Three thoughts following the Ravens 23-17 Wild Card loss to the Chargers

One week after clinching their first AFC North championship in six years and their first playoff appearance in three years, the 2018 Ravens season is suddenly over. 

1. Offensive line: What was that?

Without question, the Ravens offensive line performed the worst out of anybody against the Chargers. They got dominated. It was so bad that starting left guard James Hurst was pulled around halftime for rookie offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman. Ronnie Stanley got flagged twice for dumb penalties. The Chargers sacked Lamar Jackson seven times and hit him nine other times. Los Angeles finished the game with nine tackles-for-loss.

Simply put, the Chargers front seven had their way with the Ravens offensive line until midway through the fourth quarter when the Ravens scored two garbage time touchdowns off the hands of Michael Crabtree.

In Jackson’s seven regular season starts, the Ravens finished with below 200 rushing yards just twice – 194 yards against the Chiefs in week 14 and 159 yards against L.A. in week 16. On Sunday, the Chargers defense limited the Ravens to 90 yards on the ground, their fifth-lowest total of the season. Jackson led the Ravens with 54 yards on nine carries, while the duo of Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards combined for 36 yards on 14 carries between them.

John Harbaugh, Marty Mornhinweg, Greg Roman, and the Ravens offensive coaches deserve a lot of credit for what they did with Baltimore’s running game throughout the season. Credit should also be given to the offensive linemen for going from one of the worst running offenses in the NFL to arguably the best. However, the Ravens’ offensive line lacks physicality. Stanley and Orlando Brown are space-eaters that can get by with their size, but neither of them can match up with the top pass rushers in the NFL. Hurst is a glorified backup that knows the playbook well but has been known to get obliterated by physical defenders. Much of the same can be said for Matt Skura.

Offensive line should be one of the positions the Ravens heavily monitor through free agency and the draft this offseason. It’s unknown whether Marhsal Yanda will retire or not. Alex Lewis can’t stay on the field and his limited play this season left a lot to be desired. Skura isn’t a true center. He was forced into that role after Ryan Jensen‘s departure because the Ravens had no other options. Jackson already takes more hits than most quarterbacks, and the Ravens need to do a better job of protecting him. No matter who the quarterback was this season – Jackson or Joe Flacco – pass protection was always a weakness.


2. Even though we knew Joe Flacco’s time was up, John Harbaugh’s decision to not play him leaves a sour taste in our mouths 

Even before Mike Badgley‘s 47-yard field goal that put the Chargers up 23-3 with just over nine minutes left in the third quarter, fans at M&T Bank Stadium were booing Jackson and calling for Flacco to enter the game. A big chunk of blame should fall on the shoulders of the offensive line, but Jackson missed several throws and put the ball on the ground multiple times in the first half. With no running game whatsoever and little time to make throws in the pocket, Jackson looked flustered on the playoff stage.

At one point, the Chargers had sacked Jackson more times than the rookie quarterback had completions. Not all of the blame should be placed on Jackson for how mightily he struggled on Sunday, almost every quarterback in the NFL wouldn’t have been able to do anything with the amount of pressure thrown on Jackson during Sunday’s game. Quarterbacks, particularly rookie quarterbacks, can get flustered in the playoffs. Look at what happened to Deshaun Watson in Houston yesterday. Being flustered is not an excuse for putting the ball on the ground, but the offensive line gave Jackson no help in his first playoff start.

Jackson and the offense came through late and scored two touchdowns in just under five minutes, but Harbaugh not giving Flacco a chance to throw the Ravens back into the game brought back memories of Buck Showalter not bringing in Zach Britton during the 2016 Wild Card game between the Orioles and the Blue Jays. I understand the viewpoint of not taking Jackson out because he’s the future of the franchise and Harbaugh didn’t want to hurt his confidence. But the Ravens have a former Super Bowl MVP quarterback on their bench and they had no inclination of putting him in down three scores in a playoff game. That’s awfully stubborn.

After the game, Harbaugh said what we’ve already known for weeks, and that’s that Jackson is the Ravens starting quarterback going forward.

Even with the Ravens confirming that Flacco won’t be a Raven next season, Baltimore was playing their first playoff game in three years. It’s do-or-die. If you’re lucky enough to have a quarterback of Flacco’s caliber healthy on the bench and you’re down 20 points, why not go to that guy who can throw much better than Jackson a chance?

