How many times have we seen plays like it this season?
Cornerback Lardarius Webb blitzed, and Browns receiver Travis Benjamin burst up the heart of the field, past a pair of confused defensive backs, to catch an easy 42-yard touchdown from back-up quarterback Austin Davis. Just like that, a game the Ravens seemed to have in hand was tied late in the fourth quarter.
The play was merely an egregious example of a problem that’s plagued the Ravens all season —their inability to cover the middle of the field.
As vulnerable as the Ravens were in pass coverage last season, they excelled against shorter throws. That hasn’t been the case in 2015 when they’ve ranked 20th in the league against passes 15 yards or shorter, according to the analytics web site Football Outsiders. They’ve also been dreadful preventing big plays up the middle, ranking third worst in the NFL on passes of 16 yards or more in that part of the field. To top it off, they came into the weekend 24th in the league at defending tight ends, per Football Outsiders.
Linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley have struggled in one-on-one coverage, and the safeties have suffered too many communication lapses in zone sets.
Browns tight end Gary Barnidge kept hurting the Ravens on short routes over the middle, catching seven passes for 91 yards on 11 targets. Barnidge had caught eight passes for a season-high 139 yards against the Ravens in Week 5, so they had to know he was coming. Yet they couldn’t handle him.
Browns running back Duke Johnson also beat Mosley for a 21-yard gain on an inside slant in the second quarter.
As the Ravens assess their linebackers and secondary in the offseason, they’ll need to find answers to controlling the middle of the field.