Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens' 24-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
No defense can stop the Saints, or the NFL’s other elite offenses, for four quarters.
The New Orleans offense, designed by Sean Payton and orchestrated by Drew Brees, posed the greatest test of the season for a Ravens defense that had been the best in the league through six weeks.
For three quarters, the Ravens stood up to the challenge. They did not menace Brees as they had Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in a record-setting demolition the week before. But they mostly kept the Saints’ best skill players, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas, from moving in big chunks. Linebacker C.J. Mosley did a particularly good job of cutting off potential breakaways.
The Ravens went into the fourth quarter protecting a 10-point lead at home, about as good as you can ask for against the highest-scoring team in the NFL.
But this is not 1985 or even 2000, when great defenses still ground out the clock against beaten-down foes. Offense rules in the NFL of 2018, and between the creativity of top play callers and the penalties dissuading contact, it’s almost impossible to stifle the best attacks for 60 minutes.
The Ravens had not surrendered a second-half touchdown in any of their first six games, but they looked plainly tired in the fourth quarter against the Saints. Payton’s clever use of backup quarterback Taysom Hill hurt them on the ground. And their secondary, playing without injured cornerback Marlon Humphrey, could not maintain tight coverage as Brees slipped away from would-be sacks and made plays Ravens coach John Harbaugh described as “ridiculous.”
It’s an apt term for the offenses that rule the league — from the Saints to the Los Angeles Rams to the Kansas City Chiefs, whom the Ravens will play later this season.
No doubt, the Ravens will review the tape and see a dozen ways they could have kept their fingers in the collapsing dam just a little longer.
But we’ll likely look back at the end of the season, at all the 30- and 40-point games the Saints accumulated, and say the Ravens did well to hold them as long as they did.
The only sane response to Justin Tucker’s miss is to believe he’ll be fine.
Raise your hand if you already had the score at 24-24 in your mind after Joe Flacco hit John Brown in the end zone with 24 seconds left in the game. Don’t worry, so did every player, coach and fan at M&T Bank Stadium.
We probably should have known Tucker’s extra-point attempt was less than a sure thing. On a 31-yard field-goal attempt earlier in the game, he’d struck the ball cleanly only to watch it wobble in the swirling wind before passing just inside the right upright. He was kicking in the same direction on the potential game-evener, and sure enough, he thought he struck it well only to watch it veer to the right in the wind (which players say is more chaotic with the new scoreboard configuration).
But Tucker had made 316 extra-point attempts in a row between college the NFL regular seasons and postseasons. That nutty certitude had tricked us into believing extra points are 100-percent routine, even though weekly evidence from other NFL cities tells us otherwise.
“It’s a very difficult thing,” Harbaugh said of Tucker’s consistency. “A kick like that demonstrates that. It’s a tough thing. It’s a tough task.”
His track record is so long and his confidence so high, that no one on the team expressed a shred of doubt about Tucker going forward. After all, he’s missed kicks before — 24 field goals in the NFL, as he can tell you off the top of his head — and quickly returned to his best-in-the-world standard.
“He’s still the greatest,” said his holder and good friend, Sam Koch, summing up the general sentiment.
To think otherwise would be to question one of the key load-bearing beams in the franchise. Tucker is a true believer in the power of routine. He planned to spend Sunday night exactly as he would have if he had drilled a game-winner against the Saints. His weekly patterns have led to greatness throughout his seven years in Baltimore, and there’s no reason to think that’s about to change.
First-time starters Orlando Brown Jr. and Bradley Bozeman held their own on the offensive line.
It was an unusual week for the Ravens offensive line, as starting left guard Alex Lewis recovered from a neck injury and starting right tackle James Hurst hit the team’s injury report Saturday with back trouble. When the Ravens did not call up a lineman from their practice squad before the 4 p.m. deadline Saturday, most assumed that Hurst would play against the Saints, likely at guard with Brown slotting in at right tackle.
Instead, Hurst was inactive, leaving both Brown and Bozeman to make their first NFL starts. Neither played flawlessly. Brown struggled to hold the edge against an early pressure that forced Joe Flacco to throw short on third down. And the Ravens still couldn’t get their ground game going against the Saints’ No. 1 run defense. Alex Collins, Gus Edwards and Buck Allen combined for just 41 yards on 16 carries.
But Bozeman, regarded primarily as a center prospect coming out of Alabama, showed his toughness by playing through a calf injury. He threw a key block on Lamar Jackson’s first NFL touchdown.
Brown, meanwhile, seemed to play better as the game went on, earning unprompted praise from an unlikely source in safety Eric Weddle. With help from the team’s running backs and tight ends, he held his own against an elite defender in Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan.
The rookies contributed to an overall pass-blocking effort that limited the Saints to two hits on Flacco.
Brown, in particular, made a case that the Ravens’ best offensive line by the end of the season will feature him at tackle and Hurst at left guard.
Marlon Humphrey has become an indispensable man in the Ravens secondary.
The Ravens had settled into a comfortable rhythm with their three-man cornerback rotation of Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith.
With Humphrey sidelined by a thigh injury, however, Smith increased his workload considerably against the Saints, and the results were poor. According to Pro Football Focus, the team’s longtime No. 1 corner allowed completions on five of the six passes thrown his way.
On one disastrous drive, Smith whiffed on a potential sack, let wide receiver Michael Thomas glide by him for a 32-yard catch and drew an interference penalty in the end zone to set up a scoring pass from Brees to former Raven Benjamin Watson.
To his credit, he took responsibility, saying: “I felt like I’m the one who lost that game at the end.”
Smith is probably still playing his way into game shape after he was suspended the first four weeks. But his subpar game highlighted the reality that Humphrey is now the best athlete in the Ravenssecondary and the player they need to check an elite receiver such as Thomas. It’s a notion supported by Pro Football Focus grades, which rate Humphrey well ahead of Smith so far this season.
This loss doesn’t diminish the Ravens, but they don’t have much room for error.
Nothing about this game killed the optimism the Ravens have built over the first seven games of the season. Their defense played well enough to win against perhaps the best offense in the league, proving that it can do more than beat up on bottom-tier quarterbacks.
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The Panthers are 9-2 at home over the past two seasons and jockeying for their own potential playoff berth. The Steelers have improved on defense and will feel deeply motivated to avoid going 0-2 against their AFC North rival.