The writing was on the wall in April and the shift from Jackson to Flacco was implemented in week 11, but the ending of the Flacco era ended in Baltimore is sure to leave a sour taste in a lot of fans’ mouths.


3. Even with Jackson cemented into the Ravens plans, the future of the Ravens franchise looks uncertain 

It didn’t take long for reporters to ask Harbaugh about his future following Sunday’s loss. Even with the Ravens announcing their intent to give Harbaugh a contract extension a few weeks ago, stories have been popping up left and right about teams wanting to inquire about attaining Harbaugh, specifically through a trade. As expected, Harbaugh expressed his desire to remain with the Ravens going forward, and he said he believes that the Ravens do want him back as their head coach going forward.

Both Harbaugh and the Ravens have said the right things, but the fact is Harbaugh’s contract expires after the 2019 season. You won’t hear it out of Harbaugh’s mouth, but the belief is that Harbaugh is seeking a long-term contract that includes some sort of control over his team. It’s unknown if the Ravens would be willing to award Harbaugh that responsibility, especially with Eric DeCosta taking over for Ozzie Newsome as the team’s general manager, which opens up a whole other discussion.

It will be very interesting to see how Harbaugh works this out with the Ravens while the team undergoes a massive change in the front office. There’s also questions on the coaching staff, particularly involving Mornhinwerg. Harbaugh and Mornhinweg have spent years together with both the Ravens and the Eagles. Even though Mornhinweg’s play-calling is questioned after what seems like every game, no one knows whether or not letting go of Mornhinweg could fly with Harbaugh, even with Greg Roman waiting in the wings as a possible replacement.

Along with the questions involving the front office and the coaching staff, no one can be sold on if Jackson is capable on being a franchise quarterback. Jackson deserves all the credit in the world for going 6-1 in the regular season and helping the Ravens to their first AFC North title since 2012. But his play style and struggles as a passer leave many people skeptical. There have been a group of quarterbacks like Jackson who found short-term success in the NFL, but very few of them sign a second contract and last a decade in the league. That’s a scary thought as the Ravens prepare for life without Flacco, the best quarterback in the history of the Ravens.

There are a number of veterans on the Ravens roster who might not be on the roster next season. After 16 seasons with the Ravens, Terrell Suggs (36), is a free agent. Suggs said after the game that he wants to play next season, whether that’s with the Ravens or not. The Ravens will likely need some new pass-catchers with Crabtree possibly getting released and John Brown likely signing elsewhere. Eric Weddle turned 34 a few days ago and wouldn’t confirm his plans on playing in 2019. Jimmy Smith will probably fall victim to the salary cap, and the Ravens could also lose their leader in the middle of the defense, C.J. Mosley, who enters free agency. Along with Mosley, Za’Darius Smith and Brent Urban will hit the market as unrestricted free agents.

In 2019, the Ravens need to help Jackson with an improved offensive line and play-makers at running back and wide receiver. They will likely need to replace a few leaders on their #1 defense at edge rusher, safety, and middle linebacker. These types of holes haven’t always been filled adequately in recent memory, and no one knows if DeCosta will change the Ravens approach to these matters.

Despite how great it felt for the Ravens to be playoff game again, Baltimore’s postseason run ended abruptly, marking the first time in the Harbaugh era that the Ravens exited the playoffs in the first round. Now, all focus shifts to the offseason that could be different than any offseason Ravens fans have seen before with DeCosta taking over.


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Image Credit: Baltimore Sun 

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Three things to watch for as Ravens welcome Chargers in the return of playoff football to Baltimore

The Baltimore Ravens are back in the playoffs.

The Ravens clinched their first playoff berth since 2014 and their first AFC North Division championship since 2012 this past Sunday with a 26-24 nail-biting victory over a much-improved Cleveland Browns squad.

In typical Ravens fashion, it wasn’t easy even though they jumped out to a 20-7 lead at halftime on the back of two Lamar Jackson first half touchdown runs.

Jackson would finish the day with 90 yards rushing and the two aforementioned touchdowns. Kenneth Dixon chipped in 117 yards on 12 carries and Gus Edwards rounded out the three-headed monster rushing attack with 76 yards of his own. The 296 rushing yards on the day was a season high for Baltimore.

Jackson was 14-for-24 through the air for 179 yards with fellow rookies Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst combining for 96 yards on six catches to pace the Ravens passing attack.

