Just a few plays after Trace McSorley’s miraculous 70-yard touchdown pass, the Ravens, who were left dead in the water just a few minutes before, needed one third-down stop on defense to get the ball back.
With 2:36 left in the game and the Ravens down by five, they dialed up a blitz against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And it nearly worked.
Off his back foot, Roethlisberger floated a pass in-between three Ravens defenders to wideout James Washington, who held onto the ball for a conversion on third and six on a play that was emblematic of the entire afternoon for the COVID-depleted Ravens.
In a 19-14 loss at Heinz Field on a Wednesday afternoon, the Ravens gave the Steelers everything they had, but came up just a play or so short. Then again, no one expected it’d be just a play or so.
“A lot of guys showed their true character today,” left guard Bradley Bozeman said. “They went out there, they played their butts off.”
Absent 17 players (including nine starters), Wednesday’s thrice-postponed game looked destined to be a Pittsburgh cakewalk.
The Ravens didn’t have starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, nor running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins, nor fullback Patrick Ricard, nor tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Willie Snead. They didn’t have their first or second-string centers or a regular swing tackle, either, with Patrick Mekari, Matt Skura and Will Holden all on the COVID list as well.
And that’s just on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensively, the Ravens’ front seven was decimated without defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Justin Madubuike and Jihad Ward. Outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee weren’t available, nor was safety Geno Stone. Longsnapper Morgan Cox was placed on the list too.
All of those players listed, with the exception of perhaps just two or three, were sure to have played in the game against the Steelers. Instead, they watched from their homes in Baltimore.
“It wasn’t that tough, because we throw with them in practice,” wideout Marquise Brown, who caught passed from two different receivers, said. “I trained in the offseason with those guys. So, we’ve got good chemistry. All we had to do was get in a position (and) trust those guys to get us the ball. They did the best they could today.”
But somehow, some way, the Ravens hung around against the NFL’s last unbeaten team with a mix of inspired play, timely big plays and fortunate bounces.
The Ravens’ offense, absent so many starters and key contributors, struggled mightily throughout the majority of the day to move the football. On back-to-back drives in the first quarter, Robert Griffin III, who started for Jackson, turned the ball over twice on a fumble and an interception, which went for a touchdown. He later injured his hamstring in the second quarter and was hobbled until he was replaced in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to really comment on injuries, but I pulled my hamstring in the second quarter,” Griffin said. “ I felt like if I hadn’t done that, then we would’ve won this game. So, it’s just unfortunate. There were a lot of emotions running through my head. I didn’t want to quit on the team. I didn’t want to quit on my teammates. It was really emotional trying to fight through that and feeling like you let your guys down.”
Otherwise, there were a few promising stretches for the Ravens’ offense, from places no one saw coming.
Justice Hill, who hadn’t tallied a carry all season long, ran for 35 yards on nine attempts, which included some big time carries at the end of the second quarter. Trace McSorley, in for Griffin during the game’s final drives, threw a 70-yard touchdown pass and ran for 16 yards in limited time.
The Ravens were out-gained 334-219. They were out-possessed 33:39-26:21. They were out-snapped 71-49. They had just 10 first downs while the Steelers had 22.
But the Ravens’ defense, while it bent to the point of collapse multiple times, held strong and somehow kept the team in the game. They only allowed 13 offensive points against the fourth-ranked offense in football, one that averaged 29.8 points per game entering Wednesday.
“It showed resilience, it showed heart,” Brown said. “For us not to be around each other, and guys filling in – it’s all about trusting each other. Everybody who played, you know these guys. So, you pick one another up. I think we showed a lot of resilience and will.”
There were a handful of other plays, too, which if the Ravens had gotten a bounce on, could’ve swung the game in their favor.
There were the plays at the end of the first half where the Steelers stayed down for a few more seconds at the goal line, which forced the Ravens’ pass to the end zone to be the final one of the half. The Ravens felt there should’ve been a flag on the Steelers for delay of game, but in any case, they still missed two chances at the doorstep to score.
There was the sequence in the third quarter where a holding penalty and a loss of two yards two plays forced the Ravens to punt instead of kick a field goal.
Big plays swung the other way too, like when the Steelers were stuffed at the goal line on the team’s second drive of the game which ended with a Roethlisberger interception. Or when they were forced to kick two field goals in the red zone.
The Steelers made more plays than the Ravens did, to the surprise of no one. How they got there, though, surprised everyone.
“Obviously, there’s a bright future for those (replacement) guys, and (I’m) just proud of our team right now,” Bozeman said. “They came out there and busted their butt tonight. We had a chance to win at the end and just couldn’t pull it all the way through.”
The Ravens (6-5) nearly pulled out the most improbable upset of the 2020 NFL season in one of the weirdest games they’ve played in recent memory.
In a way, it was what everyone expected; the Ravens left the field with a loss to the Steelers as their replacement player-laden team couldn’t get the job done against their AFC North rivals. After a 10-day stretch like the Ravens had, expectations were non-existent.
But in a sense, Wednesday’s game was unlike anything anyone could’ve expected.