By Christina Rivers
The Baltimore Ravens enter week four of the 2015 NFL regular season with an 0-3 record, the first time they have done so since the franchise relocated to Maryland. After taking the lead twice late in the game on Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals dropped the Ravens, 28-24, after two A.J. Green touchdowns. Baltimore sits at the bottom of the AFC North heading into the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night at Heinz Field. The Steelers (2-1) will be tailoring their offense to the play of Michael Vick after losing Ben Roethlisberger to a sprained and bruised left knee in their week three win over the St. Louis Rams, 12-6.
Ravens Season Record
Baltimore opened their season in Denver against the Broncos, allowing a fourth-quarter drive that took 17 plays and 11 minutes off the clock. When the offense had an opportunity to catch game-winning passes from quarterback Joe Flacco – one that bounced off of receiver Steve Smith and another that was intercepted in front of tight end Crockett Gillmore – they saw the game get away from them.
Against the Oakland Raiders, on the road, the Ravens held their breath as Smith went up for a catch that would have scored and put them in the lead. Instead, Smith came down with only one foot in the end zone and Baltimore was forced to settle for a field goal. The defense could not stop Derek Carr from driving 80 yards for the win.
With a quick turnaround before what is always a challenging game in Pittsburgh, outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who gave his team their first lead of the game on Sunday with a strip-sack on Andy Dalton that set up a Ravens touchdown, told the media, “In this league, when you’re 0-3, nobody says, ‘Man, you know what? It could have been 3-0’. We’re 0-3 and that’s what the print says and that’s the facts. We have 13 games left though. This [week] is a must-win for sure.”
Ravens on Offense
“We’ve got to do it one game at a time, and that’s the only way that you’re going to keep a positive mindset – if you put the last three games behind you and forget about them,” Flacco said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve had opportunities to win each of these three games, and we’re just not good enough to be good in crunch-time situations, and it’s getting us beat.”
In three games, Flacco has completed just 65.1 percent of his passes for 282.0 yards and four touchdowns. He has also thrown four interceptions and been sacked twice for a loss of 17 yards that has resulted in his quarterback rating to fall to 82.2.
The biggest issue has been the lack of production by Ravens receivers outside of aging Steve Smith, Sr. On Sunday, Smith caught 13 pass for 186 yards, the third-most in Ravens history (in a game) and second-most ever by a player aged 36 or older. Smith’s 349 yards receiving on the season represents 40 percent of Flacco’s passing yards, indicating that while he may be giving it his all, Smith could use some help. First-round selection Breshad Perriman has a sprained knee and outside of Gillmore at tight end, no other player has stepped up. That includes Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro. “We need to get some other guys…a similar amount of opportunities and see what they can do and get their confidence going and make them believe that they can make those plays down the stretch because they can,” said Flacco. Smith who is playing angry, said, “Ultimately it’s up to wins and losses. That’s what we consume ourselves with. That’s what [the media] reports, if we win or lose.”
The rushing game is completely stagnant behind top back Justin Forsett. Forsett has 39 attempts for 124 yards (a 3.2 yard per-carry average) and has only earned 41.3 yards per game. Between Forsett, Javorius Allen, and Lorenzo Taliaferro, the Ravens have only rushed for a single touchdown – Taliaferro getting the lone score. The Ravens have put up 218 yards rushing through three games. Without the dual-threat of a running game to mix with the pass, the Ravens have become very one-dimensional and unable to keep their defense off of the field.
Ravens on Defense
Baltimore is used to having a punishing defense that is able to hold onto a lead, but in 2015 they have watched themselves overwhelmed late in games on long drives to be outscored. The frustration runs over into every other aspect of the team. When asked what needs to change, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw said, “I can sit here and think of big words and tel you what all the leaders said when they broke it down with the wise words this week. But at the end of the day, we have to win games. They brought us in here to win games and we just have to do that.”
The Ravens spent time and money in the offseason bringing in talent to bolster their defense, but so far one single issue hasn’t been the clear problem, making a quick fix harder to pinpoint. As a group, both the pass rush and coverage in the secondary have broken down. Committing too many penalties and allowing frequent big plays have bitten Baltimore more times that not. Scheming for Pittsburgh will be a bit different without Ben Roethlisberger in at quarterback as the Ravens prepare to face Michael Vick and a Steelers offense that is full of deadly weapons.
“With this defense, we’re supposed to get off the field,” said cornerback Lardarius Webb. “We haven’t been getting off the field this whole year, and that’s what you get when you don’t get off the field on third down.”
The Ravens tried playing cornerback Rashaan Melvin in place of Kyle Arrington against the Bengals, but after Melvin struggled and earned two penalties, Arrington came back into the game – an adjustment that is likely just the first trial for Baltimore as they search for answers. Jason Babin and Will Davis have yet to debut for Baltimore this season. Much of their shift has been from a mental standpoint after losing some key leadership and the loss of Terrell Suggs to a torn Achilles. The Ravens are no longer a shutdown defense, but are looking for ways to keep themselves in games for the entire 60 minutes.
Ravens to Watch
Cornerback Jimmy Smith is leading the Ravens in interceptions heading into week four with two for 24 yards, scoring on one. Smith is a tough competitor that isn’t afraid to go head-to-head with receivers and has defended three passes, added a sack and has 17 total tackles – third on the Ravens defense. If Smith is placed on Antonio Brown, the Steelers will need Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey to get open in passing lanes.
Gillmore has proven to be more than just a blocking tight end, second on the Ravens offense in reception yards this season. Gillmore has two touchdowns on the season and is utilized similarly to how Heath Miller is used in Pittsburgh’s offense. His 63 yards after the catch are the most for any receivers on the Ravens roster. The Steelers have seen two teams in as many weeks who utilize tight end sets, but can’t let down and give Gillmore room in the open field.
Anytime these two teams meet, it is a beat-down. Regardless of who is starting on which side of the ball or in what uniform. The Steelers have home-field advantage in week four and the fact that they have been moving in the right direction on offense and defense, but they can’t afford to let Baltimore walk in and take control of any area of the game on Thursday night. With the offense picking up to practice with Vick as their offensive leader, communication will be a key factor. While Pittsburgh is favored, the Steelers and Ravens always play very physical football and both teams will need to play smart to win.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on