Another week, another nail-biting finish, another impactful Ravens injury.
Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was doubly painful for the Ravens, denying the team a two-game lead in the AFC North and knocking cornerback Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral muscle) out for the season.
With only a month remaining in the regular season, the Ravens are at once closing in on a playoff berth and running out of playmakers who could fuel a late-season surge. As Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns nears, Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon assess the precarious state of the team.
Are the Ravens in any real danger of missing the playoffs?
Walker: Thirteen of the AFC’s 16 teams have at least six wins, so sure, the Ravens are in some peril. As we can see from various playoff odds, they helped themselves significantly by banking eight wins. But they have not played well over the last month, and they’ll go the rest of the way without another one of their best players in Humphrey. With the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams coming to town, it’s not clear the Ravens will be favored again until they host the Steelers in Week 18. They will probably need two more wins to get in, and chances are they will find a way to do it. But they would be sitting so much prettier if that 2-point conversion pass in Pittsburgh had not trickled off Mark Andrews’ outstretched fingers.
Shaffer: As long as their chances are less than 100%, yes, the Ravens can miss the playoffs. ESPN’s Football Power Index and FiveThirtyEight give them an 83% chance of making a postseason appearance. At Football Outsiders, it’s 77.7%. And none of those odds account for the loss of Humphrey, whose contributions and leadership are as important as those of any Raven stuck on injured reserve.
Just as a late-season run was always possible last year — just look at the creampuffs they had to beat — a late-season crash is possible here. The Ravens should enter Sunday’s game in Cleveland as underdogs, and they might not be favored again until their regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The expanded playoff field gives them some margin for error, but there are 12 AFC teams with .500 records or better. If the Ravens can’t win at home, things could get dicey awfully quick.
Doon: If you want to consider a doomsday scenario in which the Ravens win only one of their final five games, they could certainly be in some peril at 9-8. But with the new 17-game schedule adding a seventh playoff spot, it’s hard to envision the Ravens slipping out of the postseason entirely. Only the Patriots, Titans, Chiefs and Bills have better odds of reaching the postseason in the AFC, according to ESPN’s FPI.
The AFC North’s two favorites took bad losses Sunday. So who ends up winning the division?
Walker: We thought the AFC North was a beastly division. As it turns out, it might be more of a highly competitive rock fight between so-so teams. That means the Ravens’ one-game advantage is actually significant, though hardly commanding. The Bengals are healthier, and they have hit higher highs, most notably in the head-to-head matchup between the teams. But the Ravens remain the safer bet because of their slight lead and superior track record.
Shaffer: The Ravens’ one-game advantage over Cincinnati might still be enough for them to hold on. The Bengals end the regular season with a home game against a San Francisco 49ers team that, until Sunday, seemed ascendant; a trip to Denver to face the mercurial Broncos; a home game against the eager-for-revenge Ravens; another home game against the streaking Kansas City Chiefs; and a trip to Cleveland to face a Browns team that routed them in Week 9. There are no gimmes in that group.
Pittsburgh is somehow third in the division, but the Steelers don’t do anything well enough to sustain an end-of-season run. The Browns have the most ground to make up and the AFC North quarterback you’d least trust to do that. If the Ravens can win in Cincinnati and shore up their divisional record, they could be tough to catch.
Doon: The Bengals (7-4), Steelers (6-5-1) and Browns (6-6) will certainly push for the AFC North title, but the Ravens control their own destiny. A win over Cleveland on Sunday pushes their odds of winning the division to 76%, according to FiveThirtyEight. What’s more interesting to me is whether they still have a shot at the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. A Patriots loss to the Colts in Week 15 could open the door.
The Ravens’ offense is not in a good place right now. Do Lamar Jackson, Greg Roman and the offensive line deserve equal blame, or is there a primary culprit?
Walker: The offensive line is the least promising leg of that stool in the short term because the Ravens really do not have a better answer at either tackle spot. Alejandro Villanueva and Tyre Phillips played terribly in the second half against the Steelers, but with Patrick Mekari likely sidelined for the next few weeks, who’s riding to the rescue?
If we’re grading on a curve, though, the answer is Jackson. We have known all season that he would need to play like a Most Valuable Player candidate for the Ravens to be a top contender. Instead, he has regressed over the last month, struggling against pressure but also when he had ample time to throw. He has looked past open receivers and attempted low-percentage throws that turned into crushing interceptions. Yes, Jackson is trying to thrive in a sub-optimal context, with shoddy protection and no dangerous running back to take the focus off him. But the offense is struggling because of him, not because of what’s happening around him.
