Monday, January 25, 2021

INTELLIGENT CONVERSATION

Inability to finish against Tennessee puts Ravens on ropes at Thanksgiving

AUDIO VAULT

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Jeff Mohler and Nestor debate merits of a long term contract for Lamar Jackson this offseason

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

BALTIMORE — Tennessee handed the Ravens the chance to finish off the victory.

Trailing 21-13 and facing a third-and-2 from the Baltimore 4, the Titans faced the exact scenario why they awarded running back Derrick Henry a $50 million contract over the summer. You hand him the ball to get the first down or more and do it again on fourth down if necessary.

Instead, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw incomplete to the back of the end zone, and head coach Mike Vrabel settled for the chip-shot 22-yard field goal to make it a five-point game with 11:12 to go. Such a sequence would have doomed an opponent against the Ravens a year ago.

“I just felt like the way that our defense had been playing and the fact that we could get it down there to where we could score and have the lead — kind of play out like it did — was really the reason,” Vrabel said. “You know and I know that all of those decisions always come down to execution.”

Sunday’s deflating 30-24 overtime loss to the Titans exposed the reality that’s become more and more apparent since mid-October. The Ravens are struggling to close out games on either side of the ball, a flaw threatening to derail a season that began with such high expectations.

Simply put, teams no longer fear them. The Ravens are the heavyweight once thought to be invincible who’s developed a reputation for having a glass jaw.

Vrabel’s decision practically begged the Ravens to put together one of those patented “soul crusher” drives to drain the clock and put the game away with a touchdown. Instead, Baltimore picked up one first down and faced a third-and-1 after Lamar Jackson’s 8-yard run finished just short of the sticks even after a John Harbaugh challenge. Still, a third-and-short situation was no problem, right?

But this isn’t 2019 anymore. Before Jackson went right up the middle for what would have been the first down, tight end Mark Andrews and right tackle Will Holden — two blockers who weren’t critical to where the ball was going — jumped early, moving them back five yards. Even after that, Jackson overthrew a wide-open Andrews that would have been a first down and more. Instead, the Ravens punted the ball back to Tennessee with 7:49 to play.

That’s when the defense began its collapse.

Wink Martindale’s unit had played well since an ugly opening drive, holding the Titans to just 70 rushing yards on 21 carries through the first three quarters despite top defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell being out. Tannehill had connected with Corey Davis on a 50-yard pass to set up a field goal midway through the third quarter, but the Tennessee passing game had largely been a non-factor with the Ravens holding Davis and fellow wide receiver A.J. Brown in check.

But that changed after Sam Koch’s punt as the Ravens defense was gassed and now looked like a unit that had expected the offense to close out the win on the previous drive. Despite being backed up at their own 10-yard line following a penalty, the Titans marched to the red zone with a 22-yard pass to Davis and a 25-yard completion to Brown aided by missed tackles.  

A dropped snap leading to a Matthew Judon sack set up a third-and-10 situation from the 14 with the Ravens needing two stops to all but seal the victory. But we know what happened next as Tannehill threw underneath to Brown five yards shy of the sticks.

Chuck Clark.

Marcus Peters.

Marlon Humphrey.

Patrick Queen.

Four missed tackles and a touchdown. The 2-point conversion gave Tennessee a 24-21 lead.

The Ravens still had a chance to win with just over two minutes to go, eventually moving into the red zone after a 16-yard completion to Dez Bryant. Of course, that’s when self-destruction mode resurfaced as center Patrick Mekari snapped the ball before Bryant was set, leading to a false start and a first-and-15 from the 19. The unforced error killed the momentum of the drive, forcing the disjointed Ravens to settle for a game-tying 29-yard field goal.

Overtime proved to be no contest as the offense went three-and-out and the defense couldn’t tackle or cover Brown and Davis. Henry’s game-winning 29-yard touchdown run served as the culmination of each side of the ball looking to the other to finish the game for the Ravens with neither getting the job done.

That’s not what we mean by complementary football, especially as the Ravens continue to deal with health concerns on both sides of the ball.

“They have a lot of injuries too, a lot of young guys playing, so there’s no excuse,” said veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe, who took the blame for missing the initial tackle attempt on Henry’s game-winning touchdown. “We’ve got to just play better football. We’ve got to tackle.”

Sunday continued a disturbing trend for a Ravens defense that’s led the way this season while the offense has struggled to recapture its 2019 magic. After allowing a total of 23 points in the second half of their first five games, the Ravens have now surrendered 20 or more second-half points in three of their last five contests, a stretch that began with the near-collapse at Philadelphia and includes two defeats in which the Ravens led by double digits in the third quarter.

The offense was acceptable through the first 40 minutes as rookie J.K. Dobbins seized control of the backfield, but going 1-for-4 in the red zone is a surefire recipe to lose to quality teams. As has often been the case this season, Jackson had his highlight moments, but he missed some critical open throws and receivers failed to capitalize on some opportunities to make plays. The Ravens’ final four drives of the game ended with an interception, a punt, the field goal at the end of regulation, and a three-and-out.

That’s simply not good enough in crunch time.

The Ravens now face the reality of being eliminated from AFC North contention should they fall to Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. Thoughts of winning the division or securing home-field advantage are shot, but Baltimore remains in good position to secure a playoff spot despite being on the outside looking in at the end of Week 11.  

At this point, however, the Ravens’ biggest threat isn’t the Steelers, the Titans, Kansas City, or whomever the week’s opponent is as much as themselves. There’s plenty of time to right themselves against five December opponents holding a combined 16-33-1 record, but Sunday’s collapse went beyond injuries or merely tipping their caps to a good Titans team that made the critical plays.

The Ravens haven’t consistently played a full 60 minutes throughout the season, and they’re now showing a concerning inability to close. Their injuries can’t be helped and may ultimately lead to their 2020 undoing, but attention to detail, mental toughness, and effort shouldn’t come into question like those factors did on Sunday by their own admission.   

 “We had little hiccups in the game, but we still have to keep fighting through it,” Jackson said. “It looked like that team wanted it more than us. They were playing physical. When we went up, I felt like we just took our foot off the gas. But we just have to keep it going for the team.”

The Ravens better find that accelerator quickly.

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