The script was all too familiar for the Ravens in a 23-20 loss to Tennessee on Sunday.
Some of the names have changed, but we’ve seen this defeat over and over and over again since Super Bowl XLVII.
A comatose offense that stumbles its way into some decent football late — but only after putting itself in a sizable hole. A defense that perseveres at a high level until needing to make a big stop in crunch time. And an array of little things from special-teams penalties to debatable coaching decisions sprinkled into a one-possession loss.
It might as well be 2013 or 2015 or 2016. Having lost five of their last seven going into their bye week, the Ravens are firmly in that mediocre spot that’s become their residence for the last five years. And they’ll need a strong finish to avoid missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and haven’t won back-to-back games since the first two weeks of the season.
What else really needs to be said about an offense that’s summarily broken? Even with a solid running game, the unit hasn’t been good enough, so you didn’t need to be Vince Lombardi to predict what would happen when the Titans were able to shut down the surprising Alex Collins on Sunday.
The problems are abundant and the solutions aren’t there from a coaching or talent standpoint.
On a day when veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the team’s only dependable pass-catcher, had his best performance of the season, 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman again looked like someone not belonging on the field as he failed to high-point two deep passes — one leading to an interception — and dropped another pass in an awful first half. Fellow speedster Mike Wallace was also a non-factor until catching a 1-yard touchdown in the final minute when the Ravens trailed by two possessions.
Joe Flacco doesn’t have nearly enough help around him, but he’s also slow to react to certain situations and threw a bad interception on the first drive of the second half. As has been the case for a few years now, the veteran quarterback isn’t the offense’s biggest problem, but he hasn’t been enough of an answer, either.
By design or by execution, the horizontal passes well short of the chains on third downs continue to be maddening.
You’d like to think the bye could spawn some new ideas and the return of the oft-injured Danny Woodhead might help, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has now had the reins of this group for 20 regular-season games and has yet to show himself as any kind of meaningful asset. Are the Ravens miraculously going to have an offensive breakthrough with the week off while maintaining the status quo?
Of course, the defense isn’t without blame despite a strong showing for much of the day. The two touchdowns allowed through the first three quarters came on short fields, and Eric Weddle’s interception set up Baltimore’s first touchdown of the game to make it a 16-13 deficit with nine minutes remaining.
But when the Ravens needed one more stop to give the offense a chance to tie or take the lead, the defense crumbled, allowing two third-down conversions and a touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota to Eric Decker with 3:58 to go. Yielding a couple first downs or even a field goal wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but you just can’t give up seven in that spot. Tennessee ran fewer plays and trailed in time of possession, so you can’t say it’s because Dean Pees’ group was tired.
The defense couldn’t finish, which has been the story way too often for some statistically-strong units over the last several years. It’s the reason why the front office chose to ignore the offense this offseason to focus on strengthening a top 10 defense from a year ago, but the problem reared its head again on Sunday.
To be clear, this is a good defense, but the group hasn’t been great enough to overcome the major deficiencies on the other side of the ball or to justify the many resources exhausted on it this past offseason. The Ravens may have cleaned up their issues stopping the run over the last two weeks, but the pass rush still isn’t good enough to expect the group to become otherworldly down the stretch.
The little things also killed the Ravens on Sunday. Teams with such little margin for error can’t have Tyus Bowser line up illegally on a successful punt and then have Sam Koch shank one that sets up an easy Titans touchdown. Za’Darius Smith’s unnecessary roughness penalty was as ticky-tack as it gets, but even head coach John Harbaugh and teammate Eric Weddle said it was avoidable, especially knowing officials were on alert after Matt Judon’s borderline hit on Mariota earlier in the half.
Harbaugh received much criticism for unsuccessfully going for a fourth-and-inches from the Tennessee 17 to begin the fourth quarter, but I’ll side with the decision despite the outcome. As the 10th-year coach noted, anyone would tell you going for it in that situation is a no-brainer from a win probability standpoint. Yes, kicking a field goal does make it a one-score game, but you’re then counting on your defense to not allow any more points and your offense to drive the length of the field again to score a touchdown, which was highly questionable at that point. Many cited Justin Tucker as the reason for taking the points, but having such a great kicker leaves me more inclined to go for the touchdown there, knowing I may not need to do very much later to get a shot at a 50- or 55-yard attempt to tie the game.
Sure, if you know your defense will force a turnover on the ensuing possession, you’ll take the three points every time, but we can’t assume subsequent events play out the same or that Tennessee would have played the same defense had the Ravens trailed by seven and not 10 on their final touchdown drive. The decision was certainly debatable and I didn’t like the play call itself, but it wasn’t the egregious error some made it out to be, especially when replays indicated that Buck Allen picked up the first down. Alas, it was a bad spot and a predictable review outcome on a type of challenge that’s difficult to win.
In the end, the Ravens were unlucky to go along with not being good enough on Sunday.
It added up to the kind of loss we’ve seen too many times in recent years.
Instead of securing a road win that could have put them in a good position with a very reasonable schedule after the bye, the Ravens face a steep climb with a losing record and a less-than-ideal tiebreaker profile in a mediocre AFC wild-card race. Six of the remaining seven games do look quite winnable on paper, but each is also a potential loss for such an inconsistent group.
And after Sunday’s bout of déjà vu, the Ravens aren’t showing signs that things will be different this time around.