1) Again, the Ravens failed to inspire confidence despite the good news on the scoreboard.
If the Ravens were truly the surging team they hope to be, they would have dominated the unremarkable Texans on their home field.
Instead, they did everything in their power to keep Houston in the game.
We saw their usual lack of execution or ambition in the passing game. But the defense chipped in with a combination of ill-timed penalties and uneven pass coverage. Houston’s No. 1 receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, was the best offensive player on the field with seven catches for 125 yards.
If not for a couple of interceptions, a few nifty trick plays and a wonderfully timed strip sack by Terrell Suggs, they might have lost a game they absolutely had to win to hold their position in the AFC wild-card race.
Quarterback Joe Flacco made it clear after the game that he doesn’t believe the Ravens can make a Super Bowl push playing at their current level. Their offense isn’t connecting on enough significant plays, and that means the margin for error is too small, the burden on the defense and special teams too great.
Flacco didn’t directly express frustration with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, but he walked up to that line, saying the Ravens have yet to “let it loose” like a truly formidable NFL offense.
Now that December is at hand, we know the Ravens are good enough at creating turnovers, stopping the run and playing special teams to hang in the flawed AFC playoff race.
But as Flacco said, that’s not enough to satisfy their vision of what the team should be. The problem is we’ve seen minimal evidence that the Ravens know how to make the leap to a better reality. The story is the same every week, win or lose.
2) For much of the game, Tom Savage looked like a better passer than Flacco.
Savage is primarily known as the guy who never should have started over Deshaun Watson at the beginning of the season. He entered the game with four touchdown passes and four interceptions — for his whole career.
Flacco is a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and one of the highest paid players in the NFL.
And yet, if you judged them without any back story, Savage threw more accurately, looked downfield more confidently and read blitzes more effectively until the late stages Monday night.
Flacco didn’t make any catastrophic mistakes, and the Ravens did ultimately pressure Savage into three turnovers. So Flacco probably won the quarterback battle on points.
But for the umpteenth time over the past two seasons, he threw less accurately than his completion percentage suggested and failed to connect on big plays.
On one intended back-shoulder throw to Breshad Perriman, he fired the ball 3 yards out of bounds. On another deep throw, he launched the ball so far he gave a streaking Mike Wallace no chance to make a play.
On several completions, Flacco failed to hit the receiver in stride, making it harder for the Ravens to accumulate yards after catches.
Yes, he’s dealing with an unremarkable crew of wide receivers (Wallace flat-out missed another deep throw that was on target in the third quarter) and an injury-depleted offensive line. But Flacco is paid to be the Ravens’ best player and he could not clearly outdo a quarterback who’s regarded as pure back-up material.
That’s a problem.
John Harbaugh praised his quarterback for playing a “courageous” game. And it is true that Flacco dragged his surgically repaired knee to 42 rushing yards, some of them essential in securing the team’s fourth-quarter lead. There’s still no questioning his toughness.
But he knows better than anyone that his performance, and that of the offense he guides, is not where it needs to be.
3) The Ravens made superb in-game adjustments to neutralize Jadeveon Clowney.
For about a quarter, it seemed as if Clowney’s dominance would be the story of the game.
He beat both Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst to hit Flacco on the Ravens’ first drive.
On the next possession, he casually tossed Ravens center Ryan Jensen aside and engulfed Alex Collins for a 5-yard loss.
On the Ravens’ third drive, he sacked Flacco to cap another three-and-out.
Basically, he looked like Lawrence Taylor reincarnated.
But give the Ravens credit for finding all manner of solutions to the Clowney problem. On some plays, they double-teamed him. On others, they used running backs and tight ends to chip at him and blunt his momentum. Sometimes, Stanley just handled him.
Over the last three quarters, Clowney made zero tackles, didn’t lay a hand on Flacco and committed a costly offsides penalty in the fourth quarter.
His stat line looked good, but this was a key matchup the Ravens ended up winning.
4) The Ravens defense shot itself in the foot with uncharacteristic penalties.
The Ravens came in as one of the least penalized teams in the league, so this was an anomaly. But they helped keep the Texans in the game with sloppy play, especially in coverage.
A 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Matthew Judon and a 19-yard pass interference penalty on Brandon Carr gave the Texans big assists on their opening 90-yard touchdown drive.
Both penalties were puzzling to say the least, given that Judon had stopped Braxton Miller’s momentum before he body slammed him and that Carr had excellent position on Hopkins before he grabbed him near the goal line.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith set the table for another Houston score in the third quarter when he failed to turn around while covering Hopkins and drew a 26-yard flag that put the Texans on the Baltimore 13-yard line.
The secondary delivered a subpar performance beyond the penalties, struggling mightily to handle Hopkins and generally leaving too many gaps in the middle of the field.
If the Ravens had played a similar game against a top quarterback, they might have been blown out.
5) This is a week to step back and admire Suggs.
Harbaugh joked that Suggs should put the name “Ponce de Leon” on the back of his jersey because he’s discovered the fountain of youth at age 35.
He believes Suggs is playing as well as he has at any time in the past 10 years.
It’s hard to argue after the “old” man raised his season total to 9 ½ sacks and made the biggest play of the game.
Suggs gave a nod to his former teammate Ray Lewis, recalling how when he was a rookie, Lewis always told him to go for the ball and not just the man. Thirty career strip sacks later, he’s the wise man of the locker room.
Suggs has mostly downplayed his performance this season, but he’s acknowledged that health is the key. For the first time in recent memory, he didn’t have to rehabilitate an injury last summer. So he threw himself fully into conditioning.
The difference was notable in August and it’s notable now.
“That’s huge. That’s huge,” he said of entering the season fully fit. “As long as I’m healthy, I can be Sizzle.”
Even during his most battered seasons, Suggs has produced indelible moments. The difference this year is that he’s producing every week as the stretch run nears.
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He’s at worst the third best defender in team history behind Lewis and Ed Reed. But neither Reed nor Lewis made this great an impact at the same age. It’s something to see.