BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens lost for the second time in three weeks when the New Orleans Saints marched out of M&T Bank Stadium with a 24-23 win on Sunday evening.
The Saints are winners of five straight since the Buccaneers upset them in week 1, and carry a 5-1 record into week 8 where they’ll try to avenge last year’s divisional playoff loss to the Vikings in Minnesota for Sunday Night Football. The Ravens, now 4-3, will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina for their fourth road contest in five weeks against the now 4-2 Carolina Panthers.
Now that Ravens fans have had a day to digest arguably the team’s toughest loss of the season, here are five things we learned from the game.
1. Justin Tucker is human
Leading up to Justin Tucker‘s attempt to tie the game at 24 with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter, he had made 222 straight extra point attempts which dates back to the beginning of his career in 2012. In fact, Tucker’s stretch of perfect PAT’s dates back to his time in College at Texas. In total, he had made 316 straight extra points.
But at the worst time possible, Tucker missed his first extra point after Joe Flacco‘s 14-yard touchdown pass to John Brown. That score capped off a six-play, 81-yard drive that everyone thought would send the Ravens into overtime against Drew Brees and the Saints. Instead, the Ravens watched Tucker’s kick start off on-target before slowly hooking right and missing the post by a few feet.
“I feel like I cost us the game,” Tucker said in the locker-room. “Every single one of my teammates thus far has told me the opposite, and not one play wins or loses a game. But that’s a tough thing to grapple with when you’re the guy in that situation at the end of the game.”
Winds were sailing up to 40 miles-per-hour in Baltimore on Sunday, but Tucker had been the only kicker in the NFL to not miss a PAT since the extra point marker was moved back in 2015, going 112-for-112 over that span.
Tucker had field goals blocked against Cleveland and Denver this season, but made his other 13 attempts without any issues. Who knows that would have happened if the game had gone into overtime, but this miss completely crushed the momentum the Ravens had built on their touchdown drive.
It will be interesting to see how Tucker responds to the adversity. He’s one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, but in recent memory a number of NFL kickers have dealt with the mental yips. ‘The Wolfpack’ consisting of Tucker, Sam Koch and Morgan Cox is one of the most consistent units in the NFL. They will have no problem getting back to work and will be prepared for next week’s game. But Tucker has never dealt with a blunder as big as this, and there will be added pressure on him next week, especially if the Panthers duke it out with the Ravens until the final seconds and the Ravens need Tucker to win the game.
It could script an amazing comeback story, or send Tucker into a mental slump that Ravens fans had not foreseen being a problem this season.
2. Jimmy Smith was a liability in pass coverage
Up until Sunday, the two prior performances of Jimmy Smith had been shadowed by a low snap count in week 5 against the Browns and the Titans lacking an explosive receiver in week 6. But when it was announced pregame that Marlon Humphrey would miss the game with a thigh injury, Smith got the start and lined up against #1 receiver Michael Thomas for much of the game.
Simply put, Smith got outplayed by Thomas. Smith allowed Thomas to rack up seven catches for 69 yards, including and a five-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Smith also had three penalties called against him, including two pass interference fouls. One of the penalties was a bad call, but Smith allowed too many big plays on Sunday. 69 yards is pedestrian for Thomas, but he made several catches in big spots and got the best of Smith on a consistent basis.
After the game, Smith faced reporters in the locker-room, saying that he “just didn’t play [his] game today,” and that he “felt frustrated because I feel like I’m the one that lost that game at the end.” Credit to Smith for being available to answer questions after a hard loss. He did not use his Achilles as an excuse, and he said that he’s going to do everything he can to be 100% ready next week against Carolina.
If Humphrey’s thigh injury lingers, Smith could receive a start against Antonio Brown in two weeks against the Steelers. Before returning from suspension against Cleveland, Smith had missed eight straight games, and he’s still getting back into football shape. Smith should be close to full speed in two weeks versus Pittsburgh, but the pressure is on him to rebound next week against Carolina.
The good news is that the Panthers don’t have a true #1 receiver for Smith to match up against.
