What the Ravens did Saturday night was historic and horrific. One of the worst playoff losses in franchise history. A bitter end to a record-breaking season. A dubious rejection of identity and philosophy.
What the Ravens did Saturday night also should’ve earned more than a blowout loss to the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round. Their offense rolled up 530 yards and scored just one touchdown in the 28-12 stunner; the only other home team in NFL playoff history to go for 500-plus yards and lose is the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. And they scored 42 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a narrow divisional-round defeat.
Coach John Harbaugh is expected to hold a season-ending news conference within the next week. He will no doubt hear questions about an offense that had powered Super Bowl hopes, only to fail in such inconceivable ways. Why did running backs Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards combine for just nine carries? Why did quarterback Lamar Jackson and a normally efficient passing game struggle for good looks? Where did all the offense’s balance go?
Some of the blame will fall on the coaching staff. Some of it can be chalked up to bad luck. Over a 12-game winning streak, the Ravens had done all the little things well. In their playoff opener, Harbaugh and Jackson saw one offensive breakdown after another compound, until finally, there was no margin for error, and then no more games to play.
The Ravens, one of the NFL’s healthier teams, did not go through the season with a bare injury report. Cornerback Tavon Young, safeties Tony Jefferson and Deshon Elliott, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and center Matt Skura, among others, were lost to season-ending injuries. Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and safety Earl Thomas III were coming off serious leg injuries that required yearlong oversight. Tight end Mark Andrews battled a string of ailments throughout the season.
But the Ravens might never have had it worse than they did Saturday. Even after a week off — or two, for some players — the offense, in particular, was limited by injuries old and new.
Ingram, limited since Week 16 by a calf injury, did not play for nearly half of the second quarter. He stood on the sideline with his calf wrapped as third-stringer Justice Hill went in for the Ravens’ final drive of the half. Ingram later returned and continued to run hard, but he finished with just six carries for 22 yards, both season lows.
Andrews suffered an ankle injury in the Ravens’ Week 16 win over the Cleveland Browns, but Harbaugh had said he was nearly healthy enough to play in the regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two weeks later, however, Andrews still didn’t look right. In practice, his ankle was wrapped heavily. In pregame warmups Saturday, he didn’t run at full speed.
Andrews finished with a solid four catches for 39 yards, but he struggled at times to beat press coverage against smaller defenders, denying Jackson the safety-blanket target he’s relied on so often. Even when Andrews was open, his athleticism was diminished; maybe a healthier Andrews would have better elevated for the off-target throw that slipped through his hands and fell to safety Kevin Byard for a first-quarter interception.
Andrews finished with a season-high 46 snaps Saturday partly because of the Ravens’ high snap count, and partly because tight end Nick Boyle missed most of the second half. Boyle, who led all Ravens receivers in offensive snaps this season with a nearly 70% share, springing holes for the running game with his reliable blocking, appeared to suffer a lower-body injury after the fifth play of the second half and did not return.
Wide receiver Seth Roberts did not have a game to remember, but really, it was only a half. After catching a 26-yard pass on third-and-16 with about 1:35 remaining in the second quarter, he crawled to the sideline in pain. Roberts returned to the drive, but after running an out route about a minute later, he pulled up in pain, careful to avoid putting pressure on his left foot as he hopped off the field. He did not return a second time.
As with quarterback sacks, it can be tough at times to assign blame for “dropped” passes. Should Jackson’s first interception be considered a catchable pass? Or does Jackson deserve the blame for a throw that arrived at the edge of Andrews’ catch radius?
Saturday’s loss was full of those gray-area throws. A harsh grader would have the Ravens down for six or seven dropped passes. A more lenient judge might argue that there were only three. No matter the tally, it was an uncharacteristic performance.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Ravens ended the regular season with 14 dropped passes, the fewest in the NFL. About one in every 33 throws was dropped; only the Atlanta Falcons (2.5%) had a lower drop rate. Depending on who’s counting, the Ravens’ drop rate Saturday was somewhere between mediocre (5.1%) and gets-a-coach-fired bad (11.9%).
Worse, nearly all of the missed opportunities cost the Ravens in significant ways. To recap:
- Byard’s interception off Andrews’ deflection, and subsequent penalty-aided return, gave the Titans possession at the Ravens’ 35-yard line. They took the lead for good shortly thereafter.
- Roberts dropped a throw early in the second quarter, almost immediately after Tennessee had taken a 14-0 lead. Had he caught the pass, Roberts likely would’ve scored on a 74-yard catch-and-run. Instead, the Ravens punted three plays later.
- Wide receiver Willie Snead IV dropped a pass several yards short of the line to gain on third-and-12 midway through the second quarter. The Ravens might have settled for a shorter field-goal attempt — kicker Justin Tucker eventually made his from 49 yards — but a clean catch would’ve given Snead the chance to wriggle forward for a few more yards.
- Facing tight coverage from cornerback Logan Ryan, Boyle couldn’t bring in a throw over the middle to start the second half. The Ravens later moved into Titans territory, but Jackson was stopped on fourth-and-1.
