BALTIMORE — The final numbers looked good for the Ravens offense despite the 28-27 loss to Oakland on Sunday.
The 27 points, 412 total yards, 130 rushing yards, and 25 first downs were season highs, but they conceal the truth through the first quarter of a season that’s still off to a promising 3-1 start for Baltimore.
This Ravens offense is lacking direction and confidence in what it does.
The decision to deactivate running back Justin Forsett in favor of Terrance West and Buck Allen was the right one, but it was a difficult choice and one that was understandably deflating to a veteran. Head coach John Harbaugh’s explanation that the Ravens were looking for a “spark” was sound in theory.
“You’ve got to try to do something,” Harbaugh said. “You try to do all the things, and then sometimes you try to do something else, too. That’s what we tried to do this week.”
So, why then did West receive only five carries in the first half? His 21-yard run with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter was Baltimore’s longest of the season, but the third-year back carried the ball on the next play and didn’t touch it again until the third quarter.
Why did offensive coordinator Marc Trestman have quarterback Joe Flacco throw 29 times in the first two quarters behind a backup left side of the offensive line that was no match for Khalil Mack and the Oakland front? Why make the bold move to bench Forsett in favor of West and not even try to run the ball until the third quarter against a rush defense that entered Week 4 ranked 29th in the NFL?
The early strategy looked even sillier as West ran for 87 yards on 16 carries after intermission. The Ravens hope that success wasn’t an aberration against a poor run defense, but the improved commitment to the run must continue moving forward.
The passing game again relied on too many short throws and hesitated to stretch the field vertically with the likes of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. Pass protection was unquestionably a major problem on Sunday with James Hurst at left tackle and Ryan Jensen at left guard, but Baltimore has been reluctant to throw the ball downfield for large stretches of its first four games. You can only use the two-deep safety excuse so much for not taking vertical shots, especially when you don’t attempt to establish the run early in the game to force the opposition to put a safety in the box.
Why not roll Flacco out a little more and move him away from pressure while allowing receivers to get open down the field?
Steve Smith had the standout performance with 111 receiving yards and a 52-yard touchdown, but Kyle Juszczyk was second with 56 receiving yards on Sunday. He’s a good player and certainly capable of contributing in the passing game out of the backfield, but a fullback shouldn’t be your second-leading receiver when you throw the ball 52 times in a game.
“We’re just not there,” said Flacco, who averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt on Sunday. “To come out and only put up six points in the first half and get off to that start, dig yourself a hole like that, and then you have to play a perfect game. Then you have to go out there and you have to score and you have to move the ball and you have to go, go, go, go, go. When you do that, you have to convert third downs and you have to play that perfect game. It just makes it very tough.”
The Ravens not only lacked direction with the offense in the first half, but they lacked confidence throughout the game.
Trestman’s play-calling is under scrutiny and penalties have stalled too many drives, but two second-half decisions by Harbaugh showed a lack of trust in the offense.
After Flacco scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak with 2:41 remaining in the third quarter to make it a 14-12 deficit, Harbaugh elected to go for a two-point conversion that was unsuccessful. The decision to chase points with more than 17 minutes to play was indicative of a coach unsure that his offense would put together another scoring drive.
A few minutes later, Harbaugh accepted an unnecessary roughness penalty on a third-and-1 play in which his defense stuffed Latavius Murray for a loss of five at the Baltimore 25. Instead of conceding a 43-yard field goal attempt to Sebastian Janikowski — one of the better kickers in NFL history — the Ravens coach elected to give Oakland a third-and-17 play from the 36.
“You try to back them up and make it a tougher kick from an angle perspective,” Harbaugh said. “I wanted to keep it as a field goal game. Looking back on it, it wasn’t the right decision. I didn’t really believe — I didn’t really have a sense — that that many points were going to be scored down the stretch. It didn’t seem like it was going to be played that way.”
There’s no excusing the defense allowing a 16-yard completion and committing an offside penalty on the next two plays to give the Raiders a first down and an eventual touchdown to make it a 21-12 game, but Harbaugh’s acceptance of the penalty was another example of lacking faith in his offense. He doubted the Ravens’ ability to overcome a five-point deficit if he’d just declined the penalty and Oakland had kicked the field goal with more than 13 minutes to go.
That’s a real problem.
The good news is that the Ravens are still 3-1. They were beaten by a quality opponent on Sunday and shouldn’t panic after suffering their first loss of the season.
But the offense is a concern as the same problems have persisted week after week. The healthy returns of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and left guard Alex Lewis will help stabilize the shoddy pass protection witnessed in Week 4, but the slow starts, the penalties, the running game, and the overall philosophy remain issues.
The Ravens offense needs clear direction and more confidence if it’s ever going to take off.
“Everything that we do right now is just probably a little bit tougher than it needs to be,” said Flacco, who threw four straight incompletions when the Ravens needed 10 more yards to get into Justin Tucker’s field-goal range in the final minute on Sunday. “We need to find some ways to get some easy ones. I think our run game got some chunks today for us. I think that got going a little bit and helped us out when it did get going. Hopefully, we can find some more of that.”