The Ravens will likely be getting a handful of key contributors back on Sunday. Although they are listed as questionable, players including Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley and C.J. Mosley are expected to play. While Steve Smith is legitimately questionable to play, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him suit up after practicing both Thursday and Friday.
Their returns will help the Ravens reverse course this season in what could be a game that either catapults them to first place, or continues their downward spiral towards a second consecutive season of irrelevance. However, if the Ravens are to win this week, they’ll need to be a smarter and more disciplined football team in almost every respect.
The frequency of flags has been a problem – the Ravens are the sixth-most penalized team in the league, averaging eight per game. What’s been more backbreaking, though, has been the timing of these infractions. Holding penalties have offset long runs, blocks in the back on returns have pushed a sputtering offense dangerously close to its own end zone, and roughing the passer penalties have extended drives for the opposition when the Ravens had opportunities to get off the field. The Ravens haven’t been able to overcome penalties against weaker competition; if they consistently shoot themselves in the foot against a more talented team like Pittsburgh, they won’t have a chance this Sunday.
John Harbaugh needs to make smarter decisions, and he needs to take points when he has the opportunity. Harbaugh has passed on field goals several times when the Ravens have failed to convert, and he’s accepted penalties that ultimately extended drives for the competition. With Ben Roethlisberger expected to play, the Ravens can’t pass on any points, they can’t run poorly executed fakes and they need to keep Roethlisberger and the Steelers talented offense off the field as much as they can. Mike Tomlin has been the coach who has seemed to melt down in this rivalry in recent years. Harbaugh needs to give his team every advantage it can, not put them in poor positions as he has on a handful of occasions this season.
Maybe most importantly, Joe Flacco needs to get out of the current rut he is in. During their four-game losing streak, he’s completing less than 60 percent of his passes and has thrown for two touchdowns and two interceptions. What’s more concerning is the fact that three of those games came against defenses that rank near the bottom of both total and pass defense. His pocket presence has been poor and the back-foot throws have reared their ugly head far too often.
One common theme in those games has been the fluctuation of the offensive line. For the first time since their last win over a month ago, it looks like that unit will be fully healthy. Flacco needs to respond with one of his better games this season and show some signs of what we all thought this offense was capable of this preseason.
Coming off the bye week, they’ve had plenty of time to prepare and get healthy. If we don’t see a productive offense this week, chances are we won’t at all this season.
Some playmakers will be back and that will undoubtedly provide a huge boost this week. But this team needs to be more disciplined if they want to have any chance to turn this season around.