The Ravens are below the .500 mark at the bye for the fourth straight season, leaving plenty of questions for both the rest of the season and beyond.
Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore position coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:
Why was the offensive line able to run-block so effectively even without six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda last season and hasn’t this year?
Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Some things happen that way. There are situational [runs where] we’ve done very well. In the red zone, in two-minute when we’ve had to do that, we’re really prospering in the situational area. Some of the run game sometimes has sputtered. It’s a hit-and-miss [thing], and hopefully we can improve it. The good news is we have a game coming up against Cincinnati, and we’ll see how we’ll improve in that area.”
My take: Coaches rarely throw their players under the bus, but there obviously isn’t much insight offered here. I’ll never pretend to be an offensive line expert or anything close to it, but Matt Skura ranks 19th among qualified centers, Alex Lewis 63rd among qualified guards, and James Hurst 58th among qualified offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. The Ravens were justified not committing lucrative money to Ryan Jensen — who PFF ranks a disappointing 27th among qualified centers this year — but his physicality was critical for the running game a year ago. The solid play of rookie Orlando Brown Jr. could allow the Ravens to shift Hurst to left guard where he was a little better last season. As for D’Alessandris mentioning the red zone, the Ravens rank 12th in the NFL with a 54 percent success rate on runs inside the red zone, according to Sharp Football. That still doesn’t come close to making up for ranking 31st in yards per carry overall.
Why have the Ravens run the ball more effectively with Lamar Jackson in the game and not as well with their conventional offense?
Assistant head coach Greg Roman: “Anytime you have a dynamic quarterback that can run, you have an extra running back on the field, so you change the math so to speak. Now it gives you the ability to run called quarterback runs or you can run some quarterback-read-type plays. You’re essentially adding a number to the offense, which puts a little more stress on the defense. That’s really it in a nutshell. I think each week we’ve thrown some new stuff at people they haven’t seen before, so it takes them a little bit to adjust to that as well. The second tier of your question: I think guys are working hard. We’re grinding at it. We’re close on some things, but we just need a little bit more precision — little bit more precise coaching, playing, everything. We’re working in that direction. The thing we’re doing a very good job of is certain situational [runs]. Running situations, guys are doing a phenomenal job. I think we have the most short-yardage situations in the league. If not, I’d be very surprised. Guys are doing really good in that area, and when we have to run it, we’re doing a good job. We’re just not getting the big hits right now. Generally speaking, those things will happen just by everybody being a little bit more precise.”
My take: There isn’t much else to add here, but Roman was mostly right about short yardage as the Ravens have run the second-most plays of one yard to go for a first down or touchdown in the NFL behind only New England. Their 79 percent success rate on short-yardage runs is 10th best in the league, according to Sharp Football. It’s difficult imagining the Ravens getting where they want to go without finding that aforementioned precision when Jackson isn’t on the field. They’re just too predictable now.
Where have the takeaways gone after leading the NFL in that category last season?
Secondary coach Chris Hewitt: “The way I look at it is, we’re playing a little bit more man coverage than we’ve done in the past. We’re not playing as much zone as we’ve done in the past. We’re doing a lot more man coverage. When you’re playing as much man coverage as you are, you have your back to the quarterback. You can’t see the quarterback throwing the ball out of his hands and then be able to get a break on the ball. Now, when we do play zone coverages, and we get an opportunity to catch the ball, we have to catch the ball. Those are the things that, as far as with the sacks and takeaways, those things come in bunches.”
My take: This was an interesting point that has merit. I wrote at length about their lack of takeaways last week and acknowledged luck as being an undeniable variable in the Ravens only having seven takeaways in nine games. They’re tied for second in the NFL in passes defended, meaning they’re still batting passes at the line of scrimmage and getting their hands on footballs downfield. That said, it’s fair to question whether certain veterans have slowed down from previous seasons, turning potential takeaways until mere pass breakups. Perhaps even more surprising than the lack of interceptions has been the Ravens forcing only four fumbles this season after forcing 17 in 2017.
