PITTSBURGH – The Baltimore Ravens believed they were building a vaunted offense, banking draft picks and millions of dollars in hopes of transforming a one-dimensional attack into a viable, equal partner to their stingy defense.
They acquired wide receiver Anquan Boldin via a trade as the centerpiece of their passing game, signing the three-time Pro Bowl selection to a contract that included $28 million worth of new money.
They retooled their offensive line, hoping that Michael Oher would emerge as an effective blocker at left tackle. They signed veteran wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh as a complementary target.
And they placed their faith and confidence in strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco, hoping that he would take the next step toward joining the elite passers in his third NFL season.
Now, the Ravens have been confronted with the reality of where their hopes collide with the facts revealed by a season’s worth of inconsistent production and a meltdown of three turnovers during a bitter 31-24 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night at Heinz Field.
The Ravens’ revamped offense was exposed , at least on this night, as not being good enough, of being a flawed operation that needs serious work to become a legitimate contender. They committed three turnovers, generated only 126 yards of total offense for the game and 28 yards after halftime.
“We really just pissed down our leg,” fullback Le’Ron McClain said. “We can’t have turnovers on the road. We got to do more as a whole on offense. We didn’t make plays. We also made some bad plays. There’s only so much I could do, from watching.”
Flacco completed only 16 of 30 passes for 125 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a paltry 61.1 passer rating.
He regressed one week removed from an encouraging performance against the Kansas City Chiefs where he registered a postseason career-high two touchdown passes and 265 passing yards.
“We’re both good football teams and bottom line is they’re better at winning right now than we are,” Flacco said. “We have to improve. We’re just not there yet.”
Flacco had a strong regular season, establishing career records with 3,622 yards and 25 touchdowns. His glittery 103.4 passer rating over the final 14 regular-season games and only five interceptions did nothing for him against the Steelers.
Here’s the facts:
The Ravens finished the regular season ranked 22nd in total offense, averaging 322.9 yards per contest.
They were 14th in rushing, averaging 114.4 yards per contest.
And they were 20th in passing offense, passing for 208.4 yards per game, and were 16th in scoring offense with a 22.3 average.
Despite the unimpressive numbers, the Ravens’ offense featured a former Pro Bowl selection at every skill position except for quarterback.
The Ravens thought they had the kind of team to go on a Super Bowl run, but their season was derailed by a disastrous third quarter as they surrendered a 21-7 halftime lead.
“No disrespect to Pittsburgh, but coming into the game you’re really not too worried because I really feel like we have more talent than them and we should beat them, and it shouldn’t be close,” cornerback Chris Carr said. “When it was 21-7, we came in here at halftime and were like, ‘It should be like that.’ We should expect that. To choke like the way we did is just …”
Against the Steelers, there were crucial dropped passes from Boldin and Houshmandzadeh in the fourth quarter. Boldin managed to allow an accurate, well-thrown pass from Flacco to bounce off his chest in the end zone.
"I tried to come up with it," said Boldin, who caught only one pass for minus-two yards. "It was low. It was a tough play. It was a low ball."
And Houshmandzadeh’s drop on fourth-and-18 ended the game.
"It’s tough, because it ends because of me," Houshmandzadeh said. "Just make a play. And the play that I should make, that I could make, that I’ve always made , I don’t. It’s almost unreal to me. I can’t explain it.
"We blew it, or I blew it, really. I love football, and I can’t [usually] wait to watch the games. I have like no enthusiasm to watch games now. It’s like that disappointing to me. And it’s hard to explain."
Running back Ray Rice fumbled for the first time this season in his past 405 touches. He rushed for only 32 yards on 12 carries against the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense.
"You’ve got to be conscious of the situation," Rice said. "I didn’t even feel it. I’m not sure who hit it out or whatever, but that’s totally my fault. I can take that. I’m not a fumbler, but in a situation like that, I’ve just got to be more careful. I was just trying to make a play."
The offensive line didn’t get much of a push. And the diminutive Rice wasn’t capable of running over the Steelers’ big, tough linebacker corps.
And reliable six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk snapped it early to Flacco, causing another fumble. The offensive line, whose pass protection was generally shoddy all season, allowed five sacks.
They had no answers for formidable outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Oher, who had issues with false starts during the regular season, had a lot of trouble with Harrison, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The Ravens’ offseason check list is a lengthy one that could be complicated by an uncertain labor situation with no new collective bargaining agreement in sight and a potential lockout looming.
Among the obvious areas in need of upgrade: becoming more explosive downfield with new personnel at wide receiver with Houshmandzadeh and Donte’ Stallworth pending free agents and Derrick Mason up in years at age 37, developing a more physical, consistent rushing attack, Flacco improving in big games against blue-chip defenses and Oher either growing into the left tackle job or moving back to right tackle.
Mason is under contract, but could contemplate retirement again.
“You get some time away, regroup and possibly prepare for next year,” said Mason, who was shut out by Pittsburgh while being targeted three times. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the labor situation. As a player, you prepare for the next season.”
The Ravens will have a big decision to make on whether to retain oft-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. There are indications he could stay, but owner Steve Bisciotti still has to meet with coach John Harbaugh about the staff.
And they’ll attempt to retain free agent offensive tackle Marshal Yanda.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Harbaugh said. “You better keep working all the time to be as good as you can possibly be. It’s a competitive world we live in.
“We’ll go to work in the offseason and try to build our team the best way we can. When things come up and things happen, you’ve got to adjust and adapt and you never know on a journey what bend the road is going to take.”