The Baltimore Ravens dropped to 9-3 on the season after Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. While they are in little danger of losing their lead in the AFC North because of the loss, it did expose certain weaknesses in the Ravens' game that need to be addressed before they head into the postseason with the Super Bowl on their minds.
Whether a game ends in a win or a loss, there are things a team can learn about itself from the performance.
Here are the biggest takeaways for the Ravens after the 23-20 defeat. The sooner they can apply these lessons, the better the rest of their season will be.
Don't Underestimate Your Opponent
Though the Ravens are no strangers to the Steelers and the challenges they face, it's quite possible they entered their Week 13 meeting with a measure of overconfidence that ultimately harmed their chances to win.
The Steelers are one team when Ben Roethlisberger is their starting quarterback and another without him, and the Ravens extrapolated that truth to the point that they may have sincerely believed the Steelers could not win without anyone other than Roethlisberger under center. In fact, there's precedent for such an assumption—the previous two weeks.
In Week 11, the Ravens faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh with Byron Leftwich starting in place of the injured Roethlisberger, and the result was a 13-10 Ravens victory. In the following week, the Steelers were forced to turn to Charlie Batch at quarterback after Leftwich himself was injured in the Ravens contest, and the results weren't all that great for Pittsburgh, losing to the Cleveland Browns, 20-14 after turning the ball over eight times.
Three of those turnovers were Batch interceptions that made it seem like the Steelers couldn't possibly put forth a winning performance on the road with the 37-year-old third-stringer at the helm of the offense. And that's where the Ravens fell into dangerous territory.
As a Steelers starter, Batch went into Week 13 with a 5-3 record. That's not stellar, but it's also not so terrible for a backup quarterback. But while his three interceptions in the previous game didn't help the Steelers, he wasn't at fault for the team's other five fumbles. He also entered that game as cold as a quarterback could be, with only a few days' worth of first-team reps to his name.
The Ravens simply weren't prepared for the Steelers to have a productive passing offense in Week 13, and they suffered for it. By the time the game was over, Batch proved himself to be more than capable of leading his team to victory and outplayed his Ravens counterpart, Joe Flacco, as well.
Their preparation—or lack thereof—for Batch to play well wasn't the only way in which the Ravens underestimated the Steelers. It also played a big part in why Flacco ended up having such a poor day.
Steelers starting cornerback Ike Taylor left Sunday's game early on with a right leg injury, forcing the Steelers to move nickel corner Cortez Allen into the starting lineup. Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Flacco jumped at the opportunity to try to exploit the apparent downgrade at the position by repeatedly throwing Allen's way as well as trying to take shots deep downfield, hoping to catch Allen off-guard.
The result was less than desirable. Flacco completed only 16 of his 34 pass attempts for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The attack on Allen worked somewhat in the first half—he was primarily tasked with covering Anquan Boldin, and the result was four Boldin receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown.
However, second-half adjustments rendered Boldin a non-factor in the final 30 minutes of the game, with only one additional target and catch and six more yards. Torrey Smith was also not much of an option—he had three receptions on six targets in the first half for 33 total yards, and though he was targeted twice more in the second half, he had no further catches. The only passing that was working for the Ravens were short throws to fullback Vonta Leach, who ended the day with four catches for 40 yards.
Despite tangible proof that going after Allen wasn't a way to attack a Steelers Achilles' heel, the Ravens didn't choose to alter their offensive approach. Running back Ray Rice had a productive first half, with seven carries for 34 yards, but he only saw five more carries in the second half. He ended the game averaging 6.5 yards per carry, but Cameron chose not to run the ball, even though it would have eaten up the play clock and likely produced better results than testing out the deeper passing game.
Cameron chose to stubbornly attempt to test the Steelers secondary, and it ended up being the wrong approach. He was so convinced that Allen wasn't capable of performing to Taylor's level that he failed to see he was wrong in his estimations.
The Ravens weren't playing from behind at any point in the game but still chose to abandon the run and relegate Rice—one of Baltimore's very best and most consistent offensive weapons—to the margins of the game plan. Of any mistake the Ravens made in this game, this was certainly the most fatal.
The Ravens Aren't Invincible at Home
Part of the reason why Cameron (and to a lesser extent, Flacco) may have been so comfortable in trying to exploit the perceived weakness in the Steelers secondary is based in how the passing game has fared at home this year.
It's no secret that Baltimore's passing is far better when at home—even after Sunday's loss, Flacco has over 600 more passing yards at home than in away games, a home completion percentage of 63 compared to 55.3 on the road and 11 home passing touchdowns to four in away games. It's a major reason why the Ravens hadn't lost a game at home since 2010 and why they stubbornly stuck with passing the ball so much in Sunday's eventual loss to the Steelers.
However, when comfort at home morphs into a feeling of invincibility when playing on the home turf, things can get a bit out of hand. It's dangerous for the Ravens (or any team that has far greater home success than on the road) to assume they cannot be beaten in their home stadium and that, regardless of the opponent, one strategy (in this case, passing) will always produce the desired results.
"When at home, pass the ball," has served the Ravens well in the past, as the numbers indicate. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and if the game-planning does not account for these exceptions, losses like the one the Ravens experienced Sunday will eventually occur.
That's how, in a certain light, it can appear that the Ravens beat themselves. On defense, they seemed unprepared for Charlie Batch to play well, and on offense, they seemed unprepared for the passing game to not produce the dividends it has in the past. The inability to adjust to these unexpected circumstances played a major role in why their second half, in particular, went so poorly.
It was foolish of the Ravens to assume they could continue to do the same things that worked in previous games while they were witnessing proof that it wasn't panning out in the same way against the Steelers on Sunday. Overconfidence and lack of preparation left the Ravens unable to see the forest for the trees, and the outcome was a surprising home loss.
The key for Baltimore is to now incorporate these lessons into how it prepares for future games, both home and away. This loss needs to be a learning experience, not just a disappointment worth discarding and moving on from. Tempering their confidence and divesting with a degree of stubbornness will do wonders for their eventual playoff run.