All signs pointed to this week's meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers to be an easy win for the Baltimore Ravens. They'd be coming to Baltimore without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center and a new offensive line configuration, thanks to injuries to face a Ravens team that hadn't lost at home since 2010.
Further, the Ravens were far more productive in home games throughout this season, with more passing yards, touchdowns and completions, fewer sacks and turnovers and more rushing yards than in away games. It seemed like a second consecutive sweep of the hated Steelers was inevitable.
Perhaps that's a reason why the Ravens were ultimately outplayed by the Charlie Batch-led Steelers on Sunday, losing 23-20 on a last-second Shaun Suisham field goal. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a season-worst home passing stat line, with just 16 completions on 34 attempts for 188 yards, a touchdown, a lost fumble and an interception. In contrast, Batch completed 25 of his 36 pass attempts, for 276 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
The Steelers didn't outrun the Ravens, but that didn't change Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's play calls. Ravens running back Ray Rice had only 12 rushes on the day for 78 yards and a touchdown, while his backup Bernard Pierce added 34 more yards on eight carries.
The stubborn assertion that Flacco will always play well at home may have ultimately doomed the Ravens this week. Flacco saw pressure on nearly every one of his dropbacks, which resulted in his pick, the strip sack and the two other times he was taken down by Steelers defenders. Though the Ravens were strong on offense in the first half, with 191 total yards and 134 for Flacco, they had just 97 additional yards in the second half.
The second half also proved to be a struggle for Baltimore's defense. Though two Steelers turnovers—a Corey Graham interception of a pass thrown by Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and a fumble by receiver Emmanuel Sanders—resulted in two Ravens' offensive touchdowns, they produced little else.
Though Baltimore held the Steelers to just 93 first-half yards, it couldn't stop them in the second half—they put up 173 yards in the final 30 minutes, as well as 17 points. It was the best Batch had ever looked in a Steelers start and it appeared Baltimore wasn't prepared for the possibility he could do anything other than his three-interception performance from a week ago.
Things could have been different for the Ravens had they adapted their offensive strategy. Running had been working well for them, with Rice ending the day averaging 6.5 yards per carry and Pierce 4.3. More running would have taken pressure off of Flacco and likely resulted in more than just the three converted third downs and, at the very least, allowed them to hold onto the ball longer—their time of possession was just 25:39 to Pittsburgh's 34:21.
Instead, they stuck with passing the ball even though it became more and more apparent that it wouldn't work. In the first half, Anquan Boldin was most productive, with four catches for 75 yards on a touchdown on 11 targets; he was a second-half nonfactor, with just one more catch.
Torrey Smith had just three catches for 33 yards on his eight targets, tight end Dennis Pitta ended the day with only one 19-yard reception, and fullback Vonta Leach proved to be a valuable target, putting up 40 yards on his four catches. That seemed to indicate that perhaps a more bruising, ground-based approach could have paid higher dividends than Flacco's repeated attempts to connect with receivers deep.
It's understandable Cameron and Flacco wanted to exploit the first-quarter injury to Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, but it didn't pay off, and the Ravens ultimately suffered for their stubbornness.
Of all possibilities the Ravens prepared for in the week leading up to this game, being outplayed by Batch on offense and facing legitimate pressure from Pittsburgh's defense didn't seem to be two of them. Baltimore was caught sleeping and the result was a rare home loss, their first since—surprise—the Steelers did it in 2010.
Though it doesn't mean the Ravens won't win the division or make the playoffs, it puts either possibility off for another week and, more importantly, means their biggest rivals may also get a chance to join them in January.