We saw a more realistic picture of Joe Flacco, good and bad.
For all the positive vibes around Flacco this year, he had not faced sustained pressure in a game situation since last December.
That changed in a hurry Thursday night, and the results reminded us why so many fans and analysts doubt the Ravens quarterback.
Flacco missed on a number of key throws in the first half as the Ravens dug a deep hole against their AFC North rival. His troubles began on the second drive of the game, when he led Michael Crabtree several yards too far with three defenders in the area. The resulting interception set up an easy, four-play touchdown drive for the Bengals.
Flacco overshot Crabtree again on an open slant when Ravens were driving in Bengals territory just before halftime. He underthrew Willie Snead IV on fourth down on the very next play.
Even Flacco’s longest completion of the half, a 45-yarder to John Brown, was a lollipop into triple coverage that probably should have been intercepted.
Those errant throws came as Flacco ran for his life against monstrous defensive tackle Geno Atkins and company. Atkins, probably the most dominant defender in the division, sacked him twice in the first half and nearly got him again in the third quarter. While Atkins created havoc in the middle, rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard gave left tackle Ronnie Stanley terrible problems on the edge.
Flacco threw another interception in the second half when Bengals linebacker Carlos Dunlap beat tight end Nick Boyle around the corner and slammed into his arm.
All that gloom aside, Flacco has never been one to fold in the midst of a bad game. And he kept firing against the Bengals, ultimately finding a better rhythm early in the fourth quarter. He threw for 376 yards and pulled the Ravens within striking distance before another sack (on which Flacco was stripped) ended their chances.
The lesson was the same one we’ve gone over for years in this space. Given sound protection and a crew of able receivers, Flacco can win games. But he’s not going to carry the Ravens through suboptimal circumstances. That was just as true in 2012 as it is now.
The Ravens defense fell far short against a more talented opponent.
The defense inspired hopes of a return to dominance with six sacks and smothering pass coverage in the Ravens’ 47-3 Week 1 demolition of the Buffalo Bills.
But sage linebacker Terrell Suggs warned that things are never as good as they look in the wake of such a rout. And his words rang prescient when the Ravens faced a feistier offense, led by competent quarterback Andy Dalton and terrifying wide receiver A.J. Green.
Facing a revamped Cincinnati line, the Ravens could not get to Dalton in any significant way. They hit him just four times and sacked him not at all. Suggs’ most significant play was a hands-to-the-face penalty that extended an early Bengals drive. Fellow outside linebackers Matthew Judon, Za’Darius Smith and Tim Williams did little to pick up his slack.
The coverage took a significant step back as well, with the Bengals successfully creating mismatches by moving the 6-foot-4 Green and 6-2 Tyler Boyd into the slot, where they overpowered shorter nickel cornerback Tavon Young.
Dalton capitalized on such a mismatch early when he read a blitz up the middle by Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and found Green one-on-one with Young. The Pro Bowl receiver turned that short catch into a 32-yard touchdown.
The Ravens actually did a decent job limiting Green to that one long play (though he used his size and agility to catch two other touchdown passes), but Boyd took over as their chief tormentor, just as he did in the 2017 season finale.
This all reminded us that playing without star cornerback Jimmy Smith against the hapless Bills is one thing. But facing a top-notch receiving corps without the 6-2 coverage ace is quite another.
Smith or no Smith, the defensive struggles went beyond any one player or position. Safety Eric Weddle neatly summarized the evening when he said the Ravens played “like crap on all three levels” as they surrendered 28 points in a disastrous first half.
The Ravens can’t play without C.J. Mosley for long.
They had to be thrilled to hear Mosley suffered a bone bruise rather than a significant knee injury when he took an odd step and left the field in the first quarter.
But we quickly saw how lost the Ravens were without their defensive signal caller and most versatile linebacker. They described widespread miscommunication over the remainder of the first half until Weddle took over the defensive huddle after halftime.
Mosley is the definition of an every-down player, just as important in pass coverage as he is against the run. Dalton feasted on the soft belly of the Ravens defense as soon as he went out.
Mosley’s value goes beyond his Pro Bowl talent as a player. He’s also a hedge against the team’s lack of depth at inside linebacker. The Ravens defense becomes threadbare with him out of the lineup. The unit might survive without him for a few weeks but not for a hefty chunk of the season.
On a personal level, we have to hope Mosley returns to full health as he works toward a long-term extension in this, his fifth season. From early in his career, the Ravens envisioned him as a franchise centerpiece in the tradition established by Ray Lewis. Mosley has met those lofty expectations as the fulcrum of the defense on the field and as a dignified spokesman for the franchise off it.
John Brown gives the Ravens an element they’ve not had since 2014.
The last Ravens receiver to inspire confidence on contested deep balls was Steve Smith Sr. when he first arrived in Baltimore. Smith was a great player, still near his prime, and he could turn an imperfect throw from Flacco into a big chunk of yardage.
For all his ability to spring free on deep routes, Mike Wallace never felt like that kind of force on 50-50 balls, and he seemed to vanish from the game plan for long stretches.
It’s still too early to say Brown can produce like 2014 Smith. Flacco targeted him 10 times against the Bengals, and he came away with just four catches. But two of those were spectacular plays in traffic that kept the Ravens within shouting distance.
Brown’s 21-yard touchdown catch against airtight coverage by Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was particularly inspired.
His talent was never in question after a 2015 breakout season in which he averaged 15.4 yards a catch for the Arizona Cardinals. Brown simply could not stay on the field in 2016 or 2017 because of a succession of baffling maladies.
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But he quickly felt at ease with his health and his fit once he arrived in Baltimore and emerged as the offensive star of training camp.
Now the Ravens are seeing that same lustrous quality in games.
Kenny Young is ready to play now.
Young, the rookie fourth-round pick out of UCLA, came on late in training camp and gave Onwuasor a tough battle for the weak-side linebacker job.
He was going to play significant snaps this season one way or another, but Mosley’s absence accelerated that process Thursday, and Young handled the moment fairly well.
He finished second on the team with eight tackles, including one for loss, and delivered a rare hit on Dalton. He also appeared comfortable tracking receivers in open space, showing off the mobility that was his calling card as a prospect.
Ideally, Young would spend the season sharing duties with Onwuasor while Mosley serves as the team’s rock in the middle. But the Ravens have to be pleased that in a draft dominated by offense, they added a quality player at their greatest position of need on defense.