Over the first two-plus seasons of what will, over time, come to be known as the Lamar Jackson Era, the Ravens were predictable in how they played. They would challenge defenses on the ground, limit offenses in the air and take their chances on special teams. They would do it game after game. They would win, too. A lot.
The new reality of the 2021 Ravens, one made painfully clear in a 41-17 loss Sunday to the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, is that few of their old reliables are, well, reliable. They’re not challenging defenses on the ground — at least their running backs aren’t. They’re not limiting offenses in the air — at least not by the standards of a talented secondary. And their special teams advantages, however pronounced, amount to little in once-in-a-blue-moon blowouts.
There are worse things to be than 5-2 and tied for first place in the AFC North. But the Ravens entering this year’s Week 8 bye are not the Ravens who entered last year’s Week 7 bye at 5-1. This team is more explosive downfield on offense and more vulnerable to implosions on defense. This team has a late-game swagger and an early-game lethargy. Through seven games, the ceilings are perhaps higher and the floors perhaps lower.
“Like I’ve said many times, and I know you guys listen, but that’s how the National Football League works,” coach John Harbaugh said after the Ravens’ worst loss since 2017. “It’s always week to week; it’s always game to game. There never is any running narrative; it just doesn’t exist. You have to come out and play your best every week, and we did not play our best. Far from it, really, in any phase, and that’s on us. That’s it. That’s what happened.”
What happened Sunday doesn’t often happen to the Ravens. Their 24-point loss was their worst with Jackson as the starter. It also ended a dominant five-game winning streak over Cincinnati, which now leads the division by virtue of a tiebreaker. The Bengals, who didn’t score a touchdown in two blowout losses to the Ravens last season, had four in just the second half Sunday, leading to a smattering of boos inside M&T Bank Stadium, an early exit for Jackson and a re-evaluation of where the Ravens stand in the AFC’s pecking order.
Little about their season has gone as planned. They woke up Sunday morning with a chance to stay a game ahead in the conference race, a stunning slot for a team ravaged by injuries. And it wasn’t hard to imagine a reality where they were undefeated, either.
But it was perhaps easier to conceive of a season in which the Ravens’ record was mediocre, more reflective of the way they flopped against Cincinnati. Yes, they were one fourth-quarter stop away from a season-opening win against the Las Vegas Raiders. They also needed a late forced fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs. And an NFL-record field goal by kicker Justin Tucker against the Detroit Lions. And a historic Jackson performance (and fortuitous overtime coin flip) against the Indianapolis Colts.
The only constant in those games was the Ravens’ pass defense. With cornerback Marcus Peters sidelined by an ACL injury, it has been bad more times than not this season. It reached a new low Sunday. Burrow finished 23-for-38 for 416 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase finished with eight catches for 201 yards, including an 82-yard catch-and-run touchdown that kick-started a second-half romp.
It was the second time in three weeks that a quarterback on a middling offense has thrown for a career high in passing yards against the Ravens, after the Colts’ Carson Wentz went for 402 in Week 5. Three times this season, the Ravens have allowed at least 390 passing yards in a game. No team in franchise history has given up more passing yards through seven games than the 2021 Ravens (2,073), according to Pro Football Reference.
When cornerback Marlon Humphrey was asked afterward whether he was concerned about the Ravens’ pass defense, he considered his words for 10 seconds before settling on an answer.
“We do have to play better in the secondary, for sure,” he said. “Going into this week, the biggest assignment was on me to kind of stop their top guy, and I lost that matchup. So a lot of it, kind of, is on me. I’ve just got to play better, especially when the game plan is for me to have a big day. The coaches put the trust in me to kind of lead the defense, lead the game plan. I’ve just got to execute better.”
There’s a lot that goes into defensive execution, and the Ravens (season-worst 520 yards allowed) did little of it well. Tackling, though, remains their biggest bugaboo. Defenders beyond the line of scrimmage had a chance to stop tight end C.J. Uzomah’s 55- and 32-yard touchdown catches; Chase’s 82-yard dagger, which gave the Bengals a 27-17 lead in the third quarter; and running back Samaje Perine’s 46-yard run in the fourth quarter, which capped a five-touchdowns-in-seven-possessions barrage.
“We would have been OK if we would have just tackled,” outside linebacker Tyus Bowser lamented, but again, the Ravens didn’t. According to Pro Football Focus, nearly half of Burrow’s passing yards came after the catch. Running backs Joe Mixon and Perine combined for 113 yards after contact.
“Up and down, hot and cold,” defensive end Calais Campbell said of a Ravens defense that, just a week ago, had stifled an explosive Los Angeles Chargers attack. “We’re not very consistent yet. We’re trying to find ourselves still. We have flashes. We had flashes of it today, and then we had moments where we didn’t play so [well]. One thing for sure is that I believe in everybody we have in the room. I believe in my guys. The mistakes we made I know we’re going to fix, and we’re going to go out there and play some good football. In the second half of the season, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with, that’s for sure.”
That was the expectation for the Ravens’ rushing attack, too, even as late as Week 2. Down running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, and with left tackle Ronnie Stanley sidelined by an ultimately season-ending ankle injury, the Ravens had still rushed for 251 yards against the Chiefs. The offense had Jackson and a healthy enough offensive line, and that seemed like it would be enough.
Five weeks later, the Ravens’ designed ground game is running about as often — and about as well — as it did in Joe Flacco’s last gasp as the starter in Baltimore. Over the past five games, running backs Latavius Murray (sidelined Sunday by an ankle injury), Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell have combined for just 257 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry. Take away the Ravens’ bounce-back game against the Chargers, who typically play with a light box, and the average dips to 3.2 yards per carry.
Last year, Mark Ingram finished third among Ravens running backs in rushing average — at a whopping 4.2 yards per carry. Dobbins led all players at the position with 6 per attempt. Edwards averaged 5.
“It’s important to get a lot going with the running game,” Harbaugh said after Freeman, Bell and Ty’Son Williams combined for 29 yards on 11 carries Sunday. “It’s a big part of what we do, and we need to do that more consistently.”
“I don’t want to say anything is not working,” said Jackson, who was perhaps speaking for himself after a 12-carry, 88-yard day. “We were just passing the ball a little bit more today”.
Jackson mixed moments of brilliance — he found wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown for an acrobatic, go-ahead 39-yard touchdown early in the third quarter — with struggling stretches. After stumbling on his pregame jog out onto the field, he looked out of sorts at the start against a talented, locked-in Bengals defense. Jackson lingered in the pocket early, taking five sacks total. He bounced passes to open receivers. He took a timeout in the third quarter when he needed to take a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty.
He finished 15-for-31 for 257 yards and a touchdown, his first game under 50% accuracy this season, and watched backup Tyler Huntley play out the string late in the fourth quarter. The loss hurt, Jackson said. He didn’t know his bye-week plans, not yet. “I haven’t made my mind up yet,” he said. The Ravens were still getting over a game where almost nothing had gone as planned.
Nov. 7, 1 p.m.
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