The Ravens and Lamar Jackson experienced familiar disappointments as their season ended in the AFC divisional round against the Buffalo Bills. But in the moments after the loss, they were already talking about what’s next. Here are five things we learned Saturday night:
Again, the Ravens ended a season without putting their best foot forward.
As ugly a duckling as the game had been, the Ravens lined up 9 yards from a game-tying touchdown with the ball in the hands of Lamar Jackson, only the most potent offensive player ever to don their uniform.
In 2½ seasons as an NFL starter, Jackson had never thrown an interception in the red zone. But he stared so hard at his most trusted target, tight end Mark Andrews, that he never saw Bills cornerback Taron Johnson breaking from his left.
Johnson snared the ball and ran 101 yards to the opposite end zone, effectively ending the Ravens’ 2020 season, though more than a quarter remained.
“It was a huge momentum shift in the game,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. “You just wish you could have those plays back. You know what I mean?”
There were too many of those for the Ravens on a night when they could not live up to the standard they had established over the previous six weeks.
The biting Western New York wind did not help. How else to explain Justin Tucker, who had never missed from inside 50 yards in the playoffs, plunking two field-goal attempts off the uprights? Or Patrick Mekari, who had been a steady replacement for Matt Skura at center, snapping the ball all over creation?
But the Bills had to deal with the chilly gusts as well. As the Ravens readily acknowledged after the game, they did not live up to their season-long mantra — finish. Three times they moved into the red zone and three times they failed to score a touchdown. On a night when their defense frustrated the second best offense in football, they answered with just three points. They’ve scored a total of 32 in their past three playoff defeats.
These disappointments, which leave proud players grasping for answers in the aftermath, have become all too familiar for a team that views itself as one of the NFL’s best.
Why didn’t the coaching staff have more tactical answers for Buffalo’s blitzes and zone coverage? Why did the Ravens seem so out of sorts that they had to call two timeouts early in the first half? Why did the offensive line give up six tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits to a defense that looked so pedestrian the previous week?
Again, the fallout will center disproportionately on Jackson, because he’s the one who puts the Ravens in position to dream big. He did not speak after the game because of the concussion that sent him to the locker room for the fourth quarter. But whenever he does review the season publicly, he’ll blame himself for the interception and other missed opportunities. That’s his nature.
But the same dissatisfaction will ripple from the front office to John Harbaugh’s coaching staff to every member of the 53-man roster. The Ravens ended another season without showing their best. For all they overcame — the COVID-19 outbreak, the brutal injuries, the specter of the Tennessee Titans — they’ll have to spend the next eight months living with this chilly reality.
Once again, an opposing defensive coordinator found the answers to containing Lamar Jackson in a big game.
Like the Tennessee Titans the week before, the Bills came in with an astute plan to stifle Jackson. They blitzed frequently (eight of Jackson’s 18 first-half drop-backs), destroying his pocket on passing downs. But they also played with terrific discipline in sitting on his reads as a runner.
Jackson blew up the Titans with a single, magnificent scramble in the wild-card round. But the Bills, sitting in zone coverage for much of the evening, did not allow him a similar missile strike. After averaging 104.3 rushing yards in his previous three games, he managed just 34 on nine carries in Buffalo.
Like previous playoff nemeses, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier dared Jackson to beat him with quick, decisive passing, and he won the bet. Jackson completed just one of nine throws on pressured drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus.
He ate three sacks, including an 11-yard loss on a blitz by Bills cornerback Levi Wallace that stalled the Ravens’ game-opening drive. Tucker then missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt, leaving them with nothing to show for an impressive opening.
“They just eliminated the run and tried to make us one-dimensional in the passing game, and we just didn’t take advantage of what they were giving us,” Snead said.
Wide receiver Marquise Brown again delivered on the playoff stage with four catches on seven targets for 87 yards. But he was the Ravens’ only consistent threat outside the numbers this postseason. Jackson won’t punish pressure consistently until he trusts multiple targets, as Bills quarterback Josh Allen does with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown. The Ravens need to help their franchise player by finding him another dynamic pass catcher in free agency or the draft.
At the same time, Jackson will need to go back to school on his own game. He aspires to become a Tom Brady-level master of the field, but to get there, he’ll need to develop second-nature recognition of the problems in front of him. As we saw against the Bills, he’s not there yet.
“He is an elite runner, an elite passer, but there are steps he can take, better strides that he can take, and he knows that,” Snead said. “That’s the competitor in him to want to get better each and every offseason, to fix the little things that his game needs improvement on and continue to get better as a passer. I think if he knuckles down on that part of his game and really reaches his full potential in that area, then the sky is the limit for Lamar, man.”
