NASHVILLE, TENN. — The Ravens’ offensive woes go well beyond a decision to go for it on fourth down and a failure to pick up a couple of inches. But there was something about that sequence at the start of the fourth quarter that summed up another afternoon of offensive futility.
Trailing by 10 points, the Ravens had several minutes during the break between the third and fourth quarters to think about the decision and what play to call. They chose a quick handoff to Buck Allen up the middle, who was hit almost immediately after the Ravens missed a block on Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Allen tried to lunge forward on second effort to pick up a few inches — and he was sure afterward that he got it — but a measurement ruled that he was an inch or two short.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh challenged the spot, angrily spiking his red flag to the ground. But the call stood and the Ravens were thwarted again.
Whether it’s getting a few inches or making a big play down the field, protecting the football or avoiding key penalties, sustaining drives or scoring in the red zone, it all troubles the Ravens offense. In a very winnable and important game against another AFC playoff hopeful, the Ravens weren’t good enough to overcome their own mistakes and shortcomings in a 23-20 loss to the Titans in front of an announced 67,322 at Nissan Stadium.
“We need to do things obviously a little bit better,” said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed 34 of 52 passing attempts for 261 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. “You can't play too much worse than we’ve been playing and we’ve obviously been in a lot of football games. We’re not going to get everything corrected overnight.”
Flacco threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes: a 3-yard connection with Allen that cut the Titans’ lead to 16-13 with just under nine minutes to play and a 1-yard score to Mike Wallace that made it 23-20 with 46 seconds remaining.
But the touchdown catch by Allen was followed by a back-breaking 11-yard scoring strike by Marcus Mariota to Eric Decker as the Titans regained a 10-point lead. The touchdown by Wallace was followed by a botched back-heel onside kick attempt by Justin Tucker that didn’t travel the required 10 yards. The Titans (5-3) took a knee from there.
“We just have to do more in the first half,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re not doing two things: we’re not sustaining drives, which aren't giving us the chance to have enough opportunities to make plays, and we're not making plays down field.”
As a result, the Ravens limp into a much-needed bye week with a 4-5 record and losses in five of their past seven games. The Ravens should get some players healthier during the break and they’ll undoubtedly be emboldened by the fact that they’re still very much in the AFC playoff picture. However, that’s more because there are so many other flawed teams in the AFC than anything the Ravens have shown over the past month and a half.
Barring a major improvement by their offense — and their defense and special teams certainly aren’t blameless, either — it would be tough to envision the team winning at least five of their final seven games, which is probably what it’s going to take to make the postseason.
“We better get this [stuff] fixed,” rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be on the outside looking in again.”
Ever accountable, Suggs was still fuming that the defense, which didn’t surrender a first down in the third quarter, allowed the Titans to go on a 75-yard, nine-play touchdown drive after the Ravens had made it 16-13.
But for three quarters, the defense and Tucker’s right foot were the only things keeping the Ravens in the game. The Titans built a 16-6 halftime lead by capitalizing largely on the Ravens’ mistakes. Mariota’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Rishard Matthews late in the first quarter came just three plays after safety Kevin Byard intercepted a pass by Flacco that clanged off the hands of wide receiver Breshad Perriman and returned it into Ravens territory.
The Titans’ second-quarter touchdown, a 1-yard run by Derrick Henry, came after an illegal-formation penalty on special teams forced Sam Koch to punt again after his first kick went 56 yards. Koch then shanked a 17-yarder to give Tennessee the ball at the Ravens 26 and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith was called for a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty on Mariota to prolong the touchdown drive and set up Henry’s score.
"That was big,” Harbaugh said. “That gave them points. It put them in position just as bad as a turnover.”
With the way the offense is playing, it’s nearly impossible for the Ravens to come-from-behind. Harbaugh’s decision-making Sunday seemed to suggest that he understands the Ravens need to score touchdowns when they have the opportunity.
In the first quarter, he called for a fake punt near midfield and the Ravens converted with Koch completing a 16-yard pass to gunner Chris Moore. But the Ravens had to settle for a field goal on that drive anyway. In the second quarter, Harbaugh went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Titans 35 and Allen picked up the first down after the Ravens coach challenged the initial spot. However, the Ravens once again settled for a field goal.
The Ravens then went for it again on fourth-and-1 to the start of the fourth quarter rather than have Tucker attempt a 35-yard field, but this time they were unsuccessful despite Allen saying, “I got it, but like I said, the ref has a job. It’s not my place to question his calls.”
Asked about his decision to go for it, Harbaugh said, “I think fourth-and-an-inch, we're going to go for it in those two areas. You've got a good chance to get those. I thought we got them both. In my mind, clearly we got them both.”
Who knows how the game would have played out if the Ravens sent Tucker out for a 35-yard field goal attempt, which, if good, would have cut the Titans’ lead to 16-9. But any focus on that shouldn’t overshadow the Ravens’ myriad offensive problems. The Ravens have a bye week before they face the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 19, but that may not be enough time to figure out all their problems.
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"Everybody sees the same thing. We have to move the ball. We have to complete passes and make runs. We got to make plays. We’re not making any plays until there are two or three minutes left in the game. For 3 1/2 quarters, we’re not doing anything,” Wallace said. “We’re not getting any spark plays. It’s going to be hard to win a game just chipping away the whole time. You have to make big plays to win a football game 90 percent of the time. We’re not getting them. We have too many players on our team for us not to be moving the ball. Whatever we got to do to fix it, we got to do.”