrack. Some 68,000 people were whipping those yellow towels around, snarling like bloodthirsty Romans at the Colosseum.

I'll never, ever be one of those people who buy into this idea that the referees are screwing the Ravens. In fact, I hate that attitude. It reflects one of my least favorite things about Baltimore, this whiny belief that no one wants to see the city succeed, and that the failures of its sports teams are always someone else's fault. The Ravens lost this game because they had an epic meltdown on offense in the third quarter, not because of any one call made by the officials. But I do believe emotion and atmosphere play a factor in the way games are officiated, and when the crowd starts going nuts, the officials get caught up that tidal wave of emotion. Studies show it's just a fact. You get more calls at home. That's one reason why you want home playoff games.

Does Marcus Smith get flagged for that holding penalty on Webb's punt return if it occurs at M&T Bank Stadium? Probably not. It was a really close call. Both guys were grabbing jerseys on that play, and the Steeler defender, Will Allen, flopped when he realized Webb was going to score. (Smart play by him. Christiano Renaldo would have been proud at that dive Allen took.) And maybe in a home game, the officials might take notice of the fact that Jarret Johnson was getting dragged to the ground and blatantly held there on the play before Mendenhall's touchdown run, a play where Terrence Cody was flagged for defensive holding on a run play, of all things.

But that's why home-field advantage is so important, and why the Ravens' loss to the Bengals early in the year truly did end up mattering, no matter how many times the Ravens said it didn't matter. That was the one truly bad loss of the season, a loss to an inferior team. If you want to make a Super Bowl run, you need to win as many games as possible to position yourself to play at home in the playoffs. That stuff matters.

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