The Ravens contained a great offense without relying on the blitz.
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale took his turn at the poker table last week when asked how much he might blitz Allen.
“He knows that there’s going to be pressure — that’s for sure,” Martindale said. “That’s who we are. That’s what we’ve done.”
It was exactly what the Ravens did against Allen when they sacked him six times in 2019. But Martindale’s words proved to be more bluff than tell Saturday night as the Ravens sat back in coverage, trying to fool Allen more than menace him. The strategy worked; they held the Pro Bowl quarterback to 5.6 yards per attempt and kept the Bills out of the end zone in the first half.
Allen came back with a touchdown drive to start the second half but never really punished the Ravens the way he did so many opponents this season. A player whom Martindale praised as “young Ben Roethlisberger with [Dan] Marino’s arm” completed just seven of 14 passes beyond 10 yards, per Pro Football Focus. A Buffalo offense that averaged almost 400 yards per game in the regular season finished with 220.
Though Diggs caught eight passes on 11 targets for 106 yards, the Ravens shut out Beasley and proved their secondary was the strength of the team, as we thought going into the season.
Not every roster move worked; ballyhooed midseason acquisition Yannick Ngakoue did not mark the stat sheet against the Bills and finished with just three sacks and three quarterback hits in 11 games. But the Ravens finished the season playing the kind of defense — ornery against the run and tight on the back end — they imagined when they added Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and re-signed Jimmy Smith in the offseason.
“This defense went out there and really showed who we are,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said.
The interior offensive line faltered after a season of effective patchwork.
The Ravens could have faced outright disaster upfront after losing right guard Marshal Yanda to retirement and left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury. Center Matt Skura’s snapping woes added to their general sense of instability as did the lack of a full-time starter at right tackle.
So what a pleasant surprise the Ravens enjoyed when Ben Powers turned out to be a competent starter at Yanda’s old spot and Mekari turned in dependable work at center. With Orlando Brown Jr.’s smooth transition to left tackle and Bradley Bozeman’s consistent performance at left guard, this unit exceeded expectations down the stretch.
That trend did not hold in Buffalo, where they failed to keep Bills defenders — especially defensive end Jerry Hughes — from crashing in on Jackson. On the play before his pick six, Jackson missed a wide-open Brown in the end zone because an unblocked Hughes hurried his throw. One more second of clean pocket and we might have been looking at a radically different game.
Mekari struggled to deliver shotgun snaps all night. Jackson bailed him out with a few spectacular recoveries only to suffer his concussion after one more snap sailed over his head.
The Ravens will enter 2021 with Pro Bowl players at both tackle spots, and Bozeman has proved to be worthy starter. But their interior line took beatings in their past three playoff losses (two of those with Yanda), so don’t be surprised if general manager Eric DeCosta treats this issue with the same urgency he applied to the defensive line last offseason. Powers and Mekari helped the Ravens survive 2020, but that doesn’t mean they should be locks to protect Jackson going forward.
After a familiar disappointment, the Ravens will go into their offseason facing familiar questions.
From the day they showed up for a pandemic-abbreviated preseason, the Ravens set their sights on the Super Bowl. They made no effort to hide their ambitions, which seemed natural after they won 14 games in 2019.
Now that they’ve again exited two rounds short of this goal, a period of painful self-examination will commence.
How could an offense that trampled opponents in the last five games of the regular season produce just three points with everything on the line?
How could Jackson, the NFL’s most exciting improviser, be neutralized by a combination of blitzes and zone coverage?
How can the Ravens design a pass offense to bail them out when opponents sell out to stop the run? Is it a matter of finding another receiver who can win one-on-one battles outside the numbers? Or is the problem more a lack of tactical imagination?
Some familiar faces could depart, as Judon and Snead reminded us with postgame expressions of gratitude to the organization. Those that remain will wrestle with disappointment even as they remember all they overcame in 2020.
We should not forget the mettle this team showed after dropping to 6-5 the week after Thanksgiving and enduring the havoc wrought by COVID-19. One loss down the stretch would have ended their playoff hopes. But Jackson rallied them with his miraculous emergence from the locker room in Cleveland, and they refused to slip up against lesser opposition. Then they cast off two years’ worth of baggage with their playoff win in Tennessee. They’re more than just front runners.
“Every time you think you’re going somewhere, and you just get stopped, it’s kind of a similar feeling,” Judon said. “But this was a way different ballgame than what happened [against] the Titans [last season]. We had our ups and downs the whole season. This season is crazy; everybody wearing masks around, and we barely could meet.”
In the moments after it all ended, these Ravens sounded not defeated but eager for what’s next.
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“We’re about as motivated as it gets,” Orlando Brown Jr. said.