- Ingram couldn’t get his hands around a low check-down throw early in another third-quarter drive. Again, the Ravens moved into Titans territory, but Jackson threw his second interception, staring down wide receiver Miles Boykin and leading safety Kenny Vaccaro right to an outside throw.
- Tight end Hayden Hurst didn’t turn around in time to see a pinpoint pass hit him right above the numbers. Had Hurst caught the fourth-quarter throw, he would’ve scored or at least moved the Ravens within yards of the goal line. Instead, the Ravens turned it over on downs at Tennessee’s 16 three plays later.
- Boykin couldn’t make a diving catch of a low and wobbly pass at the first-down marker on fourth-and-11. It was the Ravens’ final offensive play of the game.
By one metric, the Ravens had the best pass protection of any divisional-round team. According to ESPN, the team posted a Pass Block Win Rate of 80.4%, meaning that the Ravens sustained their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer on about 54 of Jackson’s 67 drop-backs (59 attempts, eight scrambles). The Titans, meanwhile, finished fifth overall over the weekend (54.5%), while the Minnesota Vikings were last (38.5%).
The Ravens’ “success,” as ESPN defines it, is both predictable and surprising. The team’s offensive line emerged as one of the NFL’s best this season, anchored by a pair of All-Pro selections in left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda and bolstered by a running game that kept defenses honest.
But the Ravens also seemed to struggle mightily at times Saturday against a conservative defense. Tennessee sacked Jackson four times, tied for his second most this season, and finished with seven quarterback hits. And the Titans did so with pressure packages that rarely brought more than four pass rushers.
In the second quarter, former Ravens outside linebacker Kamalei Correa found a path to Jackson on a stunt with defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. As Jones crashed into Yanda and then right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., Correa looped around and took down Jackson. In the third quarter, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey spun past center Patrick Mekari for another quick sack. In the fourth quarter, the protection held up, but with no one to throw to, Jackson scrambled until outside linebacker Harold Landry tackled him for a 1-yard loss.
On all three sacks, the Titans dropped seven players into coverage (or six, with another roaming as a spy), daring Jackson to find the open man. The one sack that required a blitz was the Ravens’ most costly — and unfortunate.
Midway through the third quarter, with the Ravens trailing 21-6, Ingram motioned out to a position beside Stanley, who, according to Pro Football Focus, had not allowed a sack all season. Casey had lined up over Stanley, but with Ingram’s movement, he widened his technique so that he split the difference between the two Ravens.
At the snap, Tennessee sent five defenders after Jackson, and Ingram threw a chip block that did more harm than good. As Stanley shuffled to his left, he punched at Casey just as Ingram knocked him the opposite direction. That caused Stanley’s first strike to miss, and when he did get his hands on Casey, the 305-pound star had regained his balance and was already ripping his way through a hole in the line.
Jackson eluded Casey’s first tackle attempt, but he held on to the ball too long as he got reset. Casey crashed down on Jackson’s throwing arm mid-windup, jarring the ball loose. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons fell on the fumble, and the Titans needed just six plays to cover 20 yards and take a 22-point lead.
The Ravens were 8-for-8 on fourth-and-1 during the regular season, and Harbaugh clearly relished their short-yardage superiority. After the Week 16 win in Cleveland, he was asked about Jackson’s 36-touchdown, six-interception passing season. He answered by first touting Jackson’s 5-yard run on a third-and-3 play that effectively ended the Browns’ comeback hopes.
“I mean, we did a great job of that and getting everybody covered up, and sometimes that’s all you have to do,” he said. “He was pinned in back there. I think I thought to myself or even said it out loud, ‘He’s pinned in.’ Then he wasn’t. That’s kind of how Lamar operates.”
On Saturday, the Ravens twice failed on fourth-and-1, misfires that dropped their win expectancy by a combined 15.6%, according to ESPN, and preceded two back-breaking Titans touchdowns. For as unexpected as the failures were, the play calls were just as surprising.
When Jackson executes designed runs out of the pistol formation, the Ravens can take on 11 defenders with as many as 10 blockers, a rare advantage in the NFL. In Jackson’s memorable go-ahead, 8-yard touchdown run against the Seattle Seahawks, the Ravens used a heavy formation on fourth-and-2. Against the Browns, they asked the same of Jackson: Follow your blockers, even running back Gus Edwards, and find a hole.
On Saturday, coordinator Greg Roman ignored the strengths of his record-breaking offense. On the Ravens’ first fourth-and-1, early in the second quarter, Edwards lined up behind Jackson in the pistol. He offered no misdirection, no blocking, only a late, unsuccessful push after linebacker David Long had wrapped up Jackson at the line of scrimmage.
In the third quarter, Jackson lined up under center, a rare departure from the norm. And again, Edwards became a fourth-and-1 spectator, watching helplessly as Jackson glided to his right, waiting for a hole on a quarterback sneak that never opened.
Jackson would finish with 20 carries for 143 yards, two marks that have been surpassed only once in his NFL career. But when Saturday night’s matchup became a game of inches, the Ravens just didn’t measure up. They’ll spend the offseason regretting it.