"They just did a great job. We've just to try harder and get it next time and convert it." said Lamar Jackson when asked how long this loss with stick with him.
After a spectacular Ravens season ended with a fizzle, what conclusions can be drawn? From Lamar Jackson blowing away expectations to the difficulty of squaring that final loss with the team’s overall excellence, here are five things.
Lamar Jackson is everything the Ravens hoped for and more, even if he needs some refinement.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the top: If you’re using Saturday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans to argue the Ravens can’t win it all with Jackson, you’re either trolling or foolish.
A healthy dose of perspective is called for here. In July, The Athletic released a poll of 55 NFL coaches and executives who deemed Jackson a “Tier-4” quarterback, behind players such as Joe Flacco, Mitch Trubisky and Marcus Mariota. Skeptics wondered if he would ever polish his passing enough to make the Ravens a title contender without the help of a dominant defense.
Six months later, Jackson is a strong favorite to win Most Valuable Player honors, coming off one of the greatest second seasons any quarterback has ever posted.
Yes, he’s a historically brilliant runner at his position. But he was also a superb passer in 2019, according to both traditional statistics (66.1% completion rate, 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 7.8 yards per attempt) and analytics (fifth highest passing grade from Pro Football Focus, led the NFL’s most efficient passing offense by FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA measure).
Yes, he’s now 0-2 in the playoffs. But he’s 19-3 in the regular season and has earned the absolute trust of teammates, who believe he’s the man to lead them to the promised land.
In the wake of the Titans loss, tight end Mark Andrews called Jackson “the most competitive person I’ve been around.”
“I know he knows that for us, he’s our leader,” Andrews said. “He means everything to this team, this city and what we’re all about. We go as he goes. That’s our guy. I love him to death. … He’s going to continue to get better, and we all will with him.”
Powerful words about a man who turned 23 last week, still younger than Joe Burrow, the likely No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Jackson has room to improve, and he knows it. When the Ravens play from behind, he sometimes overreaches, as he did on his second interception against the Titans. He does not always put the necessary zip on outside attempts. He has yet to throw his team out of trouble in a big game as Patrick Mahomes did for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. But Jackson also made some brilliant throws into tight spaces in the playoff loss, and his performance would have looked better if not for several ill-timed drops.
He was a far better player than he had been in a 2019 playoff defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers. And that’s the real point here. Jackson has demonstrated he can improve exponentially quicker than even optimists would predict. His 2019 was a tremendous success, and there’s no reason to think 2020 will be any different.
The Ravens never totally fixed their pass rush, and that’s assignment No. 1 for the offseason.
General manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh did exemplary work tweaking their roster on the fly, shoring up a defense that surrendered a combined 1,033 yards in Weeks 3 and 4 of the season. After they traded for All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, the Ravens defended the pass as well as any team in the league.
But they did so without consistently putting heat on opposing quarterbacks. The Ravens finished slightly above average in pressure rate and had to blitz on more than half of opponent dropbacks just to get that high. Other than outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who made his first Pro Bowl, they simply did not have a pass rusher — edge or interior — who regularly beat blockers one on one.
We could argue they chose this path. For several years, the front office has invested in defensive backs over pass rushers, who often command enormous deals on the free-agent market. Just last month, the Ravens tripled down on this strategy when they signed Peters to a $42 million extension.
It’s hard to argue with the results over the past two seasons. But at the same time, the Ravens watched outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith leave town and become one of the most impactful defenders in the league for the Green Bay Packers. They bid farewell to Terrell Suggs, who’s now trying to help the Chiefs reach the Super Bowl. And they’re about to face a similar decision with Judon, who’s headed for unrestricted free agency with his value at its peak.
Even if they extend Judon (or use the franchise tag to keep him in town), they should draft a pass rusher or sign one with their relatively bountiful salary-cap room. If they lose him, they’ll face an urgent need. For the first time in many years, the Ravens don’t have a next-man-up in their pass-rush pipeline. Rookie Jaylon Ferguson improved as a power player but lacks high-end quickness off the edge. Former second-round pick Tyus Bowser had his best season in 2019 but seems destined to cap out as a complementary player.
It’s all well and good for the Ravens to trust in their big-ticket secondary, but those defensive backs will be the first to tell you that pass rush and pass coverage work hand in glove.
