At one point during the first half of an inexplicable 22-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, I quipped that the Ravens should petition the NFL to play the Pittsburgh Steelers every week.
In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
After securing one of the most significant wins in the 16-year history of the franchise in Pittsburgh last week, the Ravens once again proved the margin for error in the NFL is too small to expect to win on the road with anything less than your best performance. Three turnovers, a one-dimensional offense, and a tired defense aren’t going to get it done, even against a 2-6 team that had lost four of its last five games.
While much blame will fall on the shoulders of kick returner David Reed’s two fumbles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for only giving running back Ray Rice five carries, there were far too many problems across the board as the Ravens dropped their third game of the season against sub-.500 teams — Baltimore had only one in John Harbaugh’s first three years as head coach — and lost their hold atop the AFC North.
The Ravens are now 2-3 against teams with losing records this season while they are 3-0 against those with winning marks (Pittsburgh was 0-0 in Week 1, of course).
Simply put, the Ravens aren’t ready to be an elite team that disposes of inferior competition. For whatever reason, Baltimore has been unable to handle the success of beating quality teams and has followed such feats with mistake-laden, uninspired play against teams it’s supposed to handle without many complications.
After falling behind two scores in the first quarter, the coaching staff panicked despite having come back to win in the Ravens’ two previous games against the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead of mixing in the run with 30 minutes to play after trailing 19-7 at halftime, Cameron put the game solely on the shoulders of quarterback Joe Flacco in the shotgun much earlier than the Ravens really needed to.
This wasn’t a three-possession deficit like the Ravens faced against Arizona two weeks ago. And the Seahawks defense clearly doesn’t possess the pedigree of a Steelers defense where you simply presume you won’t be able to gain yardage on the ground.
Yet, the Ravens put everything on Flacco all afternoon, who performed exceptionally in come-from-behind victories in their last two games, but the sum of the parts simply isn’t good enough for the Baltimore passing game to expect such success every single week.
Flacco missed open receivers, including a wide-open Torrey Smith streaking down the right sideline at one point, but his receivers let him down with drops on several key occasions as well. Flacco tossed it 52 times for 255 yards and a touchdown, but a meager 4.9 yards per attempt just doesn’t justify the complete abandonment of the running game after an early 10-0 deficit. The heroics in Pittsburgh aside, Flacco and his receivers just aren’t ready to be Tom Brady and the Patriots or Aaron Rodgers and the Packers where you can throw and throw and throw some more to be successful every single week.
As was the case in a loss to Jacksonville last month, giving Rice — your best offensive player — 13 total touches just isn’t nearly enough. And while it’s true the Seahawks ran the same 4-3 defense that’s given the Ravens difficulty all season, it’s not an excuse to fail in even trying to mix in the ground game.
Of course, the Ravens’ inept special teams put Cameron and the offense in a difficult position. To fumble two kickoffs — plays that are meant to swing field position in your favor — is a formula for disaster. The second-year kick returner Reed should find himself fortunate to still have a job this week, let alone remain as the team’s primary returner.
Two more missed field goals from 50 yards or more from Billy Cundiff can — mathematically speaking — be pointed to as the difference in the game. Awarded a five-year, $15 million contract in the offseason, Cundiff cannot be expected to connect on every long try, but a far better clip than the 1-for-6 he has this season isn’t unreasonable.
And, yes, even the vaunted defense failed the Ravens when it mattered most. Though only two of the Seahawks’ six scoring drives were longer than 20 yards, Ray Lewis and the defense took the field with 5:52 remaining in the fourth quarter after a Ed Dickson touchdown catch narrowed the margin to 22-17.
Instead of forcing a three-and-out and affording Flacco an opportunity at a third-straight game-winning drive in the final minutes, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch ran for 32 yards on seven carries and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson twice completed passes on third down to move the chains and keep the ball out of the Ravens’ hands. Though the Baltimore defense spent 35:01 on the field, it failed to look like that championship-caliber unit that could get a stop when it was needed the most.
As much as the Ravens talked all week about the need to build on the elation of sweeping the regular-season series with Pittsburgh last week, they sure didn’t come out and play like it.
Credit Pete Carroll and the Seahawks — proving once again that no game in the NFL is a slam dunk — but the Ravens tripped and fell down the steps to greatness for a third time this season. They have to find a way to play their best football every week, regardless of who they’re playing, and avoid playing to the level of their competition.
As strange as it sounds, one of the biggest challenges in sports is being able to handle success.
The good news is Baltimore still has seven games remaining on the schedule to figure it out.
The Ravens are good — even very good, at times.
But they’re just not ready to be great.