After their dispiriting loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens found themselves short on explanations for another incomplete performance. Here are five things we learned Sunday:
After a week of talking about finishing, the Ravens couldn’t.
Derek Wolfe sank to his knees, his head hanging in disbelief.
The Ravens defensive end had just watched Titans running back Derrick Henry roar past a succession of exhausted tacklers for a decisive 29-yard touchdown. All that remained was the brutal reality of another loss in which the Ravens were outmaneuvered and overpowered in the telling moments.
“We just can’t put 60 minutes together as a football team,” Wolfe lamented afterward.
The Ravens brought unusual urgency to this matchup with the Titans. Whether motivated by last season’s playoff embarrassment against the same team or by desperation to avoid falling behind a crowded field of AFC playoff contenders, they wanted this one badly. You could see it when coach John Harbaugh jawed with Titans players before the game. You could see it in the shoving matches and bouts of trash talk that erupted throughout.
More importantly, the Ravens imposed their will on one of the league’s most balanced, efficient offenses. They knew Henry would get the ball relentlessly on first down, and for three quarters, they stood up to the 247-pound anvil, holding him to one 3-yard gain after another. They threw Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill off his play-action game with a vigorous pass rush. They built a 21-10 lead in the third quarter, reversing the script from their shocking playoff loss in January.
All week, they had repeated one word: finish, finish, finish.
Instead, the Ravens reverted to all the tendencies that have made them frustrating to watch in 2020. A careless interception by quarterback Lamar Jackson and a false start by tight end Mark Andrews cut short drives that could have built the lead. The defense, meanwhile, allowed scoring drives of 53, 81, 90 and 73 yards as proper tackling went out the window against Henry (who finished with 133 yards after he produced just 37 in the first half) and wide receiver A.J. Brown.
“It looked like that team wanted it more than us,” Jackson said, a startling epitaph from a man rarely given to despair.
The Ravens entered the game diminished by several key injuries, but so did the Titans. They came in knowing this was their time to make a stand, and they could not sustain it. In the aftermath, they seemed bereft of concrete explanations.
Jackson: “We have to finish drives.”
Linebacker Patrick Queen: “We’ve just got to be better. That’s all I can say, really.”
But how? The time to find answers is running short.
The Ravens can’t get away from their familiar problems on offense.
The Ravens started overtime with the ball. Jackson handed off to J.K. Dobbins for 2 yards on first down. They failed to pick up blitzing linebacker Harold Landry III on second down, and he dropped Jackson for a 9-yard loss. Then Jackson dumped a short pass to Dobbins that had little chance of producing a first down on third-and-long.
They did not see the ball again after this uninspired series. And it seems as if every week now, we watch Jackson exit the field with little to show for a pivotal drive.
The Ravens had chances to put the Titans away. They made it to the red zone four times and came away with just one touchdown, lowering their season rate to 58.8%, down from 67.2% in 2019. After they went up 21-10, they got the ball four times and drove more than 27 yards just once.
We all know the problems by now. The holes aren’t quite as big behind an offensive line that’s without its two best players from last season. Jackson isn’t connecting regularly on the downfield and outside throws defenses are daring him to make. In his eagerness to do so, he’s forcing throws, such as the free-for-all he tossed into the arms of Tennessee safety Amani Hooker to kill a promising drive late in the third quarter. Wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin — talked about as breakout candidates in the preseason — have disappeared from the passing game. Brown is on the field for almost every offensive snap but has six catches for 55 yards over the past four games. He dropped one of the three passes thrown his way Sunday.
Jackson still makes the occasional beautiful play, reminding us of the phenomenon who stormed the NFL landscape last year. Against Tennessee, it was a 31-yard touchdown pass that showcased his rare telepathy with Andrews, whom he led away from the defense with exquisite touch. But we’re seeing such throws infrequently, and defenses have also successfully clogged the field against Jackson the runner.
Everything seems hard for this offense every week.
The Ravens entered this game in problem-solving mode.
