Michael Crabtree’s hands are now part of the narrative.
Four weeks before he became the scapegoat of the Ravens’ loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, Crabtree was the focus of one of the more interesting scenes of the “Ravens Wired” recap of the team’s season-opening blowout of the Buffalo Bills.
In that rain-soaked game, Crabtree dropped a pair of passes from quarterback Joe Flacco in the first half. Sideline cameras and microphones captured the wide receiver’s penitence.
"I got you, fam. My bad,” he told Flacco on the sideline. “Don't get mad at me, bro.”
“I'm not,” Flacco said. “Don't worry.”
“You know we got to keep playing,” Crabtree said.
Amid all the self-glorifying footage from the 47-3 win that could have been featured, the Ravens-produced program included Crabtree’s remorseful remarks because they fit neatly into a dramatic arc: Player struggles. Player apologizes, promises to make amends. Player delivers with highlight-reel play — in Crabtree’s case, a toe-tapping, 12-yard touchdown catch just before the end of the first half.
Even then, he refused to allow himself much joy. “No, listen, I dropped those passes in the beginning,” he told third-string quarterback Robert Griffin III afterward. “I can't even celebrate no more.”
After Sunday’s game, a 12-9 overtime defeat in Cleveland that, unlike that Bills romp, likely did hinge on Crabtree’s firm grasp of a pass from Flacco, the Ravens find themselves in the awkward, impossible position of having to scrutinize what were once considered among the sport’s surest hands.
It’s hard to say which conversation of the past three years would have once been considered more unlikely: How big, really, are a certain U.S. president’s hands? And how good, really, are Michael Crabtree’s hands? As a refresher, here are a few highlights from the former Texas Tech star’s predraft breakdowns.
NFL.com: “Excellent hands; snatches the ball from the air within or outside his body. Secures the ball quickly in his strong hands after the catch.” WalterFootball.com: “Does not drop easy passes. ... Circus catch ability." Sporting News: “Hands: Are excellent. Caught more than 94 percent of passes thrown his way. Plucks passes that are way off-target.”
And now Crabtree is saying he has to “get back into the lab” to focus on his focus. Now the Ravens’ most ballyhooed wide receiver signing of the offseason is pledging to get back to basics on a problem that has long bothered him. Now it’s fair to wonder whether Flacco will continue to trust Crabtree.
The Ravens quarterback has played with enough wide receivers in Baltimore to know not to get mad at them. But that doesn’t mean he and the coaches have to keep throwing to them, either.
Baker Mayfield isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the Browns.
After the Browns’ first AFC North win since October 2015, a winless streak that stretched to 18 games, Ravens safety Eric Weddle sought out the Cleveland rookie who’s unlikely to preside over such a period of futility. When he found Baker Mayfield on the field, he gave him kudos.
"I'm a fan of the game, and I respect good players, and he did a good job," Weddle said. "He made some throws that were really good, and he made some others that were really bad that we could have capitalized on. But with the game on the line, he made a great throw and the guy made a great catch-and-run. As good as our defense played, they made one more play than us."
Mayfield was 25-for-43 for 342 yards, all career-high figures for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, along with an interception and a touchdown. On the other sideline was Flacco, who finished 29-for-56 for 298 yards, an interception and a boatload of check-downs. His 5.3 yards per pass attempt were a season low.
But for as much as Mayfield flashed during the game’s decisive play — seriously, how did he deliver a 20-yards-in-the-air, on-the-money overtime strike to receiver Derrick Willies while backing up on third-and-8 in overtime and Terrell Suggs bearing down on him and Brandon Carr in coverage? — the win was perhaps as remarkable for the fact that the Browns won without Mayfield at his best.
They’d needed all of his magic in his off-the-bench debut against the New York Jets, a 21-17 win in Week 3 that marked the end of Cleveland’s 19-game winless streak. On Sunday, Mayfield, 23, got a lot of help from his friends, some even younger than him.
