Jackson, Ravens go in wrong direction coming out of bye week

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BALTIMORE — The parallels to last year were in full view for the Ravens coming out of their bye week against Pittsburgh.

Despite a similar feeling of having not yet played their best football, the Ravens entered the off-week riding a three-game winning streak. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was hardly the MVP favorite after a shaky October last season that preceded his historic November that included 13 touchdown passes, no interceptions, and a 143.7 passer rating to put him in the driver’s seat for the award.   

Baltimore was again hosting an undefeated rival after taking down New England coming off the bye last year. Sunday presented the opportunity for the Ravens to retake the lead in the AFC North and strengthen their claim as the second-best team in the conference behind Kansas City. 

Instead, the Ravens lost the game and All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury only two days after awarding him a five-year, $98.75 million contract extension, a cruel development for him and the organization. And Jackson lost ground in the fight against the narrative holding back what’s been an otherwise brilliant start to his NFL career. 

Not only did Jackson struggle as he did in his first career start against the Steelers in an overtime win last October, but the 23-year-old played what was easily his worst game in two years, turning the ball over four times and completing under 50 percent of his passes. An interception to begin each half led to Pittsburgh touchdowns, one returned by linebacker Robert Spillane for a score on the third play of the game and the other putting the Steelers inside the red zone less than a minute into the third quarter. Jackson also held the ball too long on a strip-sack in the first quarter that almost certainly cost the Ravens three points or more on a second-down play from the Pittsburgh 8.

For every bit of lavish praise he’s earned over his first three seasons, Jackson was brutal at critical times in Sunday’s 28-24 defeat. And while you could point to nine penalties – a couple of them questionable – and other mistakes on either side of the ball, it was nearly impossible to argue with Jackson saying, “I put that on me.” 

According to CBS Sports, the Ravens became the first team since at least 1950 to lose a game in which they outrushed the opponent by at least 200 yards and outpassed them by any amount. John Harbaugh’s team may have finished with twice as many yards, but it’s the Steelers who now enter Week 9 with a two-game lead in the AFC North. That’s what happens when you all but gift-wrap 14 points to a worthy opponent.

There were some positives to take away if you had the patience to look on the bright side after Sunday’s loss. The defense had difficulty against the empty sets from which Ben Roethlisberger passed in the second half, but the Steelers managed just 221 yards and put together only two drives longer than 33 yards. The Ravens did that even after losing outside linebacker Matthew Judon to an ejection in the second quarter.

Despite starting running back Mark Ingram being inactive and Stanley missing the final three quarters, the Ravens ran for a season-best 265 yards and rookie J.K. Dobbins had a career-high 113 yards on 15 carries against the NFL’s second-ranked run defense. Veteran receiver Willie Snead also had his best game as a Raven, catching five passes for 106 yards.

But the passing game remains a mess, a concern further magnified by an offensive line now having lost its best player. Even if Orlando Brown Jr. manages to play a respectable left tackle in Stanley’s place, how D.J. Fluker holds up at right tackle could be another story. The Ravens will be without their two best offensive linemen – Stanley and the retired Marshal Yanda — from their historic 2019 campaign, a difficult reality to overcome no matter how many times you’ll hear “next man up” in the coming days.

Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews had just three catches for 32 yards while No. 1 wide receiver Marquise Brown had one catch – his 3-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter – on Sunday. The 2019 first-round pick expressed his disenchantment over the lack of opportunities in a since-deleted tweet, an unsettling development for an offense that’s remained mostly upbeat about its uneven start to the season.

“Every mistake that we make, it’s a collective group, and we just have to continue to move forward,” said Snead when asked about Jackson rebounding from a difficult performance. “We were in a position to win the game the whole game. With everything that happened, we were still in a position to win the game.”

To be clear, there’s little reason to believe the season is suddenly teetering. The 5-2 Ravens remain a rock-solid playoff team with their only losses coming against the teams with the two best records in the NFL through Week 8.

But the Ravens entered 2020 with nothing less than Super Bowl expectations, making it difficult to believe they’re moving in the right direction when their most impressive victory – and only one against a team currently holding a winning record — has come against the Cleveland Browns. Losing Stanley only makes that feeling worse.

Instead of showing the ability to rise to the occasion when off schedule or trailing late in games, the passing game has regressed, failing to show the same efficiency and explosiveness from last season. Already hearing the doubts about his ability to beat the Chiefs and to win in January, Jackson has five interceptions in his two career starts against Pittsburgh and couldn’t capitalize on his chance for a signature moment on the final two drives of Sunday’s game.

Through the first six games of 2020, Jackson hadn’t performed at an MVP level, but his dual-threat ability still had him mostly playing like a top 10 quarterback. His play moved in the wrong direction against the Ravens’ biggest rival on Sunday – as did Baltimore’s chances of winning the AFC North and securing the top seed in the conference. Three of the next four games come against teams with winning records, including the critical Thanksgiving night rematch with the Steelers at Heinz Field.

Instead of finding another gear and making a statement coming out of the bye week, Jackson and the Ravens went in reverse. They must regroup quickly to turn the tide.