The offense stalled in the second half, tallying just 139 yards and six points. The defense found themselves in a familiar spot, needing a stop on an opponent’s last-minute drive to seal a Ravens victory. This time, C.J. Mosley and company delivered:

The game-clinching interception was the Ravens third pick on the day for Browns rookie sensation quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield carved up the Ravens defense for 376 yards passing and three touchdowns in what was arguably the Ravens secondary’s worst day of the season.

The win has set up a first-round AFC Divisional playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers at 1:05pm this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Here’s what to watch for as the two teams will meet for the second time in three weeks.

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Pressure will be on the Ravens coaching staff to keep the offense rolling along against a team that has already seen the revamped attack. Image Credit: USA Today

1) What is the impact of this being the second meeting in three weeks?

One of the number one things that you see on social media and hear on the airwaves of 105.7 The FAN in Baltimore is that you cannot simulate the speed of Jackson. Until you see this speed on the field you truly do not know how freaky fast the Ravens rookie is.

For the first time in the Jackson era, the Ravens will do battle with a team that has seen the revamped offense once before. There are concerns regarding adjustments that the Chargers can make now that they know what to expect from the Ravens offense.

It was just two weeks ago that the Ravens totaled their lowest rushing total in a game since Jackson took over the starting job when they picked up 159 yards in Carson, California against the Chargers.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Training Camp

Gus Bradley and his defense did a nice job on the Ravens rushing attack in the second half of their last meeting. Image Credit: USA Today

Further concerning is that the Ravens totaled just 38 rushing yards in the second half of that contest.  The Ravens offense struggled throughout the second half with three straight three-and-outs late after extending their lead to 16-10 with 5:36 remaining in the third quarter.

The Chargers were driving to take the lead when the Ravens defense stepped up with a forced fumble caused by Patrick Onwuasor. Tavon Young scooped up the ball and ran it back for the game-sealing touchdown. While the Chargers appear to have made adjustments to slow the Ravens down in the second half, I was interested to see if this was a trend or an exception when it come to teams stopping the Ravens offense as the game goes along.

The first half vs second half numbers have been relatively similar overall for the Ravens under Jackson.

Category 1st Half 2nd Half
Total Plays 253 267
Total Yards 1408 1179
Offensive Points Scored 75 73
TOP 114:53 135:39

The Chargers had success shutting down the Ravens running game in the second half of the last meeting. Let’s hope that success is short-lived and the Ravens can crank up the running game. If they can’t, it could be a long day for Jackson and company.

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Marlon Humphrey and the secondary will look to bounce back from a dreadful performance. Image Credit: Getty Images

2) Can the defense bounce back?

The Ravens defense has struggled following up on some of their biggest performances of the season.

Remember the 11-sack shutout of the Titans in week Six where the defense held them to 106 total yards? That was followed by three straight losses in which they had just two sacks and surrendered an average of 335 yards-per-game as well as 27.7 points-per-game.

This past Sunday, the defense was flying high after their dominant performance against the Chargers two weeks ago where they held the NFL’s 11th-best offense to 198 total yards, 175 yards below their season average. The only touchdown they allowed was on a short field after a Dixon fumble gifted the Chargers the ball at the Ravens 17-yard line.

Then Sunday happened. Mayfield and the Browns offense racked up 426 yards of total offense and scored the most points the Ravens have given up since the 27-24 overtime loss against the Chiefs. It marked the second time all year the defense gave up 24+ points in a contest at home.

Receivers were open all over the field with five Browns pass catchers tallying 45+ yards receiving. The group was led by Jarvis Landry who snagged a 48-yard touchdown pass to quickly cut the Ravens lead to 20-14 on the first drive of the third quarter.

Safe to say he was pretty open. Old friend Breshad Perriman got in on the fun for the Browns too, opening up the scoring for Cleveland with a 28-yard touchdown catch.

Again, the coverage was non-existent. The secondary owned up in the postgame taking blame for the performance. “The secondary, we didn’t play our best ballgame, especially me,” Marlon Humphrey said.

The Ravens need to hope that Humphrey and the secondary can get back on track Sunday against a Chargers team that they dominated two weeks ago. Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense struggled throughout in their 23-9 win over the Broncos. Rivers was 14-for-24 for 176 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

Rivers rarely has three bad games in a row and will be welcoming back his starting tight end Hunter Henry who has missed the entire season to this point with a knee injury. Henry joins an offense that boasts Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Melvin Gordon among other weapons.

