BALTIMORE — On Sunday the Baltimore Ravens dropped their third straight game, falling to 4-5 with a 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium.
Despite leaving the month of September with a 3-1 record, the Ravens have lost four of their last five and enter their bye week one game under .500. That’s good for third place in the AFC North.
The Ravens have a lot of soul-searching to do over their week off. The entire franchise is under a lot of pressure to break the three-year streak of playoff-less football. Nine weeks into the 2018 season, a lot of the problems that have plagued previous teams continue to pop up. There’s still a lack of consistent play-makers, the defense still can’t find that big stop, and some of the play-calling leaves you scratching your head.
If the Ravens can’t go at least 5-1 over their final six games and make up for this 1-4 skid, changes will likely be made. Three of those final seven games will be contested against others teams in the AFC Playoff picture -Bengals, Chiefs, Chargers – and teams at the bottom of the barrel – Raiders, Buccaneers, Browns. The Falcons are the outlier. With the Steelers winning four straight and the Ravens holding a 1-3 divisional record, a Wild Card berth is much more attainable than a home playoff game.
Enough about the big picture for now, here’s three things we learned about the Ravens in another concerning performance that ended with the Steelers tying the season series between Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
1. For both the offense and defense, strengths have turned into weaknesses
Up until an Alex Collins goal-line fumble in the second quarter of the Ravens’ 26-14 win over the Steelers on Sept. 30, the Ravens offense scored touchdowns in all 13 of their trips to the red-zone dating back to the beginning of the season. Up until a two-yard run from Alvin Kamara in the fourth quarter against the Saints in week seven, the Ravens defense had not allowed a single touchdown in the second half.
Since that Collins fumble, the Ravens’ offense has gone 9-for-18 in the red zone. In the past three games, all losses, the Ravens defense has allowed four second half touchdowns in eight attempts by opponents. That’s certainly not back-breaking, but opponents scoring touchdowns in the second half has put more pressure on the Ravens’ offense. That wasn’t the case in the first month of the season. With the offense still lacking a game-changing play-maker, all of the weight goes directly on the shoulders of Joe Flacco, who’s again proving that he needs more than a scrap heap of aging free agent wide receivers to make magic late in games.
There are other problems on both sides of the football. The Ravens rank 31st in the NFL with 3.6 yards-per-rush, only ahead of the Arizona Cardinals’ 3.4. The Ravens’ defense is tied for 24th in the NFL with seven takeaways. They’re averaging 0.8 turnovers-per-game, down from their 2.1 takeaways-per-game last season. In addition, the Ravens have accumulated 28 sacks this season. 25 of those sacks came against the Titans (11), Bills (6), Browns (5) and Broncos (3). The Ravens finished with one sack against the Steelers twice and the Saints once, with no sacks against Cincinnati and Carolina.
Simply put, there’s multiple issues impacting both sides of the football right now for the Ravens. Areas of the game where the Ravens were good at early in the season have translated into struggles. The offense has not been able to run the football all season. The pass rush has exploded at times, but has been ineffective more often than not. Turnovers have been hard to come by after the defense led the NFL in takeaways last season.
If the Ravens can turn a few of these weaknesses back into strengths, improvement could be seen in upcoming games. If the same trends continue, losses will pile up against a tough schedule, especially on the road.
2. Joe Flacco can’t miss wide open targets in the red-zone
Let’s focus in on one of the Ravens offense’s botched red-zone opportunities. In the first quarter during Baltimore’s first trip inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line, Flacco threw an incomplete pass to Mark Andrews on 1st-and-10, and then Collins rushed for five yards. On third down, Flacco overthrew John Brown by a few feet in the back of the end-zone. The Ravens settled for a 23-yard Justin Tucker field goal to take a 3-0 lead before the Steelers scored a touchdown on their ensuing possession.
Before the ball was snapped on third down, Lamar Jackson split out wide before running left-to-right across the entire formation. As Jackson’s feet crossed the 10-yard marker, Flacco took the snap and dropped back before unloading the ball into Brown’s direction.
For the entire duration of the play, Jackson was wide open, and Flacco never once looked his direction. After the game, Flacco explained his decision to go to Brown.
In addition, Jackson said that the play was not designed for him, Flacco should not be blamed for it, and that he was the last resort on the play.
It’s great that the Ravens are not blaming everyone, but the fact is that the Ravens lost by a touchdown, and throwing to Jackson would have given them a 7-0 lead rather than a 3-0 lead. The defense probably still gives up the Pittsburgh touchdown on the following drive, but the tone of a tied game at the end of the first quarter sounds much better than the Ravens trailing 7-3.
By the way, after the Steelers scored their first touchdown, the Ravens went five plays on their next possession and punted. The Steelers got the ball back and found the end-zone again.
If Flacco wants to keep his job in Baltimore, he better start hitting wide open targets in the end-zone. It doesn’t matter if Jackson is listed as a quarterback on the depth chart, and it also doesn’t matter if he was the fifth option on the play. A quarterback is supposed to look around the entire field and throw to who’s the most separated from coverage. In this instance, it was Jackson, and Flacco didn’t go to him.
The Ravens are paying Flacco over $20 million this season to play quarterback. If he can’t throw to the most open receiver in the end-zone during a must-win divisional game at home, then the Ravens won’t keep writing his checks.
3. Orlando Brown Jr. should start at right tackle after the bye week
Time to focus on the good.
With James Hurst currently nursing a back injury, Orlando Brown Jr. has started at right tackle over the last three games. The sample size is small, but Brown Jr. looks just as impressive as he did in August when he played almost every single snap of the Ravens’ five-game preseason slate.
Not only is he taking an advantage of this opportunity, he’s doing an exceptional job of protecting his quarterbacks.
When Hurst returns, the Ravens should simply keep Brown Jr. at right tackle and slide Hurst over to left guard, where he started 16 games for the Ravens last season. If Hurst needs a week or two to adjust back to his old position, the Ravens could keep Alex Lewis and his mullet at left guard until Hurst is ready. That would also give Hurst’s back some extra time to fully heal.
With Hurst in, Matt Skura likely stays at center while Lewis serves as the sixth offensive lineman. Skura’s play at center hasn’t been anything great, but Lewis can’t play center and Hurst played better at left guard last season than Lewis has this season. Lewis could fill in at either guard or tackle position, especially if Ronnie Stanley continues to struggle with injuries.
Using Hurst as the sixth man is another option, but the Ravens just paid him in the spring and he played well on an offense that ranked 11th in rushing yards-per-game in 2017. If Hurst returns to left guard, perhaps the running game improves?
Both Brown and Hurst have played well enough this season to keep starting games. Lewis and Skura have struggled, so it will be interesting to see what the coaching staff decides to do when Hurst returns. No matter what, they can’t justify sitting Brown Jr. after his performances over the last three weeks.
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