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A Fitting End – Backups Let it Slip Away

Najee Harris Justin Houston Steelers
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Reading Time: 4 minutes

The 2021 season ended in the most fitting way possible for the Ravens – with two starters picking up injuries in the regular season finale against the Steelers, including a torn Achilles for Tyus Bowser that could affect his availability at the beginning of next season.

The Ravens only surrendered 16 points and 314 total yards to the Steelers, with another extremely good performance against the run.

Like in most of Baltimore’s games this season, the defense produced plenty of notable plays, for themselves and the opposing offense, but just couldn’t hang on at the end of the game.

Let’s jump into some highlights – and lowlights – before another segment of “How The Heck Do You Stop This?”

The Highlights: Few and Far Between

For the most part, the Ravens defense played solid, disciplined football against the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger only averaged 5.5 yards per attempt on 44(!) passes, and Najee Harris could only muster 28 yards on 11 carries. That adds up to a lot of short runs and short passes, with very few highlight opportunities for the defense.

Geno Stone still managed to reel in an interception, a welcome sight for a rotational safety who has stepped up this season.

 

It’s unclear exactly what the Steelers intended with this play. The offensive line breaks to the right, making it look like a screen, but there’s no eligible receiver in the area. Instead, Roethlisberger chucks it downfield and for a second week in a row, a Ravens safety is able to come down with the ball. Of course, there was at least one other dropped interception by the Ravens in this game, but at least Stone got his first career pick!

Patrick Queen also sniffed out an opposing run play based on motion, something that he’s added to his repertoire this season.

Sure, he didn’t make the tackle – he chided himself for that after the game – but he still made the initial stop to give Bowser enough time to finish the play. Queen has made HUGE strides in his run defense this season, especially in his pre-snap awareness and adjustments.

Here’s one more highlight:

Justin Madubuike seems to have all of the tools; he just needs to consistently impact plays rather than popping on tape once or twice a game. The burst off the line, solid use of his upper body strength and ability to finish the play are all there on this play, but they need to be there on every play if he’s going to anchor this defensive line in the future.

Lowlights: A Tough Farewell For Jimmy

I love Jimmy Smith, and as a fan who grew up watching him play football in Baltimore, I’ll miss him on the Ravens. But it seems like his lengthy injury history may have finally taken its toll, as he had an especially rough game against the Steelers.

The coverage is not what it used to be:

This play came in overtime, as one of several third-and-long conversions by the Steelers that led to their game-winning field goal.

You can see that Smith just doesn’t have the agility that he used to that made him such an effective physical corner. Diontae Johnson is an underrated route-runner – he beat Marlon Humphrey on a similar route in the Ravens’ first game against the Steelers this season – but Smith was still way behind in a key moment.

Smith struggled against the run too, with one particular notable miss in overtime.

Again, a younger, healthier Smith may have shot the gap and made the tackle for loss here, but Smith jumps too far in and can’t hold the edge, allowing another first down in overtime.

I can’t bear to only mention Smith’s negative plays, so I’ll throw in this solid overtime tackle to end on a positive note.

How The Heck Do You Stop This? Part II

By the end of the game, both Bowser and Tavon Young were out, leaving the Ravens even more shorthanded on defense. All Pittsburgh needed to do was execute on a few plays, and they’d win the game, with Baltimore’s offense unable to score points.

Well, in classic Roethlisberger fashion, that’s exactly what the Steelers offense did in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The Ravens don’t really have an answer for plays like this. Jaylon Ferguson – yes, the special teams/run defense-only linebacker – is dropping into coverage in the middle of the field and still almost makes a play!

Najee Harris reeled in a one-handed catch that could’ve been a pick six for Patrick Queen…

…and Pat Freiermuth continued a long Steelers tight end tradition of killing the Ravens in clutch moments.

Tony Jefferson’s coverage was near-perfect on this play, and of course Big Ben manages to pull another dart out from nowhere. At a certain point, with so many key players out due to injury, there’s not a whole lot more that the defense can do.

Here are two plays, though, that I think are indicative of the Ravens’ 2021 season.

Folks, they did it. I have been railing about not being prepared for these pick plays all season, and the Ravens defense actually handled this one really well. Both Chris Westry and Kevon Seymour quickly recognize the slot receiver as a decoy and key in on Chase Claypool, the outside receiver. Pause at 0:02 and you’ll see that Seymour and Westry were both prepared for this type of play, and when the ball is in the air, it looks like Claypool is going to get sandwiched between the two corners.

But that’s where the talent deficiency comes in, as well as Roethlisberger’s veteran skills. His pump fake causes Seymour to jump a touch too early, opening up space for Claypool to split the gap into the end zone. Wink clearly worked on this kind of play with the defense, but at a certain point, talent wins out.

Here’s one more, the play that ultimately won the game for the Steelers.

The Ravens went into a lot more zone coverage than normal after losing Young, with Brandon Stephens forced to start playing cornerback. This appears to be Cover 3 – though a better angle may reveal a Cover 6 look – with Chris Board and Tony Jefferson responsible for the middle of the field.

Board stays with the tight end, allowing Ray Ray McCloud to cut underneath. Jefferson is not in the best position, either, having fallen too far back into his zone.

Jefferson playing such huge snaps definitely was not part of the plan this season, even when he was signed, and Board has been serviceable but not great in replacement of Queen on passing downs.

But when you don’t have any more safeties, and your star second-year linebacker is a liability in pass coverage, this is what you’re left with. Second-stringers doing their best in tough situations, and that’s pretty much the story of 2021 in Baltimore.

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