Shaffer: Jackson was in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player honors when this offense was clicking. The scheme hasn’t changed dramatically in the weeks since, nor has the play-calling. Yes, teams are blitzing more, but that wasn’t a huge issue last year or in Jackson’s breakthrough 2019 season. So if Jackson deserved plaudits in September and October, he shouldn’t be surprised by criticism in November and December.
Jackson himself has acknowledged that his play has been subpar at points this season — “I looked like a rookie,” he said of his four-interception performance against Cleveland — and the offense’s swoon has somehow coincided with the return of the team’s top three wide receivers: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman. The Ravens’ offensive line is far from perfect; its run-blocking struggles, in particular, can’t be overlooked. And some of Roman’s pass play designs leave you wondering how two receivers could ever end up 5 yards from one another downfield. But Jackson is the nucleus of this offense, and he has been unstable for a while now.
Doon: In Weeks 1-7, Jackson ranked 15th among qualified quarterbacks (minimum 100 snaps) in expected points added per play, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position. From Week 8 onward, he ranks 24th, behind Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield and Saints third-stringer Trevor Siemian. No single stat tells the whole story, but it’s clear Jackson’s play has regressed of late, and the offense is suffering because of it.
Whose absence will matter more in the Ravens’ rematch with the Browns: right tackle Patrick Mekari or cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s?
Walker: Humphrey’s absence will hurt more in the long term because the Ravens are desperately short on healthy bodies in their secondary and even shorter on players capable of forcing turnovers. But we saw how much they missed Mekari against T.J. Watt in the second half of the Steelers game. Myles Garrett is just as frightening, and he also lines up frequently against the right tackle. The Ravens actually did a good job protecting Jackson in their previous meeting with the Browns, and he still struggled. Imagine how ugly Sunday’s game could get if Garrett is in his face the entire afternoon. Phillips, along with the blockers tabbed to help him, will face a monumental task.
Shaffer: Jadeveon Clowney and Garrett have to be on cloud nine this week. Despite his physical limitations, Mekari has been one of the NFL’s better right tackles this season. Phillips, despite his physical gifts, has not. If the Ravens struggle on early downs Sunday, the Browns won’t hesitate to drop seven defenders into coverage and let their edge rushers get after Jackson on third-and-long.
Humphrey, meanwhile, is perhaps the most talented cornerback on the Ravens’ roster, but even he struggled against Cleveland. According to Pro Football Reference, he gave up seven completions on 11 targets for 98 yards in their Week 12 matchup. These Browns wide receivers aren’t as scary as they used to be, and the potential absence of tight end David Njoku (reserve/COVID-19 list) could help ease the burden on the Ravens’ secondary.
Doon: Outside of right guard Kevin Zeitler, Mekari has been the Ravens’ most reliable pass blocker this season. His 74.9 pass-blocking grade ranks 24th among tackles in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Clowney and Garrett are a much scarier duo at defensive end than Jarvis Landry and Donovan Peoples-Jones are at wide receiver, especially when you consider the Ravens’ options. Cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Chris Westry can hold up better than Phillips and Villanueva.
With the Ravens’ secondary decimated by injury, what are your expectations for the defense over these final five weeks?
Walker: More of the same. They will stop the run, rush the passer well enough to get off the field on most third downs and give up explosive plays because of mix-ups in the secondary. Humphrey was the defensive back best suited to countering an opponent’s No. 1 pass catcher, but he made his share of mistakes this season. The Ravens’ struggles might, and probably will, be exacerbated by his absence, but their defense will look similar.
Shaffer: As always, it depends on the team’s health. On paper, the Ravens’ secondary still has enough pieces to be decent. If Averett, Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young can all play meaningful snaps, Don “Wink” Martindale might rest a little easier. But if the injury bug strikes again, leaving the Ravens with practice squad call-ups against receiving corps as talented as, say, the Bengals’, it could get ugly.
Up front, this is a critical juncture for the team’s foundational young players. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen can’t afford to back-slide. Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh can’t afford to hit a rookie wall. Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike can’t afford to be a limited-impact pass rusher. The Ravens need consistency at every spot on the field, or else they’ll see more big plays put on highlight reels.
Doon: The red zone defense might not hold up much longer. The Ravens have allowed touchdowns on just 44.8% of their opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line, the best mark in the league. We know the explosive plays have been an issue, but if those 3s start turning into 7s, this defense could be in serious trouble.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Browns by 2 ½