The Raven showed they have not fixed their most persistent flaws in a dispiriting 22-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Here are five things we learned Thursday night:
The Ravens can no longer shrug off their flaws as anomalies.
They can no longer say it was just one week as they did after the Cincinnati Bengals blew them out at home in Week 7.
They are almost a month removed from their 34-6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, an all-phases shellacking that convinced many fans and analysts of their bona fides as a contender. Since then, they have lost twice and needed a desperate rally to pull out an overtime victory against a losing team. When we step back to assess their body of work, it is the Chargers game that feels like an anomaly.
This loss to the Dolphins was a new low that punched a gaping hole in the Ravens’ aura of indomitability. They failed to muster a speck of offense for most of the last three quarters against one of the worst defenses in the league. Lamar Jackson’s frustrations boiled in the face of so many unblocked Miami blitzes. This was not the Most Valuable Player candidate we have seen for most of this season but a flustered young quarterback short on solutions.
As for the defense, what’s left to say? Again, they did their job on the vast majority of snaps and again, they undermined the whole show by blowing coverage on a pair of plays that went for 50-plus yards. The second of those, on which Dolphins receiver Albert Wilson ran freer than a bison on the Great Plains, ended any chance for a comeback.
Every week, we ask why this keeps happening, and every week, the answers — “I guess it just goes back to doing your job,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Tuesday — seem less reassuring.
We have learned to expect the sluggish starts, the futility on third down, the lapsed communications in the secondary. These no longer feel like hiccups that will pass after a good week of practice. The flaws have become familiar enough that we can call them traits.
We cannot dismiss coach John Harbaugh’s ability to repair his team in-season. He and his staff have done it before. “We just weren’t ready,” he said in the aftermath Thursday. “That’s on me.” He will do his best to drag the whole operation into problem-solving mode over the weeks ahead.
We also cannot dismiss Jackson’s ability to work wonders. He entered this game 36-9 as a regular-season starter, and he will have his say in plenty of meaningful games over the next two months.
“We’re going to continue to be a dangerous team,” tight end Mark Andrews said.
Perhaps, but the Ravens cannot afford to take much solace from their 6-3 record. They had danced on a tight rope for much of the season, pulling out games that could have flipped the other way. They fell off in Miami, and there is no guarantee that getting back up will be easy.
Again, the Ravens failed to seize an early advantage against a lesser opponent.
For the fourth time in their past five games, the Ravens failed to build a lead going into halftime. Their defense did its job against an offense with no bite, at least until Dolphins quarterback Jacoby Brissett took advantage of a blown coverage to hit on a 52-yard pass — yes, another big play surrendered by the Ravens secondary — in the two-minute drill. But offensive coordinator Greg Roman could not figure out a formula to sustain drives against the league’s 30th-ranked defense.
The Ravens dominated the opening quarter, accumulating six first downs on their first two drives, but they came away with just a 3-0 lead because of three failures to convert on third down and a rare missed field-goal attempt, from 48 yards, by Justin Tucker.
Their rut only deepened in the second quarter, when the Dolphins began stuffing their run attempts on first down and forcing them into third-and-long situations. Jackson did not punish Miami’s unsparing blitzes. Again and again, Dolphins defensive backs ran free into the Ravens backfield. Even when he made the correct reads against pressure, his execution was off.
The Ravens started 0-for-7 on third down, continuing a problem that has vexed them all season (they came in 23rd in the league on third-down efficiency after ranking fourth in 2020 and second in 2019).
They had to go at least 5 yards on each of those third-down attempts, suggesting the problem lay just as much with what they failed to accomplish on earlier downs. For example, they attempted three first-down runs on their last four drives of the first half and came up with 5 yards total. They were always trying to dig out of a hole.
“I don’t get it,” Jackson said when asked to explain another underwhelming first half.
We had watched the Ravens adjust after similarly halting starts. They did it four days earlier against the Minnesota Vikings. But Roman and Jackson found no answers this time around. If anything, the Dolphins grew more confident in the potency of their blitzes as the game went on.
The Ravens keep banging their heads against the same wall on defense.
Humphrey is not just the best player in the Ravens secondary; he is also one of the most thoughtful people in the locker room when it comes to explaining the team’s big-picture direction. It’s telling, therefore, that he’s casting about for some explanation of the catastrophic breakdowns we see every week from this defense.
As he processed Thursday’s loss, Humphrey described a disconnect between the good work the Ravens do in practice and the product they put on the field. He blamed himself for some of the miscommunications that have left opposing receivers running unimpeded to pay dirt.
Humphrey came out exactly the way a Pro Bowl player should, negating Miami’s most consistent pass catcher, tight end Mike Gesicki (zero catches on seven targets). His cornerback partner, Anthony Averett, also played well, as did the stalwarts of the front seven, Calais Campbell and Justin Houston. But three plays totaling 151 yards undermined their best intentions.
“I guarantee the effort is there,” said Campbell, another thoughtful star searching for answers.
The Ravens are relying on inexperienced players more than ever after starting safety DeShon Elliott joined cornerback Marcus Peters on the season-ending injury list. But it’s not as if the breakdowns can all be attributed to their least seasoned performers. Humphrey and safety Chuck Clark have been culpable in recent weeks.
If they diagnose the problems every week in practice, why are the solutions elusive?
Said Humphrey: “I believe this will be a great wake-up call for everybody to be like, ‘What is it? Am I not understanding something I’m doing? I’m not playing the technique I’m coached? Do I need coach to coach me a different way?’ I think there’s going to be so many different things to look at and I think, you know, how we understand the coaches, how the coaches coach us.”
They can only go back to the same drawing board because there is no cavalry coming to save them.
Patrick Queen’s performance was again a bright spot on a difficult day.
If we’re searching for examples of effective problem solving on the 2021 Ravens, search no further than the inside linebacker duo of Queen and Josh Bynes.
The Ravens hoped to unlock a faster, more instinctive version of Queen when they asked Bynes to take over the game-management responsibilities associated with middle linebacker. The experiment, which began with the win over the Chargers, has produced the desired result.
Queen was among the most noticeable defenders on the field against Miami, in a good way. He moved to ball carriers with purpose, delivered punishing hits and rallied his teammates with palpable enthusiasm. He forced a fumble, did not miss any tackles and led the team in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
This was not the lost young player we saw in Weeks 2 through 5.
We’re a long way from a final reckoning on Queen’s value. The Ravens used a first-round pick on him because they thought he could be an every-down force at middle linebacker. They had to pull him out of that role to get him on track. But he is headed in the right direction.
If the Ravens play like this again next weekend, panic will be justified.
November was supposed to be the month for the Ravens to build a cushion in the standings.
We all know what’s coming in December and January — the AFC North road trips, the dates with the Green Bay Packers and the all-in Los Angeles Rams. This is not 2020 when the Ravens saved their COVID-clouded season by brutalizing a series of inferior teams over the last five weeks. They could play well down the stretch of this schedule and still be fortunate to break even.
That’s why the loss to the Dolphins hurt, beyond the difficult evidence it provided of the problems the Ravens have not fixed. They needed to build their buffer and instead, they fell back to the pack in a conference with an overstuffed middle class.
The Ravens will be favored again in Week 11 when they travel to Chicago to face another team with a losing record and a lousy offense. Because of what happened in Miami, the tensions will be high. The phrase “must-win” will hang in the air, even if it’s not literally true.
If the Ravens cannot right their ship against the Bears and their improving rookie quarterback, Justin Fields, would we have to start entertaining the unthinkable — a descent out of the AFC’s top seven? Suffice it to say that’s not a question the players and coaches wish to confront.
Nov. 21, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 6