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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Forget analytics. Ravens coach John Harbaugh was wrong to go for it on fourth down vs. Bills. | COMMENTARY

The Ravens have the most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL and still sometimes refuse to use him in possible game-winning situations.

We’ve seen this before. Twice, in fact, just last season in losses to the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, setbacks that helped the Ravens lose six straight games to fall from the top seed in the AFC to out of playoff contention altogether.

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Then came Sunday.

Faced with a fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line with 4:15 remaining and the score tied at 20, Ravens coach John Harbaugh decided to go for it. Under pressure, star quarterback Lamar Jackson underthrew receiver Devin Duvernay in the right corner of the end zone, and the pass was intercepted by safety Jordan Poyer.

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The Bills then went on a 12-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard field goal by Tyler Bass as time expired for a 23-20 Buffalo victory before a disappointed home crowd of 70,494. Afterward, Harbaugh gave several reasons for his decision to not send out Tucker for the 19-yard field goal attempt, but they are no longer acceptable.

I’m tired of hearing about analytics. I’m tired of hearing about an aggressive philosophy. The best chance for this team to win Sunday was for Tucker to kick the field goal and use the crowd as the 12th man to put even more pressure on the Bills and quarterback Josh Allen. Instead, we got more logic, and the Ravens lost their fifth straight home game by a combined total of 12 points.

Harbaugh defended his decision after the game.

“Well, I felt like it gave us the best chance to win the game because seven [points], the worst that happens is if they go down the field and score — and I think we’ll get them stopped — but if they go down the field and score a touchdown, the worst thing that can happen is you’re in overtime,” he said. “But you kick a field goal there, now it’s not a three-down game anymore, it’s a four-down game. You’re putting them out there, you’re putting your defense at a disadvantage because they’ve got four downs to convert all the way down the field and a chance to again score seven, and then you lose the game on a touchdown.

“So, then the worst thing … The other thing, you think [Buffalo is] going to get the ball at the 2-yard line [if the Ravens fail to score], so I’m very confident in the defense’s ability to stop them down there with the ball on the 2-yard line, so we have them backed up if we didn’t get it. It didn’t turn out that way, unfortunately, and we lost the game. So, hindsight, you could take the points, but if you look at it analytically, understand why we did it.”

Sorry, you send out Mr. Automatic and you get the home crowd razzed. Because of the rain, wind and soggy field, almost anything can happen, and the Bills were down to two wide receivers, so you at least have some chance to win. After Jackson’s interception, the crowd started filing out of M&T Bank Stadium because all Buffalo needed was a field goal to win.

The underlying statement of this decision is that Harbaugh has no confidence in his defense. You can’t blame him. The Ravens entered Sunday ranked No. 32 overall — dead last — in the NFL, allowing 353.3 passing yards per game. They gave up four fourth-quarter touchdowns to Miami two weeks ago in a similar meltdown.

But Jackson wasn’t having a good day Sunday, and he seems to struggle in wet and cold conditions. He rushed 11 times for 73 yards but completed 20 of 29 passes for only 144 yards and finished with a passer rating of 63.0.

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The biggest difference between Jackson and Allen is that Allen has cut down on the number of boneheaded plays he makes, while Jackson still forces enough passes that leave you scratching your head.

He had three Sunday, including one in which he rolled to his right and then threw back across his body to the left side of the field to wide receiver Rashod Bateman in the third quarter for no gain. He also threw a pass to tight end Mark Andrews down the left sideline that should have been intercepted, too, but Duvernay caught the carom for a 21-yard reception midway through the second quarter.

Sometimes it’s better to take a sack or throw it away than toss up a jump ball. That’s what Jackson did with the pass to Duvernay.

On the fourth-down try, Jackson had running back Mike Davis open on a slant on the left side and missed him. Then he was late throwing to Duvernay, who was initially wide open.

That’s where Harbaugh has to have a better feel for the game. His defense is terrible, but Jackson was rattled by the pressure Buffalo was bringing in the second half.

The Ravens' Justin Tucker, right, kicks a 51-yard field goal with Jordan Stout (11) holding in the second quarter against the Bills on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Coach John Harbaugh didn't give Tucker a chance at a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter, instead opting to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

Didn’t we see this last year, too?

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“It definitely affected him,” Bills linebacker Matt Milano said of the pressure against Jackson. “You could see he wasn’t as calm and cool sitting back there looking around. It definitely got to him, and it definitely worked.”

So, Harbaugh and the Ravens should have trotted out Mr. Dependable, Tucker, and put the points on the board.

After the game, the Ravens came to Harbaugh’s defense, but what else did you expect? Who is going to disagree with his decision, except for someone like cornerback Marcus Peters? He was irate on the sideline, slamming his helmet down before being restrained from going after Harbaugh. Could it have been because of something else?

Either way, we can attribute that to emotion and competitiveness, but privately these poor decisions start to negatively affect players. During the turn of the century, opposing teams used to fear playing in Baltimore because of the deafening crowd noise and its top-ranked defense. But that’s gone now.

Back then, the Ravens got kicker Matt Stover on the field to win games. Now, Justin Tucker is an afterthought.


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