Why has the defense struggled to get off the field on third down in recent weeks?
Hewitt: “When you’re playing the type of coverages that we play and people are throwing the ball short and intermediate routes, I equate it to I’ll take the paper cut instead of somebody stabbing me in the heart, so I’m not trying to give up any big plays. We’ll take those little short-to-intermediate routes. Now, going with that, obviously we have to get off the field on third down. That’s something that we haven’t done a very good job of over the last two weeks or so. In this last game, we were 10-for-16 getting [off the field] on third down, and that can’t happen. For us to become the defense that we want to be — and we’re still a great defense, obviously, we’re still ranked No. 1, No. 2 against the pass or whatever we are as far as statistics are concerned — it’s all about limiting the opportunities for the offense to continue to keep those drives going. Again, we have to do better on third down. That’s the most important thing: We have to do better on third down, get ourselves off the field. But on first and second down, we can’t give them third-and-short, either. We have to do a better job on first and second down stopping them on first and second down. Now, we have third-and-long situations. Now, we can get a chance to go after the quarterback. We can play different zone coverages. Now, we get our eyes back on the quarterback, and now we can intercept some balls. But, as far as playing man coverages, sometimes you’re going to win some, sometimes you’re going to lose some. But, the ones that you lose, you want those to be five yards instead of 30 yards.”
My take: The Ravens have allowed the sixth-fewest number of completions of 20 or more yards and surrendered their first pass play of 40 or more yards of the season against the Steelers on Sunday. As for needing to avoid third-and-short situations, seven of Pittsburgh’s 10 conversions came on plays requiring six yards or less for a first down. The Ravens still rank fifth in the league in third-down defense, but it hasn’t been trending in the right direction against dynamic offenses the last three weeks.
Why has Joe Flacco’s play declined after such a promising September?
Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “Some of the big plays we’ve just missed on or just got edged or just didn’t have enough time, missed a couple throws that I’m sure he’d like to have back. But I think it’s not just one thing. I wish I could say, ‘It’s this one thing,’ or, ‘We need to do this more.’ That’s one thing that’s frustrating: We don’t turn the ball over and score 16 points [against Pittsburgh] — that’s not very common. But you miss two opportunities in the red zone. We were very, very good in the red zone for a long stretch. I think it’s a combination of several things. Joe was playing at a very high level. Joe is a tough sucker; he’s mentally tough. We just have to get over the hump. We just have to make a few more plays, and then it’ll just all happen naturally.”
My take: Remember how we were saying the early success for Flacco and the passing game wouldn’t continue without incorporating an effective running game? Since the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh, the 11th-year quarterback is averaging 5.8 yards per passing attempt and owns a 73.7 passer rating. He’s also leading the NFL in passing attempts, territory he shouldn’t approach. Haven’t we seen this movie before? You can harp on Flacco needing to be better all you want — that’s true, to be clear — but when has he ever played well for an extended period of time without a solid running game? That’s not magically changing.
Is it challenging for Flacco to find and maintain his rhythm with Jackson coming in and out of the game?
Urban: “It’s as much or as little as you allow it to be. That’s my experience. That goes back to years ago when Marty [Mornhinweg] and I were doing it with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. As much as you allow it to be a distraction, it’ll be a distraction. Joe has been great with that. He sees the production. He sees the plays that we’ve been able to use and utilize, and he understands that we’re just trying to get our best players out on the field to help us win.”
My take: This is a tricky balance since the Ravens haven’t shown the ability to sustain a ground game without the gadgetry involving Jackson. It’s impossible to quantify, but I don’t know how anyone could deny there being occasions when the offense loses its rhythm and becomes disjointed when the starting quarterback completes a couple passes and then is told to go out wide to stand as a receiver. As Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated said this week, “When you watch Ravens film and see how the Lamar Jackson package impacts the down-to-down rhythm, there’s no way Flacco doesn’t hate it.”