After a dispiriting 23-17 loss to the New England Patriots, there’s no more use comparing these Ravens with the 2019 team. Here are five things we learned Sunday night:
There’s no more use judging this season by the standards of last.
The 2019 Ravens took flight on a Sunday night in November against the New England Patriots. It’s easy to forget, but the Patriots arrived in Baltimore 8-0 with a defense inspiring comparisons to the best in history. They left as deposed kings who’d been outrun and outfought by the AFC’s rising power.
A year later, the Ravens traveled to Foxborough, Massachusetts, for a Sunday night rematch, and they were expected to double down against an opponent that had barely defeated the lowly New York Jets six days earlier. With Cam Newton standing in for Tom Brady and the New England defense struggling to stop anyone, national pundits wondered not if the Ravens would win, but by how much.
Instead, their season took its grimmest turn yet amid the blinding rain and howling wind at Gillette Stadium.
We keep waiting for this Ravens team to rediscover the glow that surrounded it in November and December of last year. Maybe they were on the verge, we said, after a resilient win in Indianapolis. Maybe a demolition of Bill Belichick’s faded dynasty would be our official confirmation.
Instead, we watched the Patriots beat the Ravens at their own brutal game. We sensed Lamar Jackson’s offense losing its footing after a promising start. We saw the shellshocked looks as another beloved teammate, this time tight end Nick Boyle, left the field with a season-ending injury.
These nights did not happen to the 2019 Ravens, who were blessed with good health and hit unsuspecting opponents like they were shot out of a howitzer. But it’s time to put away the comparisons. If the 2020 Ravens are to become a memorable team, they’ll have to fix their offense on the fly and work around injuries to bedrock players such as Boyle and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. They’ll have to weave a story of resilience more than brilliance.
“I don’t think this loss is going to define us,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said moments after his team walked in from the storm.
Perhaps he’s right, but the Ravens will need to define themselves in a hurry after another reminder that their previous identity, the one that screamed 14-2 in bold letters, is dead.
Again, the Ravens took one step forward and two back on offense.
When the Ravens punched the ball over the goal line midway through the first quarter, it was possible to believe they really had found themselves during that furious second-half rally a week earlier in Indianapolis.
We saw a little bit of everything on the 94-yard drive that put them up 7-0. Jackson converted a third down deep in his own territory, running behind a caravan of jumbo blockers. He found tight end Mark Andrews and Snead in empty pockets of the New England zone. He touched it to a sweeping Snead for the concluding touchdown. Every move felt decisive and designed to keep the Patriots guessing.
Then the Ravens backed it up with a 69-yard scoring drive on their next possession. Were we about to see that old 2019 magic reemerge fully in the New England rain?
No. No, we were not.
The regression began subtly; Jackson squandered a potential field goal just before halftime when he forced a pass to Marquise Brown and saw it intercepted by former Maryland Terrapin J.C. Jackson.
The Ravens' troubles mounted as weather conditions worsened. Center Matt Skura could not deliver the slippery football on target, and one of his misfires, on a direct snap to Mark Ingram II, led to a failed fourth-down attempt deep in Patriots territory.
Skura’s snap aside, the play call inspired a new flurry of second guessing from Ravens fans dissatisfied with the judgment of offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The Ravens scored early in the season on a wildcat snap to Ingram. But how could Roman take the ball out of Jackson’s hands at the crucial moment of the game? How could the Ravens possibly present their best face with the most dangerous player on the field serving as a decoy?
Jackson expressed no frustration with the call. “[I’m] just mad at the result,” he said. “I feel like if it was a great snap, or something like that, it probably would’ve had a chance. But, things happen.”
“We have different plays off of that that we think give us a good chance to convert that fourth-and-one,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We didn’t have a good snap there, and that’s what cost us on that play.”
So be it, but this stretch of sloppy play left the Ravens watching helplessly as their 10-7 lead turned into a 23-10 deficit. They had a chance going into the fourth quarter but managed just 33 yards on their last three drives as the wind and rain intensified.
The Ravens suffered too many injuries.
No matter how talented and balanced its roster, a team can hit a tipping point with injuries.
The Ravens were unusually healthy last year, so perhaps we forgot. We probably did not make enough of the players they would be without — Calais Campbell, Jimmy Smith, Ronnie Stanley, L.J. Fort — going into the Patriots game.
