OWINGS MILLS – In control of their own destiny with another opportunity to clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Oakland Raiders to end the regular season, the Baltimore Ravens could stand for some improved self-control.
Maddening mistakes, numerous costly penalties characterized by former NFL coach Tony Dungy as not smart football and breakdowns in pass protection were too much for the Ravens to overcome during a frustrating 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Leading the NFL in penalty yardage with 1,057 yards after committing 11 penalties for 113 yards against Pittsburgh, the Ravens are under no illusions about what their primary problem is as they attempt to return to the postseason for the second year in a row.
Two touchdowns were nullified against the Steelers due to penalties, including Terrell Suggs’ block-in-the-back infraction and wide receiver Kelley Washington’s holding flag.
“It was irritating, all of us felt that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We played too well in so many ways for the outcome to be what it was. Why was the outcome what it was? Well, it was our doing. It was penalties and missed opportunities, but those are things we can fix.”
That’s debatable, though, considering the Ravens’ poor track record at consistently avoiding penalties this year.
And with the heavy traffic of yellow flags flying in the Ravens’ direction, it raises the question about whether this is a disciplined football team.
Dungy, the former Indianapolis Colts coach who’s now working for NBC as an analyst, was pointed in his criticism of the Ravens.
"Coach Harbaugh said they played hard, and they did, but they didn’t play smart," Dungy said. "They didn’t play with poise, and you’re not going to win games like this if you don’t play with poise."
To a man, the Raven deny the charge that they lack discipline while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s a problem.
They rank third in the NFL with 110 penalties.
“We commit some penalties at critical times and it has hurt us as a team,” Washington said. “Our team is probably one of the most disciplined teams in the league. When you’re aggressive sometimes, it comes back and bites you in the butt.
“We’re an aggressive team and we just got to know when to control it in key situations. A lot of the penalties are after the play when we don’t even need that particular person to make a play.”
That was a common theme for the Ravens in Pittsburgh, whether it’s offensive tackle Oniel Cousins’ personal foul for shoving LaMarr Woodley after the play or defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s late hit that decked two Steelers on the sideline.
"We’re an aggressive football team, you’re going to have some penalties," Harbaugh said. "To hit a guy when the play is over, we call them foolish penalties. We fix it just like that. We hold our players accountable for it.
“They hold themselves accountable for it. We make sure it doesn’t happen anymore as best we can. That’s the kind of football team we want to be and we need to be if we’re going to achieve the things we want to achieve.”
The Steelers were only penalized four times for 20 yards.
“The other things? The things that stick in our gut and our craw?” Harbaugh said. “We acknowledge it. Let’s get those things worked out. Let’s make better decisions in critical situations. Let’s get those penalties down where they belong, which is at three or four a game at the most.”
Despite the disparity of flags and Baltimore fans’ conspiracy theories, the Ravens aren’t buying into the notion that the officials are predisposed to throw flags on them.
“I don’t feel like we got jobbed,” cornerback Chris Carr said. “Of course, we’re biased. It’s just one of those games where we beat ourselves. We can’t worry about the refs. We just need to do better.”
The 11 penalties is the second-most the Ravens have committed this year as they were flagged a dozen times, including five pass interference penalties, during a 27-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
“The penalties hurt us a little bit,” Ngata said. “When we win, it’s fine. When we lose, you think about it a little bit and try to work hard at technique to not get those penalties. We’re just getting more calls. We just got to move on.”
The penalties weren’t the only issue in Pittsburgh as the Ravens committed three turnovers, allowed four sacks and usually reliable wide receiver Derrick Mason flubbed a potential touchdown catch when the football collided with his facemask.
Despite squandering a chance to clinch a playoff berth on Sunday by not beating Pittsburgh, the Ravens can still assure themselves of a spot in “the tournament,” as Harbaugh refers to it, by taking care of business against the Raiders (5-10).
“Forget about this one, it’s over and done with,” Mason said. “We just have to prepare for the next one. That’s all that matters. We win, we’re in. That’s our philosophy. I’ve forgotten about this one.”
Even though the Ravens have displayed their issues in being swept by the Cincinnati Bengals, five of their seven losses are by six points or fewer.
The Ravens feature a strong running game in Ray Rice, an above-average quarterback in Joe Flacco and a defense that has been especially stingy in December.
“I’m excited about our chances,” Harbaugh said. “We take care of business at Oakland, get ourselves in the playoffs, we can win the world championship. That’s our goal. We’re capable of doing it, but it’s up to us to get it done.”
“I happen to think that we have the makings of a very good football team. We do a lot of things really well. That’s the thing you get excited about, because that’s where we’re going to go.”
Besides the tendency to commit penalties, the Ravens have reason to be encouraged based on their strong track record against teams with losing records.
During Harbaugh’s two-year tenure, the Ravens have never lost to a team with a non-winning record at the time.
The Raiders are regarded as dangerous, though, considering they’ve already upset the Philadelphia Eagles, Bengals, Denver Broncos and the Steelers this season.
Nonetheless, Harbaugh expects the Ravens to be prepared in every way Sunday as they make their second trip to the West Coast this year.
“I would be disappointed, I would be surprised if our team wasn’t ready to play,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just going to be a matter of how well we address the things we’ve got to get better at going into next week. Our guys know they’re going to play a team that’s very dangerous, a football team that has proven they can beat anybody in this league, and we’re going to their place.
“This is their last game of the season, and they’re going to put their best effort out there, but we’ve got more at stake. We’ve got an opportunity to make the playoffs. We’ve got an opportunity to get in the tournament. To me, that’s motivation enough. I’m sure our guys will be ready.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.