Despite gamely pushing the defending AFC North champions to the brink in a 23-20 defeat as precocious rookie quarterback Joe Flacco displayed poise in his first Monday night game and road start, the Ravens were left to ponder what might have been.
If not for a costly personal foul on linebacker Jarret Johnson, some shoddy instances of tackling, pass coverage and pass protection or perhaps a better view of a potential touchdown pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason in the first half, the Ravens (2-1) were on the verge of vaulting to their second 3-0 start in franchise history.
"They didn't beat us," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They escaped. They kind of stole one, actually."
Seven questions into coach John Harbaugh's Tuesday afternoon press conference, and the topic remained focused on his decision to not challenge the officials' ruling that Mason either caught the football out of bounds or didn't have possession in the end zone toward the end of the first quarter.
With the play clock ticking down, the Ravens wound up settling for a 33-yard Matt Stover field goal as they didn't feel they had a conclusive look at the play from either the field level or the coaches up in the press box to throw the red flag for an instant-replay review.
One day later with the benefit of film review, Harbaugh was certain that Mason did actually score.
"We think he was in," Harbaugh said. "If we would have had any kind of picture that we thought was close, we would have challenged it for sure, but we didn't have any indication, and me looking at it from across the field, it looked to the naked eye like he was out. That's what I thought.
"But as soon we saw the thing this morning off the TV copy and when our guys saw it later, they thought he was in. It was too late."
Harbaugh emphasized that Mason didn't make a case to use a challenge, also noting that there are emotional reasons why players aren't always consulted in these situations.
"Generally speaking, I would say no," Harbaugh said. "You don't really rely on a player because players for the most part feel like they make most every play, but I guess it would depend on the player."
In another point of strategy, the Ravens opted to run the ball twice with fullback Le'Ron McClain with 1:40 remaining in regulation after taking over at their own 13-yard line.
Because McClain got hurt in the final two minutes following his second run, 30 seconds was removed from the clock.
"We were e weighing the risk-reward factor," Harbaugh said. "We're down around 42 seconds and we felt like, 'Let's get to overtime and give ourselves a chance to win it because we didn't have a good field position set up right here.' When we're one-dimensional and they come after you and you get a sack or a fumble and you give the game away at the end of regulation, it wouldn't have been worth it."
Three plays after Johnson was penalized for unnecessary roughness in the third quarter when he shoved Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, the Steelers scored on a 38-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
The momentum of the game changed immediately as the Steelers were energized after falling behind 13-3 by halftime.
"Obviously, I can't have that penalty," Johnson said. "It kind of gave them life. I just lost my head. I didn't realize I wasn't on the field. It's something to learn from.
"It hurts. I lost my cool and pushed Hines Ward. It's stuff you can't do."
On the ensuing drive, the Steelers scored again when linebacker James Harrison sacked Flacco from behind to force a fumble and linebacker LaMarr Woodley returned it seven yards into the end zone.
"We've got to learn that we will never get over the hump if we continue to do stupid crap in a football game," Suggs said in reference to the penalty. "That changed the whole outcome of the game. It seems like it never fails like they can always depend on the Ravens doing something dumb.
"Coach told us at halftime, 'Don't do the extracurricular, we'll get them between the whistles.' We'll never get over the hump if we don't learn from it."
Although Harbaugh described a holding penalty on linebacker Antwan Barnes on the kickoff return at the start of overtime as avoidable, he seemed to stick up for Johnson, who had a strong game overall with five tackles, a pass deflection and a quarterback hurry.
"There are foolish penalties, and there are penalties that are just gray-area penalties that go with the game," Harbaugh said. "The personal foul out of bounds, that's gray in my mind.
"That's a guy playing hard and you would like to see a better decision made, but that's a heat-of-battle penalty. So those things, you're in the heat of battle, you compete and you try to learn from them."
The Ravens had some lapses in pass coverage, including cornerback Fabian Washington being beaten by Holmes as he grasped for the ball in vain. The breakdown was compounded by cornerback Chris McAlister bouncing off Holmes in the open field. Holmes also eluded free safety Ed Reed.
"I jumped the route and the ball went through my hands," Washington said. "I don't think I could have covered it better other than catching the ball."
The Ravens sacked Roethlisberger three times, but he shrugged off linebacker Bart Scott's tackle attempt to improvise and lob a 49-yard completion to Ward as McAlister fell down in the second half to set up another Jeff Reed field goal.
"We can tackle better," Harbaugh said. "We can tackle better in the back end, and we can tackle the quarterback better."
Conversely, Flacco was sacked a season-high five times as the Steelers forced two fumbles.
"I think Pittsburgh did a good job rushing us in some one-on-one situations, they had a couple moves on us that we could do a better job of blocking," Harbaugh said. "We didn't have assignment errors, we didn't bust anything. We can just block better."
A Pro Bowl selection last season who had 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception against Baltimore a year ago, Harrison recorded 10 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks while working against offensive tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry. His upfield rush was usually too much for them to handle.
""We had a couple breakdowns in protection, we need to learn from it," Gaither said. "Harrison is a good player. We've got to shut him down better than that. He was on my side most of the time, and I need to step up there and rise to the occasion and shut him down."
The Ravens don't have much time to dwell on this game. They'll resume practicing today to play the undefeated Tennessee Titans (4-0) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Harbaugh didn't indicate that he would lighten practice other than varying the routine of drills to aid the players' recovery from the Pittsburgh game.
"They move on pretty quickly," Harbaugh said. "You know we'll probably be looking back at the game or the fans certainly will be looking back at the game for a couple of days, but the players are already over it and they've already moved on to Tennessee. You have to."
One game behind the Steelers in the division race, the Ravens are about to face an old AFC Central nemesis that now leads the AFC South.
The timing of the week doesn't leave much time for introspection.
"The big picture is we've got a game next week against Tennessee. I think that's our big picture," Harbaugh said. "All of the other big-picture stuff, that's kind of for fans and media to look at and figure all that out.
"Until you start winning a whole lot of games, it's really pointless to look at the big picture. The big picture is Tennessee six days from now, and that's a really good football team coming in here. We've got our hands full, but we're looking forward to it."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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