But when Boyle and Brandon Williams joined the rolls of the wounded, a disquieting reality hit home: These were no longer the Ravens designed to win it all in 2020.
Williams and Boyle are not players you’re going to see debated and dissected on ESPN. But each is a foundational component. The Ravens don’t stop the run without Williams, and when they don’t stop the run, they can’t force teams to play into their turnover-craving hands. On the other side of the ball, they count on Boyle to play point of the spear in their power running game. There’s not a more forceful blocker among the league’s tight ends.
“It just sucks,” Snead said, the hurt from dispiriting news plainly etched on his face.
“It’s hard to really quantify what Nick does for us as an offense and as a team,” Andrews said. “He’s a person that people gravitate toward. For me, he’s meant a ton to me, and it sucks. It sucks for him; he’s worked so hard to get to where he’s at. Everyone in this locker room loves him to death, and he’s one of the most loved people on this team. We’re going to miss him dearly.”
NFL players and coaches are conditioned to accept injury as a byproduct of their work. You’ll rarely catch them moaning over a depleted roster or acknowledging that bad health might undo their best-laid plans.
“It’s an issue, for sure,” Harbaugh said. “We just have to overcome them. I don’t think it does anybody any good to sit there and say, ‘Well, it’s this degree of a problem.’ Teams have them. Guys are going to have to step up, and they’re going to step up.”
The Ravens will get Campbell and Smith and Fort and presumably Williams back on the field, and they will be better for it. But their blocking won’t be the same without Boyle and Stanley. Their secondary is operating without a cushion against further injury. They’re no longer the team they expected to be.
The Patriots broke down the Ravens with brutal simplicity.
The Patriots don’t have the weapons to pull off a lot of big plays on offense. But with Campbell inactive because of a calf strain and Williams sidelined by an ankle injury, their methodical approach became a poison pill for Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense.
Backup nose tackle Justin Ellis and rookie defensive tackles Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington struggled to stand up to New England’s excellent offensive line. Rookie middle linebacker Patrick Queen stumbled through one of his worst games as a pro. So the Patriots did the simplest thing possible and handed the ball to running back Damien Harris, 12 times for 63 yards in the first half alone.
Not only did they gouge the Ravens; they neutralized their most dangerous defensive weapons, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, through simple avoidance.
After they vowed do better in their halftime locker room, the Ravens promptly surrendered runs of 16 and 25 yards to start the third quarter. They played better after falling 10 points down, but the damage was done, and they were disgusted with themselves.
“We did expect them to do that. It wasn’t any kind of scheme thing,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes we were in man coverage, and they’ll run crack tosses against man coverage, because you don’t have an edge player out there. You still have to be able to beat the crack blocks and go chase them down; we did not do a good enough job of that on those plays. And then the inside runs, those are just plays we have to play better. You have to do a better job on the inside line; that’s not something that we’re OK with at all.”
The Ravens operated at a talent disadvantage, with backups playing many snaps against top-shelf offensive linemen. It’s hard to imagine they would have been overpowered with Williams and Campbell anchoring the front four. But they did not accept this as an explanation for allowing 173 rushing yards.
“Whoever’s in the game needs to play to a standard,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “It’s no excuses.”
The Ravens' schedule is set to bite them.
Don’t look now, but the defensive front that just struggled with Harris is about to face Derrick Henry, the most terrifying power back of his generation. Henry was last seen in Baltimore galloping for 195 playoff yards and stiff arming Earl Thomas III into meme hell. The Tennessee Titans star is on pace for 1,682 yards this season.
Four days after their rematch with the Titans, the Ravens will face the best defensive front in football as they seek Thanksgiving night redemption in Pittsburgh. The Steelers wreak havoc on every team, but the Ravens will try to ward them off with an offensive line that’s still under construction, as we saw when they inserted Ben Powers at right guard and shifted Patrick Mekari to replace D.J. Fluker at right tackle against the Patriots. Add Skura’s snapping troubles to the mix and the potential for peril is high.
The stories of the next two games will be more complicated than the preceding paragraphs suggest, and the post-Pittsburgh slate doesn’t look so hostile. But the next 10 days will be quite a test for the team we saw in Foxborough on Sunday night.