For all the gloom flowing from the final result, we can’t accuse the Ravens of taking a complacent approach to the Titans matchup. They made significant changes in hopes of putting their loss to the New England Patriots behind them.
They benched center Matt Skura, whose snapping difficulties played a major part in that defeat. They integrated Dez Bryant as a short-yardage option for their moribund wide-receiving corps. They abandoned their egalitarian running-back rotation and fed Dobbins as a ball carrier and pass catcher.
These changes produced positive results, to a degree.
Skura’s replacement, Patrick Mekari, avoided disasters, though his premature snap led to a false start by Bryant on the Ravens’ game-tying drive at the end of regulation. The team’s redesigned offensive line, featuring Ben Powers at right guard and a combination of D.J. Fluker and Will Holden at right tackle, did a solid job protecting Jackson overall.
Bryant established himself as an effective target for Jackson on low-risk throws to the flats. We’ll have to see if the veteran can do damage in the red zone, but the Ravens will take any sign of life from their wide receivers given that Brown and Boykin have vanished from the offense in recent weeks.
Their reliance on Dobbins was even more fruitful, with the rookie gaining 70 yards on 15 carries and catching two passes as Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards watched most of the game from the sideline. Don’t expect Dobbins to be the clear No. 1 option every week; Harbaugh said his usage was a flow-of-the-game decision. But his vision and balance are hard to ignore, and the Ravens were smart not to force him off the field in a blind attempt to distribute carries evenly.
None of these changes were enough to overcome what ails the Ravens on offense, but the experimentation will continue in the weeks ahead.
We finally saw why the Yannick Ngakoue trade merited such excitement.
Ngakoue rushed hard in his first three games as a Raven, but opponent game plans made it difficult for him to produce sacks and quarterback hits.
Tannehill, on the other hand, loves to take downfield shots off play action, so Ngakoue had time to chase him. He did just that in the first half, repeatedly crashing into the Tennessee backfield to force offline throws and a fumble that derailed a potential touchdown drive. Titans left tackle Ty Sambrailo could not handle Ngakoue’s quickness off the edge.
Tennessee did a better job in the second half, frequently stationing a running back in Ngakoue’s path to impede his progress after he beat the initial block. But if he commands that level of attention, he’ll free up the Ravens’ other pass rushers, especially after defensive end Calais Campbell returns from a calf strain.
The guy we saw in the first half was the difference-maker the Ravens sought when they acquired Ngakoue from the Minnesota Vikings. A few more strip sacks from him could loom large in what’s shaping up as a tense playoff race.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
We can no longer take a playoff appearance for granted.
Even two weeks ago, we spoke matter-of-factly of where the Ravens would fall in the postseason pecking order. Behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, for sure, but with greater upside than the other contenders.
Now? They’re trapped in a jumble of six- and seven-win teams with the undefeated Steelers eager to deepen their misery on Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh. Would a loss in that AFC North grudge match be the Ravens’ Waterloo?
Not necessarily. We have to remember they’ll face one of the league’s easiest schedules over the last five weeks, with games against four bottom dwellers that have combined for nine wins and a rematch against one of their wild-card rivals, the Cleveland Browns. They’ll probably be healthier for that stretch, with key defensive linemen Campbell and Brandon Williams expected to return. Even if they lose to Pittsburgh, they could run the remaining slate and reach 11 wins.
“You have to stack wins,” Wolfe said. “Wins come in bunches. You’ve just got to get that one win. You can’t get used to losing. That’s one thing; I know how that feels, and you can’t get used to it.”
We’ve learned this is no longer a team that can assume victory against a less talented opponent. They’re too beaten up, and they were too discombobulated to exploit the poor defenses they faced the past two weeks. So the perceived schedule cushion isn’t exactly goose-feather fluffy.
In his postgame comments, Jackson alluded to the 2018 finishing stretch that propelled the Ravens from 4-5 mess to AFC North champs. He’s correct to suggest there’s much to sort out over the last six weeks of this season. But that logic goes both ways, and it’s now possible to envision the Ravens as the toppled rather than the topplers.