This loss forces us to reassess the Ravens’ prospects for the season.
The Ravens came in with a chance to assert themselves as the clear front-runner in the AFC North. After a catastrophic performance by their defense — one of the worst in the team’s history at M&T Bank Stadium — it’s fair to ask whether they’re a contender at all.
This might sound like sky-is-falling hyperbole, but the Ravens looked helpless trying to stop a Cleveland offense that had been in disarray just a week earlier against the Los Angeles Rams. The Browns became the second team in a row to roll up more than 500 yards against a defense that never gave up more than 442 in 2018. The home fans booed for much of the second half, until they left in droves.
The Ravens seemed shell-shocked in the postgame locker room, acknowledging they have not chipped away at their problems despite their best efforts during the week.
“It’s disgusting,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who huddled with teammates Matthew Judon and Patrick Onwuasor for an unusually long postmortem discussion in the locker room.
“Doesn’t shake my fundamental belief, but it’s frustrating as hell,” safety Earl Thomas III said. “It’s like you take another step back after you put in work, talked about certain situations; you made corrections and when we get out there and they still have success, it’s very frustrating.”
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who blamed himself for blowing coverage on one of the Browns’ home-run plays, said Ravens defenders need to have a “coming-to-heart” meeting in the next few days.
The Ravens beat two overmatched opponents (both still winless) to start their season. Since then, they’ve played from behind the majority of the time, faltering in almost every aspect of defense and slipping from the offensive precision that had fans so excited two weeks ago.
Yes, they have a scintillating offensive talent in quarterback Lamar Jackson, but they can’t ask him to score on every possession just to keep up.
The Ravens tried to present a positive outlook for the remainder of their season, noting that they’re tied for the AFC North lead and fully capable of fixing what ails them.
“I have full confidence in our guys,” Jefferson said. “We all know we can play better. It’s just a matter of going out and doing it. … Regardless of what everybody says — I know we’re going to get hammered — but in this locker room, we’re fully confident.”
That’s what you expect to hear from a proud team with experience overcoming in-season debacles. But this kind of home-field thrashing, at the hands of their chief divisional rival, no less, changes the over-arching narrative. The Ravens are officially in need of repairs.
Earl Thomas III has not been the superstar defender the Ravens thought they signed.
Thomas made three interceptions in four games last season and had gone to the Pro Bowl six times in seven seasons before that. So the Ravens assumed they were bringing in a game-changer when they made the 30-year-old safety the centerpiece of their offseason additions.
Instead, Thomas has struggled to make his mark in a new city and defensive scheme. The Browns loss was his third straight game without a pass defended. It’s difficult to assess individual responsibilities for each coverage lapse, but what’s not difficult to say is that Thomas’ last memorable play was his interception in the Ravens’ Week 1 demolition of the Miami Dolphins.
Thomas came into the Browns game with an above-average coverage grade, according to the scouting website Pro Football Focus. But the Ravens were looking for more than decent when they signed him to a four-year, $55 million contract in the offseason. He was supposed to be the ace playmaker at the back of their defense.
We assumed he would be a significant upgrade over Eric Weddle, who’d lost a step in closing on the ball. Instead, it seems the Ravens miss Weddle as the quarterback of their secondary.
Thomas acknowledged last week that he hasn’t fully adjusted to the Ravens’ style of defense after he was allowed to play as more of a roving centerfielder in Seattle.
“The split-safety stuff, I’m still getting used to that,” he said. “Being in ‘zero’ and in crucial situations, I’m still getting used to that. But with practice, I think I’ll get the hang of it.”
He said he’s fine physically after he fractured his leg last season. But he also said he pulled up on Nick Chubb’s back-breaking 88-yard touchdown run Sunday because he did not want to risk pulling a hamstring — common sense for a veteran, perhaps, but not a sentiment likely to endear him to fans.
Thomas is a strong candidate to end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. But through four games, we have rarely seen the player who helped christen the “Legion of Boom” defense in Seattle.
Here’s how the Ravens graded out at each position after Sunday’s 40-25 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Patrick Onwuasor has not filled C.J. Mosley’s shoes.
Onwuasor was the one inside linebacker who inspired total confidence in Ravens coaches coming into the season. He talked about how excited he was to inherit signal-calling duties from his mentor, Mosley, who left for the New York Jets in the offseason.
But Onwuasor has not thrived in his elevated role as the team’s starting middle linebacker. He’s been below-average against the run and worse in coverage. Fans used to nitpick Mosley’s coverage skills, but without him, the Baltimore defense has looked soft in the middle and lost against screen passes.
Before Sunday’s game, the Ravens turned over the helmet mic worn by the team’s defensive play-caller to Jefferson.
No one question’s Onwuasor’s fierce playing style or commitment to improving. His rise from undrafted college safety to starting NFL linebacker is a terrific story, and he might yet grow into his greater responsibilities.
He vowed not to let Sunday’s loss shake him. “We would never lose confidence in this defense or in this organization,” Onwuasor said.
But it’s also possible he was simply better suited to his previous role at weak-side linebacker, where he often thrived as a pass rusher and roving disruptor.
The Ravens aren’t getting to the quarterback either.
We’ve focused on the lapses in the secondary, and they were glaring again Sunday as Browns receivers continually ran free on key downs.
But Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield might not have found so many soft spots if he’d been forced to throw under duress. Instead, a defense that prides itself on hitting the quarterback laid just one lick on the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner. That came on Cleveland’s first offensive possession. Mayfield’s only major mistake, an interception in the second quarter, was an unforced error.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has made clear his dissatisfaction with third-year pass rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. But the team’s top sack producers, Judon and Pernell McPhee, were equally ineffective against Mayfield. The Ravens tried to use rookie Jaylon Ferguson to spell McPhee; he didn’t touch the box score.
The team’s interior linemen (sans the injured Brandon Williams) also failed to create any sustained push on Mayfield while giving Chubb room to run for 165 yards on 20 carries.
This was an all-points disaster.
The bad news is that the Ravens don’t have anywhere to turn on their roster. We knew they were short on quality pass rushers coming out of training camp, and sure enough, they have no one to trust beyond Judon and McPhee. Whatever magic defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale conjured with his blitzes in 2018 has been missing the past two weeks.
If there was a bright spot, it was Marlon Humphrey’s coverage on Odell Beckham Jr.
It was hardly a perfect day for the Ravens’ most talented cornerback. Humphrey seemed to miss his assignment on a 59-yard catch by Browns tight end Ricky Seals-Jones in the third quarter, and he blamed himself for “averaging a few busts a game.”
But there’s something to be said for holding one of the most gifted wide receivers in the history of the league to two catches for 20 yards on seven targets. Who’d have thought the Ravens would play Beckham that well and still surrender 337 passing yards?
Humphrey shadowed Beckham for much of the game and imposed his combative style to the point that Beckham’s frustrations boiled over in a nasty third-quarter exchange. Both players received unnecessary roughness penalties (Humphrey apologized after the game but also urged officials to eject Beckham for taking a swing).