3. The Ravens defense is still the best in the NFL, but will share blame with offense and Tucker for loss
In their two previous road tests, the Saints scored at least 33 points each time. The Saints had also scored at least 33 points in four of five games, with the exception being their 21-point total in their win over the Browns in week 2. Up until the fourth quarter, the Ravens limited the Saints to seven points. The Ravens held Brees to 212 passing yards, his lowest total of the season. The Ravens defense finally allowed a second-half touchdown when Alvin Kamara scored from two yards out with 12:32 left in the fourth quarter, but the offense went three-and-out after that drive and then Brees orchestrated the Saints’ second-straight 12-play drive that ended with the Thomas touchdown.
After Brees’ touchdown to Thomas, Flacco and the Ravens offense went 50 yards on nine plays, having to face two fourth down plays. The first one, a fourth-and-seven, would have failed on a Flacco incompletion intended for Willie Snead, but P.J. Williams was flagged for pass interference. After the Ravens were awarded a first down, Alex Collins ran for four yards. Then Flacco threw three straight incompletions and the Saints took over at their own 36-yard line. They got down to the Baltimore 21-yard line and Will Lutz kicked a 39-yard field goal with 2:07 left to put the Saints up 24-17.
The Ravens defense did allow the Saints to come back in the fourth quarter, but they still lead the NFL in multiple defensive categories.
The blame will be shared for this loss, but the Ravens offense couldn’t get out of their own way in the fourth quarter. The stalled drive in particular sticks out. Eight of Flacco’s 10 attempted passes fell incomplete on that drive, with some drops included by receivers. Had the Ravens scored touchdowns on that drive or the prior three-and-out, then perhaps they wouldn’t have needed a late comeback with Tucker’s botched extra point attempt. Scoring 24 points at home might be enough against the Bills or the Broncos, but not against the #1-ranked New Orleans offense.
4. Ravens beginning to rely on Lamar Jackson just a little bit more
Lamar Jackson only played five snaps on Sunday, but he was put into some bigger spots than in previous weeks. There was a third-and-eight play in the second quarter in which Jackson threw a pass over the middle to Brown that only went five yards, and the Ravens settled for a 31-yard Tucker field goal. Jackson scored his first career touchdown on a one-yard run with four seconds left in the first half. Jackson converted a third-and-two into a four-yard run for a first down in the third quarter. He had another four-yard run on a second-down play and his last snap of the game went to Collins on a first-down run.
Jackson’s five snaps saw more good than bad, and the Ravens relied on him a bit more on third down and with the football on pass to Brown. The Saints had more success with their second-string quarterback Taysom Hill, who’s also being used as a decoy like Jackson. Hill played 26 snaps and finished the game with 35 rushing yards on six carries. The Saints are having more success with Hill than the Ravens are with Jackson, but they’re putting him in the game much more. That might not be the best for Hill’s longevity long-term, and the Ravens seem to have just the opposite approach with Jackson.
5. With Alex Lewis and James Hurst sidelined, Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. showed their dependability
Alex Lewis (pinched nerve in neck) and James Hurst (back) were both questionable heading into Sunday and were listed as OUT when the inactives list became official before gametime. Rookies Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. filled in at left guard and right tackle, respectively. When the offense warmed up and took the field for the first time, the starting five were, left to right, Ronnie Stanley, Bozeman, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda, and Brown Jr.
Both Bozeman and Brown Jr. played admiringly in their first NFL starts. Bozeman left the game twice with a lower body injury, but returned both times and finished the game. Both the Ravens and the Saints finished the game with one sack on defense, so both offensive lines were effective in protecting Brees and Flacco. Flacco did ensure some pressure throughout the game like usual, but Saints defenders only hit him two times.
It’s a small sample size, but Bozeman and Brown Jr. showed that they are capable starting if needed. The Saints’ pass rush isn’t very formidable and the Ravens only ran for 77 yards on the day, but the line did not appear to take a step down compared to what they were showing with Lewis and Hurst in games.
Going off Zrebiec’s tweet, it’s possible that Hurst could miss some more time. Lewis did not practice all week and it’s no guarantee that he will be able to play on Sunday after being stretchered off the field in Tennessee just eight days ago. If Bozeman and Brown Jr. start next week, their true test will come on the road with the crowd being a factor.
Image Credit: The Comeback