This game will be won for the Ravens on the strength of their defense. This unit cannot afford another below average performance Sunday or the Ravens return to the playoffs will be short-lived.

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Lamar Jackson has been a catalyst with his legs in willing the Ravens to the playoffs. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

3) Will the Ravens show any new wrinkles on offense?

I love that the Ravens are rushing for 229.5 yards per game over the past seven games.

I love that the Ravens defense sits at number one in yards-per-game allowed, fifth in passing yards-per-game allowed, fourth in rushing yards-per-game allowed, and second in points-per-game allowed for the 2018 season.

I love that the Ravens are 6-1 over their last seven games and are surging going into the playoffs hosting their first playoff game since the 2012 Super Bowl season.

Running games and defense have often been two pivotal parts of putting together Super Bowl caliber teams and it is hard to imagine that any team is the league boasts a better one-two punch in that department than the Ravens.

But the Chargers proved two weeks ago that they have what it takes defensively to slow down the Ravens vaunted rushing attack. Yes the Ravens won the game. Yes the Ravens still rushed for 159 yards. Yes Jackson hit Mark Andrews on a big time 68-yard touchdown in that contest.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns

John Brown has been the forgotten man since Lamar Jackson has taken over the QB position. Why not take a deep shot to him early? Image Credit: USA Today

With all that being said, LA was driving to win the game when the Ravens defense made a huge play to put it away. Despite 296 rushing yards last week, the Browns were driving to win the game before the Ravens defense made a huge play to put it away. There’s nothing wrong with relying on your defense to make huge plays to put games away especially when your defense is as good as this one.

But wouldn’t it be nice to not have to rely on the defense? Wouldn’t it be nice to flash some sort of semblance of a deep passing threat/quick strike offense? Wouldn’t that strengthen an already beastly rushing attack if defenses had to at least acknowledge that the Ravens would be willing to take a deep shot?

The Chargers are a west coast team traveling cross country to the east coast for a 1:05pm start time. This is often discussed as one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL and the scheduling gods smiled upon the Ravens with that start time. So why not take a deep shot on the first play of the game?

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The Chargers wouldn’t know what hit them if the Ravens attempt a play action pass on play one Sunday. Image Credit: Pro Football Weekly

The Ravens have been reluctant to do so and trust me, I get why. I have often been critical of Jackson’s passing ability and if the Ravens don’t think he’s capable of hitting a deep throw than so be it. But what is the harm in trying?

If a deep pass is overthrown, it falls incomplete and it’s 2nd and 10. If it is intercepted, it serves as a punt. But what if it is completed for 60 yards? Even better, what if it goes for six? The Chargers would be shell-shocked, the Bank would be rocking, and the Ravens would have the Chargers scrambling for answers.

Not likely going to happen, but wishful thinking right?

Predictions

Jake McDonnell: Chargers 21 Ravens 20

Nolan McGraw: Ravens 24 Chargers 23

Jay Stavros: Ravens 28 Chargers 24

Ian Schultz: Chargers 24 Ravens 19

The second half of the Chargers game concerns me. Gus Bradley is a damn good defensive football coach. Maybe he figured something out about the Ravens offense. Maybe he didn’t. But if he did and the game rests on the shoulders of the defense again, I expect Rivers to deliver this time.

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Five thoughts following the Ravens 22-10 win over the Chargers

The Baltimore Ravens took the field on Saturday night dressed in their classic all-white uniforms and proceeded to pick up a 22-10 win on the shoulders of a heavy rush attack and a strong defense. What year is it?

It certainly didn’t feel like 2018 but I won’t waste any more of your time by setting the scene. Here are five takeaways from the Ravens biggest win of the season.

1 – First half domination (sort of):

If you missed the game and had to follow along with score updates, you would probably think the Ravens had a rough first half. A 6-3 lead was less than ideal but there was way more to like about the first half than dislike. The Baltimore defense was locked in for the entire half and absolutely manhandled the Chargers offense.

It all started on the first play when Philip Rivers tried to go deep down the sideline but was picked off by Brandon Carr. Mike Williams had Carr beat but Rivers under-threw the ball, allowing the Ravens corner to regain control and make a play.

