We're just not reacting right to the different concepts that they're giving us," said Earl Thomas on the mistakes of the defense against the Browns.
As reporters buzzed around a fast-emptying Ravens locker room late Sunday afternoon, looking for answers from a defense that for 60 minutes had had almost none, safety Tony Jefferson emerged to to say his piece. He was more disappointed than agitated. There had been failures in the Ravens’ communication, he said calmly, and in their execution. A historic debacle had done nothing to shake his confidence.
The comments were not prepared, but Jefferson spoke as if he’d answered these questions before — the week before, and maybe the week before that. “Well, we have,” Jefferson said after the 40-25 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens’ second straight defeat after a 2-0 start. “We just have. So what are we going to do?”
That is the unexpected question that hangs over this Ravens season like an anvil tethered to a wad of chewing gum. Through four weeks, quarterback Lamar Jackson has a 105.5 passer rating. The Ravens likely will enter Week 5 as the NFL’s only team averaging 200-plus rushing yards per game. Their special teams have been often exceptional.
And yet the very thing that the Ravens were supposed to depend on this season, the pride and joy of this franchise, has imploded in less than a month. For the third straight game, a defense that finished last season as the NFL’s No. 1 unit played more like it was No. 32. There were coverage breakdowns and missed tackles, wide-open running lanes and shut-down blitzes. It has become a sickness, a crisis.
“Fix it all,” cornerback Brandon Carr said after the Ravens allowed 500 yards in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. “Take it one day at a time. Chip away. You see it, we know what’s going on. We see it as well. There are a lot of areas we can improve on: up front, in the middle, on the back end.
“We all have our work cut out for improvement. We can’t point fingers at each other. We all have different things that we can get better in to make this defense better. It’s just going to take all hands on deck.”
There are fewer able men now than when offseason prognosticators hailed this Ravens defense, depleted though it was by offseason defections, as one of the NFL’s best. Slot cornerback Tavon Young was lost for the season after a training camp neck injury. (His significance to this defense has seemed to grow with every successful seam route.) Cornerback Jimmy Smith remains out with a knee sprain. And on Sunday, defensive tackle Brandon Williams was inactive for the first time in nearly two years, sidelined by a knee injury.
There is still enough talent. Too much, really, to allow 530 total yards of offense, the second most they’ve ever surrendered at M&T Bank Stadium and fourth most overall in franchise history. Too much to all but hand the Browns (2-2) a share of the AFC North lead.
It didn’t matter that Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield had been sacked 11 times in his first three games, that running back Nick Chubb’s longest run all season had been 19 yards, that star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was held to two catches for 20 yards Sunday. Outside of Miami, this Ravens defense is a cure-all.
Mayfield, who entered Sunday’s game with a 70.3 passer rating, among the worst in the NFL, returned to Cleveland with his third 300-yard passing game against the Ravens in as many meetings (20-for-30, 342 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception, 102.4 passer rating).
“It’s disgusting,” Jefferson said. “Y’all look at the tape, it’s not good.”
Chubb finished with 20 carries for 165 yards and three touchdowns, the most dispiriting of which was an 88-yard fourth-quarter sprint on which he was not touched. Safety Earl Thomas eased up before giving chase, not wanting to risk a hamstring injury on a doomed-from-the-start play that sent a six-point game into a spiral.
“Doesn’t shake my fundamental belief,” Thomas said of the defense’s performance, “but it’s frustrating as hell.”
"I fumbled, it really proved detrimental to our team," said running back Mark Ingram II when asked about his fumble against the Browns.
Beckham’s most notable contribution might have been a third-quarter throwdown with top Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, but even his mere presence disfigured the defense. Humphrey seemed to blame himself for a coverage bust that allowed tight end Ricky Seals-Jones to streak down the seam uncovered on a 59-yard catch-and-run early in the third quarter. He was paying attention to Beckham; unfortunately, so was Jefferson.
“I can’t be doing that,” Humphrey said of the play, which one play later was followed by Chubb’s 14-yard rushing touchdown. “I have to know the coverage, know what we’re doing, how we’re playing it that week and execute it. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s hurting us right now. I’m averaging a few busts a game, so I’ve got to be better.”
There were other plays that will make the Ravens’ film review about as pleasant as a colonoscopy. Crossing concepts and rub routes often turned the Ravens’ defensive backfield, the NFL’s highest paid, into onlookers. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry broke two open-field tackle attempts by Jefferson and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor on a 65-yard catch-and-run and was perhaps unlucky not to score. Mayfield wasn’t hit over the game’s final 59 minutes.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale joked Thursday that the Ravens’ 33-28 loss in Week 3 to the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs was so nauseating that he’d lost 4 pounds watching the tape. He might actually need a bottle of Tums this time.
“We just have to clean it up,” coach John Harbaugh, who lost just his fourth game to Cleveland in 23 meetings, said in a short postgame presser. He was talking about the defense, not any vomit. “The Browns did a good job. It’s as simple as that. When you have a gap control or a responsibility on a run play, you have to be there. When you have a coverage responsibility, you have to do it. That’s as simple as that. We’re not disciplined right now in that sense.”
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Last season’s Ravens, with their run-heavy offense and methodical approach, were not built to withstand scoring binges. But they also did not give up many. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley might not have been a star in coverage, and safety Eric Weddle might’ve lost a half-step since his prime, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs might’ve been best in small doses, but the Ravens had enough — a championship-caliber unit undone only by a middling offense.
Now the Ravens’ disappearing act has negated their progress and prowess at quarterback. Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s franchise-record streak of passes without an interception ended at 248 on an ambitious deep pass to tight end Mark Andrews in the fourth quarter, and a bad bounce cost him another pick later at the line of scrimmage.
But in an eagerly anticipated battle of second-year quarterbacks, he fared better than he had in the teams’ Week 17 classic last season, finishing 24-for-34 overall for 247 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Mark Ingram II’s third-quarter fumble on a potentially game-tying drive proved costly, but the Ravens still averaged 6 yards per carry.
Until tight end Mark Andrews returns to full strength, they may have to be the Ravens’ engine. Last season, it was the defense that propelled a playoff charge. When a reporter asked Jackson on Sunday about the difference between now and then, mentioning how the Ravens could “trust” their defense in 2018 but perhaps not so much in 2019, Jackson interjected.