The Ravens still need more production out of their wide receivers.
This could be a takeaway from almost every season in franchise history, and it’s not entirely fair to the team’s current group of receivers, who would surely have loved to see more targets in 2019. The Ravens offense functioned just fine, thank you much, with its emphasis on multi-pronged running and throws to an excellent trio of tight ends.
But the team’s most productive wideout, rookie first-round pick Marquise Brown, ranked just 70th in the league in receiving yards. For the Ravens to achieve the ultimate balance prized by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, that number needs to go up.
The answer might lie with Brown, who was never fully healthy in 2019 as he recovered from a Lisfranc injury that required predraft surgery. After a stunning two-touchdown debut against the Miami Dolphins, his production flagged for much of the season, but he was again the most dynamic receiver on the field in the playoff loss to the Titans.
We can look at Brown’s rookie season two ways. He’s one of the smallest NFL players you’ll ever see and will face questions about his durability until he strings together multiple healthy seasons. On the other hand, he established himself as an immediate threat at a position that often confounds rookies. He did so despite playing at less than 100%. He has all the tools — sure hands, straight-line speed, body control in traffic — to become the best receiver the Ravens have ever drafted, and with a full offseason to get his body right, he could take that leap as soon as 2020.
Beyond Brown, the Ravens have a sturdy, unselfish slot receiver in Willie Snead IV, and third-round pick Miles Boykin showed promise in the preseason, though he did not see the ball much once the regular season started. With so much emphasis on the tight ends (Hayden Hurst showed he’s also ready for an expanded pass-catching role in 2020) and running game, the Ravens don’t need a star-studded receiving corps. But Jackson could have used another dynamic target in the Titans game, so DeCosta could stand to go receiver shopping in the draft or free agency.
The Ravens have never gone into an offseason in better shape.
Those words might sound hollow in the immediate aftermath of a devastating playoff loss, but the Ravens are loaded and have sufficient draft picks (nine, including a projected seven in the first four rounds) and financial flexibility (about $35 million in projected cap space with the ability to create more by releasing several veterans) to improve.
They’re in the position every team covets, with a roster built around an inexpensive franchise quarterback. They’ll return All-Pro talent at some of the game’s most important positions. Roman and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will both be back after interviewing with teams looking for new head coaches.
Some fans will say such stability is no great thing after the Ravens were caught flat-footed in the playoffs for a second straight year. But in team building, it’s always smarter to look at the large sample rather than the failings in one game. By any rational standard, the Ravens performed brilliantly in 2019, combining the NFL’s best offense with one of its best defenses and mustering the focus to knock off one highly regarded opponent after another.
Remember, the last time the Ravens had a championship core, they endured several cycles of playoff disappointment before winning Super Bowl XLVII. They’re set up for similar progression with this group.
It's hard to square the Ravens' performance against the Titans with the team we saw in the regular season.
Harbaugh said it in the moments after the game. The Ravens were the best team they could be and the best team in football until they weren't on a given night in January.
Did they choke, as cornerback Marlon Humphrey suggested? Did they catch a bad draw, running into an unusually confident No. 6 seed with the tools to beat them at their own game? Did injuries, which they'd avoided for so much of the season, undo them at the worst possible moment? Were they simply unlucky at a few key junctures of the game?
Could be all of the above.
It’s always difficult to reverse engineer a single game and figure out the meaning. What if Jackson’s pass hadn’t bounced off Andrews’ hands to end a promising first drive? What if he hadn’t been stonewalled on fourth-and-short with a chance to tie the game at the start of the third quarter? If either of those plays had gone differently by a few feet, we might be talking about how the Ravens staved off a tough opponent on Saturday night.
But the fact remains that for a second straight year, the Ravens allowed a visiting playoff opponent to seize the initiative. For a second straight year, they did not adjust quickly enough and seemed to lose their compass as a team. For a second straight year, they were beaten along the line of scrimmage.
Does that come down to coaching? Does it come down to the inexperience of a quarterback who approached perfection for much of the season? Was the collective confidence they built over a 12-game winning streak more fragile than we thought?
The Ravens will wrestle with these questions and others in the months and weeks ahead. They will not have another chance to put them to rest until next January, if they get that far.