The Ravens missed a lot of tackles Sunday in Detroit. The two most egregious might have come within a second of each other.
Early in the third quarter, the Lions trailed 13-0 and were still 60 yards from the end zone when quarterback Jared Goff dropped back and felt pressure coming from his blind side. His dump-off pass found D’Andre Swift open behind the line of scrimmage. The second-year running back was cornered, bound in by the right sideline, a fast-approaching Tyus Bowser, and Patrick Queen coming in behind him.
There was no obvious escape route. Swift made one anyway, gliding past Bowser with an outside-in juke and glancing off an arms-free tackle attempt from Queen one step later. Not until cornerback Marlon Humphrey wrapped Swift up about 7 yards downfield did the catch-and-run end.
Even in an eventual 19-17 Ravens win, the play had far-reaching consequences. A third-and-long became a third-and-1, which the Lions converted. Safety DeShon Elliott left the game with a quadriceps injury suffered on the subsequent first-and-10. Detroit went on to score the first seven of its 17 second-half points. And the Ravens defense, maybe a little discombobulated by injuries and absences, maybe a little worn down by grueling Detroit drives, added to its miserable record in the open field.
Through three weeks, the Ravens have allowed 182.3 yards after the catch, or YAC, per game. The Denver Broncos, who host the Ravens on Sunday, have allowed 162.3 passing yards per game overall. It is far from an apples-to-apples comparison; the Ravens opened the season against the still-unbeaten Las Vegas Raiders before facing the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs, while Denver has faced two rookie quarterbacks and the New York Giants.
Still, the early-season trends are troubling, on both macro and micro levels. According to Pro Football Reference, Houston allowed an NFL-worst 142.6 YAC last season — a mark still nearly 40 yards better than these Ravens. No team over the past three years has allowed more YAC per reception in a season than the 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars (6.4) — a mark still nearly a half-yard better than these Ravens (6.8).
It has not cost them yet. The Ravens’ only loss came in a game in which the Raiders piled up 169 YAC, but at a tolerable rate (5 yards per reception). Still, the defense’s tackling and positioning woes have been part of a broader problem of execution.
“We certainly had a lot of missed opportunities,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday of the Ravens’ last-second win over Detroit. “Those are the things that you look at; we talked about it last night. The fundamentals are our responsibility, and there are a lot of fundamental things that we have to do a lot better. It’s early in the season.
“I think when you look around the league, you’ll see that everywhere, and we’re no exception. We are in a place where fundamentally, we have a lot of work to do on how we play.”
Their midplay mishaps have come in all shapes and sizes. In Week 2, Chiefs wide receiver Byron Pringle and tight end Travis Kelce had a combined 77 YAC on their third-quarter catch-and-run scores. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes finished with 343 passing yards in the loss, 211 of which came after the catch, or 8.8 yards per reception.
In Detroit, the Lions’ damage came on a smaller scale but more persistently. Eight of Goff’s final 16 completions Sunday ranged from 12 to 24 YAC. Of Goff’s 217 passing yards, 167 came after the catch, or about 77% overall.
This is not how the Ravens have played defense under coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. Even last year, when the team finished among the league’s worst in missed tackles, Martindale’s unit fared far better in space. According to PFR, the Ravens allowed just 112.4 YAC per game and 4.7 YAC per reception in 2020. In 2018 and 2019, they gave up just 99.1 and 101.3 YAC per game, respectively.
On paper, the 3-0 Broncos do not look like a team that will threaten the Ravens with their improvisational ability. With wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler injured, Denver’s top make-you-miss threats are running backs Melvin Gordon (11.5 YAC per reception) and Javonte Williams (8.6 YAC per reception), who have combined for just 11 catches this season. That should be good news for a Ravens defense that did not expect to struggle this much, or at least in these ways.
“There’s always room for improvement,” defensive end Calais Campbell said Sunday. “This team, we’re so much better than what we’ve played, in my opinion, so far.”
Taking his time
If it seemed like Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had a lot of time to throw Sunday, well, he did.
Excluding the Lions’ four sacks, Jackson averaged 3.88 seconds from snap to throw on his 31 pass attempts against Detroit. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, that is the longest average time to throw for any qualifying quarterback since 2016, when the league first started tracking the stat.
Because of his scrambling ability, Jackson has had one of the league’s slower triggers since he took over in Baltimore. In 2019, his Most Valuable Player-winning season, he averaged 2.92 seconds, tied for the third-longest time. In 2020, Jackson slowed by a hair, to 2.98 seconds, the NFL’s fourth-longest average.
Still, other than Detroit’s depleted defensive front, there was little indication that Jackson would have as much patience as he did inside Ford Field. In Weeks 1 and 2, he averaged 3.04 and 2.75 seconds before throwing, respectively.
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Jackson’s deliberate approach gave his receivers plenty of time to get downfield. And when they did, he rarely bothered to check down. According to NGS, Jackson’s average intended air yards — how far downfield a target is when a pass is either completed or not completed — was a Week 3-high 19.3 yards, more than quadruple Goff’s average intended air yards (4.5). New England Patriots rookie Mac Jones finished second behind Jackson and still was 7-plus yards less in average distance (12.1).
Jackson completed five passes of 20-plus air yards Sunday, including his 19-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Devin Duvernay in the back of the end zone. At least four other deep shots were on the money, only to be dropped or deflected at the last moment.
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Broncos by 1