The Ravens first turnover of the night set the tone for the first half and the rest of the game. The Chargers offense did not pick up a first down until the beginning of the second quarter and could not cross mid-field until the end of the half when a pass interference call finally moved them into Ravens territory.

Despite all of this, the Ravens offense only mustered six points. They certainly had their opportunities but could not capitalize. Justin Tucker missed a 53-yard field goal in the first quarter but on the next possession the Ravens found themselves in the red zone again. After getting stopped on third and goal, John Harbaugh decided to go for it but Lamar Jackson’s pass sailed out of the back of the end zone and the Ravens were left with another empty possession.

2 – Poor field conditions:

One of the things that made the first half ugly was the amount of plays stopped by a player losing their footing. Both teams had trouble with this early on but it seemed to impact the Ravens a little more as the road team. Carr fell down twice in coverage and later on in the first quarter Gus Edwards slipped on a run, tripping James Hurst in the process. The Ravens left guard was shaken up on the play but later returned to the game.

The footing issues disappeared at the half and didn’t have much of an impact on the remainder of the game. I would assume some players switched cleats during the break but that’s just a guess. The Chargers temporary home has been clowned for its seating capacity but I have not heard any complaints about the field up until now. Thankfully it did not have a bigger impact on the outcome of the game.

3 – Jackson outplays Rivers:

Perhaps one of the most surprising outcomes from this game was how the quarterback dual played out. I don’t think many people expected Jackson to have this good of a game, let alone outshine a future hall of fame quarterback.

Jackson finished the night 12-for-22 with 204 yards and a touchdown. It marks the first time Jackson has thrown for over 200 yards in his six-game career. On the other hand, Rivers was very lackluster, going 23-for-37 with 181 yards and two interceptions. Not only did Jackson have a better game throwing the ball, but he also continued to be a factor in the run game by adding 39 yards on the ground.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of the game but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Jackson act as cool as a cucumber through the whole game while Rivers did nothing but yell and scream at the refs. Everyone has highlighted the differences between Jackson and Joe Flacco the past five weeks, but the one similarity seems to be their demeanor in big games.

4 – Getting it done on third and long: 

After the Ravens defense broke our hearts a few weeks ago in a loss to Kansas City, it was nice to see them get the job done in third and long situations this time around. The Chargers started the game 0-for-6 on third down and their most favorable distance in that span was 3rd-and-15. That should tell you everything you need to know. Whether it was the Ravens pass rush setting up these long down situations or the Chargers committing offensive penalties, Baltimore was able to take advantage and get off the field.

5 – Pass rush comes up big in key situations:

It has certainly been a roller coaster year for the Ravens pass rush. We all know about the monster game they put together in Tennessee but there have also been a handful of games where the defensive line was not able to get to the opposing quarterback at all.

Saturday wasn’t the biggest day for the pass rush but it was one of the most clutch. After taking the run option away from the Chargers the Ravens knew that the ball would be in Rivers hands with the game on the line. This allowed them to do what they do best and send the house in key situations. More often than not it was a success for Baltimore as they recorded four sacks.

All four sacks came in the second half and three ultimately led to a Chargers punt. The biggest of the night was the final one recorded by Za’Darius Smith. The Ravens outside linebacker quickly shed a block and got to Rivers before he could look down field. What made it the biggest sack of the game was the timing. The Chargers were driving and had the ball at the Ravens 29-yard line with under six minutes to play. Smith dropped Rivers for an 11-yard loss and not only forced fourth down, but also pushed the Chargers out of field goal range in a six-point game.

One more game:

This win sets up yet another high-drama game for the Ravens to close out the season. For the second straight year they will host a division opponent in week 17 with the playoffs hanging in the balance. Last year the Bengals came to town and spoiled Baltimore’s chances at the postseason and this year the Browns will be looking to do the same.

While Cleveland was technically eliminated from playoff contention when the Titans won on Saturday, they are still playing with a lot of energy and purpose at this point in the season. That is something we haven’t been able to say about the Browns in a very long time. Cleveland definitely poses a threat to the Ravens, especially after coming out victorious in the first meeting between the two teams earlier this year.

If there is one advantage to the NFL’s scheduling blunder this week it is the fact that the Ravens will have an extra day to deal with any jet leg flying back to the east coast. It is commonly said by athletes that flying west to east is more difficult than the other direction. The Ravens will get back to Baltimore on Sunday and have some extra time to get adjusted before hitting the practice field.

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Image credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP