BALTIMORE — The Ravens are entering their bye week but may also be on the verge of far more painful goodbyes.
This is an organization headed toward inevitable transition, one perhaps accelerated in the wake of Sunday's 23-16 defeat to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, whose team has lost four of five — and, bigger picture, is in jeopardy of missing postseason for the fourth consecutive year — was asked following the game about a report from NFL Media suggesting he could be fired in the coming days. (Team owner Steve Bisciotti admitted in February that he weighed dismissing Harbaugh after last season, when a loss in the regular-season finale extended the Ravens' playoff drought.)
"I haven't seen that, I don't know," Harbaugh replied when asked if he's on the hot seat. "I've never been somebody that worried about keeping a job.
"We'll keep fighting, and that's what we do."
Yet beyond that, Harbaugh seemed like a man grasping for answers.
"I just told (the players), 'You know, we lost three games in a row. What does that mean we need to do?' They all said, 'We gotta win three games in a row,' " he said. "That's what we need to do. There are seven games left in the season. There's a lot of football left to be played."
Harbaugh cited the need for a week off, hoping a roster that had 10 players on the injury report emerges healthier after the break. Starting tackles Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst were both out against the Steelers, who limited the Ravens to a season-low 268 yards and 23:31 time of possession.
Defensively, Baltimore couldn't get off the field, allowing Pittsburgh to convert 10 of 16 third-down attempts on the way to surrendering 395 yards, in excess of 100 more than it concedes on average. The Ravens' top-ranked defense hadn't allowed more than six third-down conversions in any other game this season.
"We're gonna look hard at what we can do," added Harbaugh, who lost to a division opponent at home in November for the first time in his career (previously 7-0). "We've got to score more points, get more yards — especially — score in the red zone. We were scoring in the red zone really well early in the year, and that's dried up."
All true certainly, especially in regard to a team that began the season by scoring a record 12 touchdowns in its first 12 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line. The Ravens were 1-for-4 inside the red zone Sunday while Pittsburgh was 3-for-4.
Game. Set. Match.
But it may be time to hope for more than better execution in crucial situations and rejuvenated troops.
Would firing Harbaugh in a bid to spark the team work? Seems doubtful at this juncture given that kind of gambit rarely works in the NFL. The players also broadly seem to support the coach.
"This team believes in him," said safety Eric Weddle — who is clearly open to new ideas given the drastic trim to his trademark beard.
"He's an unbelievable man."
Maybe it's time to try Ty Montgomery, inactive Sunday after being acquired from the Packers at the trade deadline, to spark a largely dormant ground attack (61 yards Sunday).
Naturally, the more drastic move would be to bench struggling quarterback Joe Flacco in favor of rookie Lamar Jackson, the final first-round pick made by outgoing general manager Ozzie Newsome.
"I'd like to see him out there more," Harbaugh said of Jackson, citing the success New Orleans had in Baltimore two weeks ago using both Drew Brees and multi-dimensional Taysom Hill.
Harbaugh didn't signal any desire to bench Flacco, who's clearly still the more effective passer as his tenure as the starter looks to be winding down. Yet the Jackson packages seem to produce little in the way of explosive plays — he completed one pass for 12 yards Sunday, and gained only 10 yards on five carries.
And his presence seems almost counterproductive as he cycles in and out of the huddle. Flacco — yes, he was behind a decimated line — was never in rhythm against Pittsburgh and missed a wide-open Jackson for a potential touchdown on one drive that ended in a field goal and Michael Crabtree in the flat on another play that could have produced seven points when the Ravens ultimately settled for three.
Making Jackson a regular component of the offense would certainly result in rookie mistakes. Yet it would also force defenses to spy on him and could open up things not only downfield, but on the ground, where run-pass options could become a more effective element.
As it is, when Jackson enters the game, Flacco inevitably splits out wide as a decoy no defender is falling for.
"We'll look at everything, we always do in the bye week," said Harbaugh.
The locker room seems resolute, refusing to panic amid the struggles nor pay heed to the rumor mill.
"Let them keep talking," said cornerback Brandon Carr. We have everything we need in this locker room."
Said Harbaugh: "We'll determine our own fate."
Until someone else does anyway.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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