Less than 24 hours after the Ravens felt as if they lost a heavyweight fight to the Pittsburgh Steelers, John Harbaugh took off the gloves at his Monday press conference.
The usually upbeat Harbaugh opened his media session by calling the 13-10 defeat to the Steelers the toughest of his three-year coaching career with the Ravens and then directed his most pointed criticism at an underachieving offense.
It was a surprising, refreshing and candid message in the midst of a playoff run.
"We should be an offense that is scoring a heck of lot more than 10 points in any particular football game," Harbaugh said bluntly. "We've got to get better. We're not good enough on offense, there's no question about it."
The Ravens (8-4) have a comfortable two-game lead for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, but it was made clear that Harbaugh isn't pleased with the progress of the offense.
Many expected the Ravens to develop into a top-10 offense after wide receivers Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth were added to boost the growth of quarterback Joe Flacco. Instead, with four games left in the regular season, the Ravens are a middle-of-the-road attack, ranking 14th in yards per game (341.7) and 17th in scoring (21.7).
After the Ravens were held to 20 points or fewer for the sixth time this season, wide receiver Derrick Mason vented his frustration, saying the offense plays like "the Bad News Bears" at times.
"We've got to make up our mind: Do we want to be a good offense or a great offense? We're neither right now at times," Mason said. "So, we've just got to make up our mind which one do we want to be. Good offenses make it to the playoffs. Great offenses make it to the Super Bowl."
The challenge has become more difficult with injuries. Harbaugh acknowledged it's unlikely that tight end Todd Heap, the team's fourth-leading receiver, will play Monday night at Houston because of a hamstring pull. But the Ravens are expected to get back Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain after an ankle sprain forced him to miss the first NFL game of his career.
"I thought we missed him," Harbaugh said of McClain. "He's a guy that helps you."
The return of McClain works perfectly into Harbaugh's plan. It seems as though Harbaugh wants the Ravens to get back to their identity of running the football.
The Ravens are averaging 3.6 yards per carry, which is tied for second-worst in the NFL and is over 1 yard less per carry than last year's average. They ran the ball a season-low 20 times against Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
"That's the kind of football team that we believe in being," Harbaugh said of the running game, "and we just haven't been able to get on track there. That would take a lot of pressure off a lot of the other elements, so that's important."
Harbaugh didn't stop at the running game. Unlike any other time during his coaching time here, he specifically pointed out the areas where the Ravens need to improve.
He wants increased production in the red zone, where the Ravens are sixth-worst in the NFL. He wants more efficiency on third downs after the Ravens converted 9 of 36 (25 percent) opportunities the past three games. And he wants the sacks — 11 in the past three games — to be "dramatically reduced."
"I don't think we are consistent," Harbaugh said.
Perhaps the biggest breakdown by the offense came with 3:13 remaining, when Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu went unblocked off the left edge and stripped Flacco of the ball. That turnover led to the Steelers' game-winning touchdown.
It appeared that left tackle Michael Oher was expecting some help when he blocked down inside on linebacker James Harrison instead of picking up Polamalu. Harbaugh wouldn't point out who was to blame, except to say it was a blown protection.
"I'm disappointed in the fact that at this point in time in the season we can cross wires like that and not get that done," Harbaugh said.
Losing a game that the Ravens had complete control of lingered more than any other for Harbaugh.
"It's probably the toughest loss that I've experienced here," he said. "Our guys really took it hard. I don't think anybody slept too well."
Sunday's loss was so devastating because it's now an uphill climb for the Ravens to win the AFC North and earn one of the top two seeds in the AFC. The Steelers (9-3), who hold a one-game lead over the Ravens, play their next three games at home and own the first tiebreaker edge (a better division record than the Ravens).
If the season ended today, the Ravens would play at Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs.
"We still have an opportunity to achieve those things – everything from a division championship to the wild card," Harbaugh said. "We've bounced back before and I really believe we have just the men for the job."