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Sunday, October 20, 2013
Time to get concerned about the Ravens

By Jamison Hensley

Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco and the Ravens did not score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
PITTSBURGH -- It's too early to write off the Baltimore Ravens, even though this is the first time they have had a losing record this late in a season in their six years under John Harbaugh. But let's be honest: Their 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was further evidence it's time to have serious doubts whether the Ravens are physically and mentally good enough to turn around their season.

There are disturbing trends that have caused the defending Super Bowl champions to fall two games behind the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (5-2). The Ravens (3-4) can't run the ball and can't stop teams from running it up the gut, which happens when a team gets pushed around. Baltimore continually gets off to slow starts, playing catch-up. And Harbaugh's aggressive decisions have repeatedly backfired for a team whose past three losses have come by a combined eight points.

No one in the Ravens locker room suggested pushing the panic button. Actually, it's worse. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs declared a state of emergency as if the Ravens are a nation in peril.

"I'm very concerned," Suggs said. "We can't kid ourselves anymore. We've got a tremendous amount of work to do."

The Ravens are the first defending Super Bowl champion to have a losing record after seven games since the 2006 Steelers. Baltimore's downward spiral would be easier to justify if it were losing to the likes of the Denver Broncos every week. But they're not.

The Ravens lost to rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and a Bills secondary without three starters. They lost to the Green Bay Packers, who were without Clay Matthews and two of their top wide receivers. And Sunday they lost to the Steelers, who had gone 0-for-September running behind a makeshift offensive line.

Players and coaches talked about how the bye week can give this team the time it needs to improve. But can an extra week fix the same Ravens problems that keep coming up week after frustrating week?

The Ravens still can't run the ball, having more success on the ground by spreading the Steelers with three wide receivers and going shotgun. The results, though, were the same: Take away Joe Flacco's scrambles and the Ravens averaged 2.8 yards rushing against the NFL's 22nd-ranked defense.

The Ravens still can't stop the run, giving up 141 yards to the Steelers a week after allowing 140 yards on the ground. The Steelers, who didn't have their Pro Bowl center and were without their starting right tackle for most of the game, rushed for 82 yards in the first half, more than they have had in any game this season.

And the Ravens special teams had lapses, too, although there were no punts blocked this time. Their coverage teams were awful, their return team nearly fumbled the ball back to Pittsburgh and their kickoff team poorly executed an onside kick in the fourth quarter.

"I still have a lot of confidence," Flacco said of the Ravens. "It's going to be a dog fight just like it always is in this division."

The Ravens' biggest fight isn't against the Bengals, Browns (3-4) or Steelers (2-4). It's with themselves.

The Ravens offense was in Steelers territory six times, but scored only one touchdown with three field goals. The real hand-wringing moment for the Ravens came in the third quarter, when Flacco underthrew wide receiver Jacoby Jones for an easy touchdown that would have given the Ravens the lead. Struggling to score points has been a painful theme for the Ravens, who have been held to 20 points or fewer in their past three losses.

The defense not only failed to get the Steelers off the field consistently, but it helped Pittsburgh extend drives. Pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil had a nightmarish series in the third quarter, when an unnecessary roughness penalty (he pushed Ben Roethlisberger after the play) converted a second-and-17 and a face mask penalty negated a drive-ending sack. The Ravens finished with nine penalties for 67 yards.

The mental mistakes are what should really drive Harbaugh and the Ravens crazy. If you're going to debate whether the Ravens should have attempted that onside kick in the fourth quarter, you have to point out the Ravens didn't give themselves a chance to steal an extra possession. Jeromy Miles was offside, so it didn't matter if kicker Justin Tucker recovered it.

"To me, that's the unforgivable part of that," Harbaugh said. "I don't want to see a guy offsides when you do a surprise onside kick. We talk about it every time we do it. It's all moot. If you're offsides, you're not going to get it. That's the part that ticks me off more than anything."

Perhaps these are all signs this isn't the Ravens' year. And it didn't get any better after the game when the Ravens' plane to Baltimore had mechanical problems, delaying their return home for more than an hour.

"We're just putting the pieces together," running back Ray Rice said after being held to fewer than 50 yards rushing for the fifth time in six games. "It's the time of the year where we have to create our identity. We have to find out who we are as a football team. Obviously, we know that nobody is going to walk all over us. We work too hard for that. But we'll find out who we are as as team when we come back off the bye."

Right now, the Ravens are a team losing their grip on a division they've won the past two seasons. Right now, the defending champions are in a state of emergency.