Tight end David Njoku, 22, a first-round pick last season, had a season-high six catches for 69 yards. Defensive end Myles Garrett, 22, the Browns’ No. 1 overall pick a year ago, was mostly held in check but still kept pace with the NFL’s sack leaders by adding a half-sack. Cornerback Denzel Ward, 21, taken three slots after Mayfield, recorded his third interception of the season against a lethal Ravens red-zone offense and blocked a field-goal attempt. Top receiver Jarvis Landry is 25. Safety Jabrill Peppers is 23. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is 24.
And the Ravens will be seeing them all two times a year for the foreseeable future. Ravens fans used to look forward to those days. That era might be over.
The Ravens offense is fighting through something right now.
It should worry coach John Harbaugh that the Ravens got nowhere close to extending their NFL-best 13-game streak of scoring at least 20 points. It should worry him more that the team has not scored a touchdown since the first quarter of its Week 4 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Since going up 14-0 at Heinz Field, the Ravens have had 24 drives, not including a salt-the-game-away possession against Pittsburgh. In that span, they have kicked four field goals, had one blocked, punted 12 times and not scored a single touchdown. Only the Ravens’ first Super Bowl-winning team could hack it in the NFL with such offensive stagnancy.
“It was tough,” Flacco said Sunday, a week after he worried about the state of the offense. “We just weren’t able to keep and sustain it for anything significant. We had our chances. In these kind of games when you have little chances, you have to be able to take advantage of them. The couple that we had, we probably just didn’t execute well.”
“I’ll take a look at it and figure it out,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a big, giant huge question that can’t be answered that simple.”
The Ravens’ next opponent won’t make answers easy, either. Under former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Tennessee Titans have a top-10 defense in terms of yardage allowed and a top-five scoring defense.
Anthony Levine Sr. is playing as well as he ever has.
In Week 4, the only player to get a higher game grade from analytics site Pro Football Focus than the Ravens defensive back-linebacker-special teams ace was Jared Goff. Which made sense: The Los Angeles Rams quarterback went 26-for-33 for 465 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
In Week 5, Levine was not quite as elite. He did not have an interception, as he did against the Steelers, nor any other kind of highlight-reel play he’s said he’d dreamed of making. But he also did little to diminish his value to the defense as a hybrid playmaker.
In the fourth quarter alone, the 207-pound Levine kept the Browns’ 246-pound Njoku a yard short of the sticks on a crucial third-and-long. The next two times Mayfield threw his way, to the 207-pound Willies and then to Njoku, the passes fell incomplete. In overtime, Levine’s third-down tackle of Willies forced a Browns three-and-out.
Over the past three weeks, he has 16 tackles, six passes defended and the interception. (For the season, only starting cornerback Brandon Carr has more passes defended, with seven.) Levine’s on pace to shatter his career high for tackles (29), set in 2014 and matched in 2017.
It’s rare for an undrafted special teams standout to break out at age 31. And with Kenny Young’s emergence and C.J. Mosley’s return at linebacker, it’s unclear how Levine’s role will change over the next few weeks.
It shouldn’t matter much. He’s proved more capable than ever of handling whatever’s asked of him.
The Ravens have had their bad days punished.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens defense had its worst half of the season. The result was a deficit too great to overcome.
Against the Browns, the offense had its worst game plan of the season. The result was a loss that dropped the Ravens back into the middle of a hypercompetitive AFC North.
For all the talk of the Ravens’ profile as a complete team, despite all the what-could’ve-been grumblings Sunday about Crabtree’s dropped touchdown catch, Flacco’s goal-line interception or Chris Moore’s illegal-block-in-the-back penalty, the Ravens cannot show up as incompletely as they did in Cleveland and expect to win anywhere.
Their next month will be revealing. After the Titans, the Ravens face the New Orleans Saints at home, travel to Carolina to play the Panthers and reunite with the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium, a foursome of teams that will alternately test their defense and offense.
When the Ravens head into their bye week the following weekend, they should know how close they are to the playoffs. Sunday in Cleveland, they looked only half the part. They know by now that that won’t get them anywhere.