From bad to worse: Ravens experience dark day in Denver

September 14, 2015 | Luke Jones

Sunday was a nightmare for the Ravens as they lost a winnable game in Denver before then learning they’d lost their defensive leader to a season-ending injury.

The embarrassment may have paled in comparison to their 49-27 loss in the 2013 opener against the Broncos, but the lingering effects could be worse for the Ravens this time around.

To be clear, it was only Week 1 and the Baltimore offense was facing one of the best defenses in the NFL from a season ago. There’s no diminishing the loss of six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs on the field and in the locker room, but only a long-term injury to quarterback Joe Flacco would completely sink the Ravens’ championship hopes in a given season.

Still, those realities won’t make head coach John Harbaugh feel much better about what he saw Sunday as the Ravens failed to capitalize on a poor performance by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and the Broncos not scoring an offensive touchdown. In fact, the Baltimore offense was even worse in managing just 173 yards — 64 coming on the group’s final drive of the game — and six points in an inauspicious debut for new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.

Reinforcing concerns about a lack of weapons in the passing game, no wide receiver or tight end registered more than two catches as running backs Justin Forsett and Kyle Juszczyk each made a team-high four receptions against a Broncos defense that applied relentless pressure in the pocket and tight coverage in the secondary. Ravens pass-catchers simply couldn’t get open with any level of consistency.

“We’ve got a lot to work on, obviously. We’re a lot better than that,” Flacco said. “That was a pretty poor showing, but you’ve got to keep your head on and move on quick. In this league, the next one comes up on top of you like that, so we’ve got to make sure we stay confident and bounce back as quick as possible.”

More frustrating — and unexpected — than the struggles of the young receivers and tight ends were the failures of the established commodities in the Baltimore offense.

The offensive line lost starting left tackle Eugene Monroe early and struggled to protect Flacco throughout the afternoon as tackles James Hurst and Rick Wagner couldn’t keep up with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware coming off the edges. The Ravens also averaged just 3.2 yards per carry as running room was scarce for large stretches of Sunday’s game.

Leading 13-9 late in the third quarter, Flacco threw an awful interception returned for a touchdown by Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. As badly as the offense was struggling to move the ball through three quarters, you were beginning to think the Ravens defense still have been able to hold on if the offense simply didn’t give the lead away. That’s exactly what Flacco did as he stared down Steve Smith and Talib undercut an inside route before returning it 51 yards for the go-ahead score.

For most of the day, Flacco was under duress and lacked open targets, but there was no excusing that ill-fated throw and he made poor throws at a few other points when he anticipated pressure in a relatively clean pocket.

Even after all those shortcomings and the otherwise-strong defense allowing a 11-minute drive that culminated with a Brandon McManus field goal with 2:55 remaining in the final quarter, the Ravens still had a chance as they scraped together their longest drive of the day to move to the Denver 16. It was the perfect time for Flacco to find Smith, his only proven playmaker.

And the five-time Pro Bowl receiver dropped the go-ahead touchdown, the football bouncing off his facemask with 42 seconds to go.

“We didn’t execute, in particular me on that last play in the corner,” said Smith, who added that second-year cornerback Bradley Roby did not tip the pass as some thought. “I’ve just got to make that play, and that really falls on me. If you’re a No. 1 receiver, you’ve got to make No. 1 plays and I didn’t.”

On the next play, Flacco threw a pass intended for Crockett Gillmore that was picked off by ex-Ravens safety Darian Stewart to end the comeback attempt. The throw probably could have been a touch higher and it would have been a superb catch by the second-year tight end, but it was one Todd Heap or Dennis Pitta probably would have made in the past.

To his credit, Gillmore said exactly what you’d like to hear from a young player and didn’t offer any excuses.

“They made a nice play on the ball. I’ve got to come down with that,” Gillmore said. “I was given the opportunity; I’ve just got to come up with the play. I’ve got to win the one-on-one part of it. The ball’s in the air, it’s got to be mine. There’s no other option.”

The Ravens may not play defensive units as good as Denver’s every week and you certainly expect the offensive line, Flacco, and Smith to bounce back from poor performances, but the loss illustrated how small the margin for error might be with an offense lacking any other playmakers in the passing game. The absence of first-round pick Breshad Perriman does hurt, but an offense so dependent on an unproven rookie has concerning issues.

Sunday’s loss was very reminiscent of the 2013 season when the Ravens failed to adequately replace veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, leaving Flacco with only Torrey Smith to trust. Two years later, the quarterback has a 36-year-old Steve Smith and a number of options behind him lacking speed and experience.

You could understand if the defense was frustrated after the game as Jimmy Smith provided the Ravens their only touchdown with an interception return at the start of the second half. Asked after the game what more the team could have done to win on Sunday, the fifth-year cornerback answered, “Score more points.”

Even if the remark was a spontaneous slip of the tongue and not meant as a sharp dig at the offense, times like these are when you lean on your veteran leadership to keep players united, making the loss of a seasoned veteran like Suggs sting more as the Ravens travel to California to prepare for a Week 2 game at Oakland. Perspective is needed after only one loss, but urgency is needed for Baltimore to avoid an 0-2 start before coming home next week.

The Ravens are a better offense and team than what they showed in the opener, but how much better is the question as they still face four of their next six games on the road.

“You win as a team, you lose as a team,” Harbaugh said. “We all know we can play better — to whatever degree it takes to win a football game. That’s what you strive to do, and that’s what we’ll keep fighting to do.”

No, the sky isn’t falling after a Week 1 loss and the injury to Suggs, but the early-season skies are darker than the Ravens would have preferred after months of hard work and anticipation.