Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens' 36-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
In two weeks, the Ravens have gone from a team on the rise to a team in trouble.
The Ravens held a 10-point lead at home going into the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints. Had they secured it, they would have moved to 5-2 on the season with one of the most commanding point differentials in the NFL.
In the five quarters since, they’ve been outscored 53-27 (and one of their touchdowns came in garbage time against Carolina). At 4-4, they’re back to their familiar state of mediocrity, needing a desperate surge over the second half of the season to stay in playoff contention.
Joe Flacco played a harried game behind his injury-depleted offensive line, completing just 22 of 39 passes and throwing two interceptions. For the first time this season, he resembled the worst version of himself — moving uncomfortably in the face of pressure and forcing throws that had little chance of paying off.
The Ravens wiped out multiple first downs with penalties, including two push-offs by wide receiver Willie Snead IV and an illegal shift on a successful fake punt. They accumulated 68 penalty yards compared with 30 by Carolina.
Their top-ranked defense had a chance to make its stand at the beginning of the fourth quarter, after the Ravens had scored to cut the Carolina lead to 27-14.
Instead, the Panthers mowed through the “D” — nine plays for 85 yards and a crushing Cam Newton touchdown run.
The Ravens talked a good game about how they had to stop Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. But he found soft spots in their zone coverage to make 17- and 15-yard catches on that decisive drive. They also talked about staying on high alert for Newton’s runs. But he lowered his head to gain 28 yards when the Ravens needed to stop him most.
Overall, the Ravens touched Newton just four times as he completed 21 of 29 throws against a secondary playing without its most athletic cornerback in Marlon Humphrey. The Panthers averaged 4.7 yards on 33 carries.
There was no hint of the dominant defense we saw two weeks earlier in Tennessee.
“I don’t like to say we’re all right,” safety Eric Weddle said afterward. “We’re not all right. We just got waxed.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh often says you’re never as good as you look on your best day or as bad as you look on your worst day.
And it’s true that these decisive losses don’t have to be death knells. When the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, the Houston Texans beat them 43-13 in Week 7. When they last made the playoffs in 2014, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat them 43-23 in Week 9.
But with the Ravens falling behind the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North standings, next week’s home game against Pittsburgh is close to a must-win. It’s an uncomfortable position to face in the first week of November, especially for the many Baltimore fans who believe their team is stuck in a rut of mediocrity.
The Ravens again face a talent deficit on the offensive line.
This problem has haunted the franchise for several years. The Ravens thought they had addressed it, with starting guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis returning healthy and rookie Orlando Brown Jr. playing like a future starter at right tackle.
But with Lewis and starting tackle James Hurst injured, they lined up against the Panthers with backup center Hroniss Grasu at left guard, Brown at right tackle and little depth behind them.
Sure enough, Carolina defensive tackle Kyle Love ran untouched between Grasu and center Matt Skura to slam into running Alex Collins and force a fumble on the first play of the second quarter. The ensuing touchdown began a tailspin from which the Ravens would never truly recover.
Run blocking has been a problem all season. But the Ravens also faltered in pass protection Sunday, leaving Flacco to absorb seven hits and two sacks. After the game, Flacco described the Panthers as “more physical” than the Ravens.
He did not intend it as a comment on his offensive line, but the shoe fit in this case.
The Ravens have to hope the leg injury that briefly sidelined left tackle Ronnie Stanley is not lasting and that Hurst and Lewis will be ready for the Steelers game. Otherwise, they’ll begin another vital game at a disadvantage.
We saw our best glimpse of Lamar Jackson’s progress since the preseason.
The Ravens went to their rookie quarterback early against Carolina, inserting him for three plays on the team’s opening touchdown drive. He rewarded their faith, breaking a 17-yard gain to put them in the red zone.
Jackson’s effectiveness on the ground is hard to deny. He’s elusive enough that defenders rarely stuff him in short-yardage situations. And even when he’s handing off, he tends to create space by commanding attention with his fakes.
We also saw the good and the bad of Jackson as a passer. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called a nifty play in the first half that had the rookie quarterback rolling freely to his right with Snead wide open downfield. Jackson short-armed the ball into the ground.
But when he relieved Flacco with the result of the game decided, he threw his first NFL touchdown pass, a perfect spiral down the seam to fellow first-round pick Hayden Hurst.
As the Ravens’ hopes against Carolina faded, some fans began calling for Jackson to become the team’s starting quarterback in the second half of the season. That’s premature. Flacco has played well more often than not through eight games, and the Ravens have yet to fall out of contention. Not to mention, there’s still plenty of reason to doubt Jackson’s readiness as an NFL passer.
Just know that if the trends from Sunday continue, Flacco-Jackson intrigue will intensify by the week.
The Ravens have become mistake-prone on special teams.
The Ravens made some excellent special-teams plays Sunday, including an aggressive tackle in kickoff coverage by Chris Moore and a punt by Sam Koch that pinned the Panthers on their own 1-yard-line.
But the illegal shift that wiped out a successful fake punt on the Ravens’ second drive continued a troubling trend for coordinator Jerry Rosburg’s crew.
The previous week against the Saints, the Ravens gave up a fourth-down conversion on a fake punt, a lapse for which Rosburg blamed himself.
Earlier in the season, they allowed two blocked field goals and a blocked punt and mishandled several returns.
Despite the continued effectiveness of Koch and kicker Justin Tucker, the Ravens have not asserted their accustomed advantage on special teams in 2018.
The analytics website FootballOutsiders.com measures overall special-teams efficiency as part of its DVOA statistic. The Ravens ranked 15th in the league entering the weekend after they easily led all teams in 2017. They measure up poorly on kickoff coverage and returns, areas in which they excelled last season.
It’s odd, because Rosburg is an excellent coach, widely respected inside the franchise and around the league. And most of his key players from last season remain in place. But something is off.
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You knew that as soon as the Ravens traded down twice in the first round of the 2018 draft and passed on top receivers Moore and Calvin Ridley, they would face eternal comparisons between those players and the guy they did take — Hayden Hurst.
It’s way too early for those side-by-sides to carry real meaning, but Ravens fans could not have enjoyed watching Moore, the former University of Maryland standout, run wild in a career-best game for the Panthers.
Scouts loved Moore’s running ability after the catch, and he displayed it against the Ravens, averaging 18 yards on five catches and carrying twice for 39 yards. He’s averaging 15.6 yards per catch on the season, hinting at his potential to become a game-breaker.
Hurst, meanwhile, has struggled to find his place in the Baltimore offense since a fractured foot cost him the first four games of the season. He did catch his first career touchdown pass against Carolina after the game was out of reach, but he dropped an earlier pass on the goal line.
Again, one game cannot tell us Moore will be a better player than Hurst in 2020. It’s just that Ravens fans are conditioned to expect the worst after years of watching their team pass on productive receivers, including previous Maryland star Stefon Diggs.