Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 27-17 loss to the Cowboys

One thing we learned: Without Jimmy Smith, the Ravens can’t stop a good receiving corps for 60 minutes.

1.) The Cowboys won the main-event match of the day.

We spent the week anticipating a heavyweight title fight between the Ravens’ No. 1 defense and the Cowboys’ No. 1 offense. It seemed clear that for the Ravens to win, their defensive front seven would need to outplay Dallas’ stellar offensive line.

That went exceptionally well for about 20 minutes of game action, and then the Cowboys asserted their quality. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott completed 27 of 36 passes and avoided any significant mistakes. Running back prodigy Ezekiel Elliott gained 71 of his 97 yards in the second half. Dallas won the time-of-possession battle 2-to-1 after halftime, exactly the style Jason Garrett’s team aims to play.

The Ravens’ top interior defenders — Brandon Wiliams, Michael Pierce and Timmy Jernigan — appeared worn out against the Cowboys’ ultra-athletic blockers. After Prescott took five hits in the first half, he went untouched in the second.

The Ravens ate the Cowboys alive in the first quarter. They stuffed Elliott, stifled the Cowboys on third down and threw  Prescott off his usual high-accuracy game with several hard jolts. In general, they did not miss many chances to deliver punishing blows against the Cowboys’ skill players.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees could not have drawn it up much better. But he had to feel disappointed watching the Cowboys thoroughly outplay his guys for a decisive chunk of the game.

I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the Ravens’ defense this season, all of it deserved. The front seven — which still handled Elliott better than most — will likely look a lot better in the coming weeks when the Ravens go back to playing normal offensive lines. But if we didn’t already know it, we learned this isn’t 2000, when the Baltimore defense was so oppressive it was the controlling factor in every game.

 

2) Without Jimmy Smith, the Ravens can’t stop a good receiving corps for 60 minutes. 

Baltimore fans felt their stomachs drop when they realized Smith, easily the team’s best cover corner, would not play against the league’s No. 1 offense because of a back injury.

Though the secondary held up early, fears related to Smith’s injury proved well-founded.

Midway through the second quarter, the Ravens had the Cowboys backed up at first-and-30, only to allow Prescott to produce 65 yards on the next three plays.

Ravens cornerback Shareece Wright stuck close to Cowboys wide receiver Brice Butler on third down, but Butler made an exceptional play to wrestle the ball away from him for a 41-yard gain, the key moment in Dallas’ first scoring drive.

Would Smith have broken up Butler’s catch? Impossible to say, though he hasn’t given up many long ones this year.

As it was, the game-tying drive was a gut punch to the Ravens, who had dominated the Cowboys to that point.

Wright then struggled to handle the 6-foot-2 Dez Bryant (six catches, 80 yards, two touchdowns) as Dallas put together another quick scoring drive just before halftime. As we saw when Smith had to leave the New York Giants game with a concussion, the Ravens don’t have anyone else who matches up well with star receivers such as Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr.

On Dallas’ first drive of the second half, the Ravens’ other starting corner, Tavon Young, let Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams get behind him, and then committed a 33-yard interference penalty as he tried to catch up.

The play set up a touchdown catch by Bryant (who essentially posted up his smaller defender in the end zone) that gave Dallas its first lead of the day. The story only got worse from there.

The Ravens need Smith back, and quickly. No scheme can make up the talent gap between him and the other cornerbacks.

 

3) Never take Marshal Yanda for granted.

There was real concern Yanda might have to go on injured reserve after he missed three of four games because of a shoulder injury. Then the Ravens said Yanda’s status for the rest of 2016 would be a matter of pain tolerance, which meant he would surely try to play.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he started at the unfamiliar left guard spot and performed extremely well against the Cowboys.

Yanda was key to the Ravens’ first scoring drive, creating space for Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon to rip off runs of 20, 16 and 18 yards. After West scored, Yanda sprinted to the end zone to wrap him in a bear hug. The veteran All-Pro knew how important the drive could be, both to the Dallas game and to the season as a whole.

The Ravens largely abandoned the run after that, probably because Dallas controlled the ball so effectively in the second half. But Yanda spearheaded a solid overall effort by the injury-depleted offensive line, which allowed just one sack and three hits on Joe Flacco.

Of the many traits that have marked Yanda as a great player over the years, one is his ability to shift positions without losing effectiveness. That versatility is a product of his intelligence and his underappreciated athleticism.

He’s also a straight-up tough dude, much like Terrell Suggs on the other side of the ball. Only the elite of the elite guards earn serious Hall of Fame consideration. Yanda belongs in that realm.

 

4) Devin Hester has become a liability on punt returns.

It’s never fun to write about the struggles of a formerly great player, but Hester hasn’t looked comfortable fielding punts for weeks and has consistently cost the Ravens field position with his tentative play.

He appeared to lose sight of one punt entirely against the Cowboys, and the player who holds the career record for punt-return touchdowns hasn’t taken one more than 20 yards since 2014.

Hester has struggled with injuries each of the last two seasons, an unfortunate reality for a 34-year-old player. I defended him when he dealt with a spate of fumbles early in the season. He had mixed in enough long returns that I thought he might rebound. Actually, his numbers on kickoff returns are still pretty good.

But every punt return is a tense experience, and John Harbaugh has to be weighing his alternatives.

 

5) This loss doesn’t change much in the big picture.

The odds were always against the Ravens going on the road and beating the best offensive team in the league.

So this game shouldn’t re-orient any of our overall thoughts about the 2016 season.

The Ravens’ defense, at least the version with Smith preventing home-run plays, will keep them in virtually every game as cold weather sets in. 

Their offense is still too erratic for them to be a top-tier contender.

They maintain a strong position in the AFC North, especially with the Cincinnati Bengals floundering and possibly facing the loss of wide receiver (and Ravens killer) A.J. Green to a hamstring injury.

Their chief obstacle to the postseason might be a schedule that’s less favorable than that of their chief divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If the Ravens lose at home to the Bengals, who always play them tough, we can panic. If they handle their business at M&T Bank Stadium, this trip to Dallas will be rapidly forgotten. 

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