Ravens must take long look at their process after clunker in Miami

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You could chalk it up to the grind of playing a Thursday night road game if the Ravens weren’t facing one of the worst teams in football.

The issues easier to downplay over a comeback-laden 6-2 start sunk their chances in a shocking 22-10 loss to Miami, which easily made the short list of the ugliest defeats in the John Harbaugh era. And despite being just a couple weeks removed from their bye, the Ravens must take another long look at their process to address these persistent problems with the NFL’s sixth-most difficult remaining schedule ahead. If being honest, a team that’s so often needed the heroics of Lamar Jackson — which were nowhere to be found this time around — knows its inner scoreboard doesn’t shine as bright as a 6-3 record that still has Baltimore in good position in the AFC.

The slow offensive starts, third-down failures, and big plays surrendered on defense persist, and all contributed in the loss to the Dolphins.

Of course, Thursday was more than just a bad beginning as the 10 points were the fewest scored by the Ravens in a regular-season game since before Jackson became the starter during the 2018 season. Ironically, it wasn’t even that slow a start by 2021 standards with the offense getting points on its opening drive for just the third time all season — even as the returning Sammy Watkins pulled up short on what looked like a potential touchdown ball from Jackson. Since scoring a first-quarter touchdown in each of the first two weeks, the Ravens have only one over their last seven games and have failed to score in the opening period altogether four times, a far cry from the last couple years when Baltimore so often jumped to a two-score lead before you could even finish your first in-game beverage.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently discussed the idea of the 15-play opening script being somewhat archaic with opponents throwing so many different looks at his unique offense to start games, but play-calling flexibility isn’t leading to early production with the Ravens averaging just 3.0 points per first quarter this season. And while Jackson has come alive to a dramatic degree later in games, the star quarterback’s 62.4 passer rating in the opening period is quite a departure from the previous two years with passer ratings that were well over 100. Jackson and the Ravens clearly weren’t able to flip the switch Thursday with 10 consecutive empty possessions — not including the end-of-half kneel — following Justin Tucker’s first-quarter field goal.

— Offensive coordinator Greg Roman last month

There’s no shortage of variables that may contribute to these slow starts and the Ravens still rank among the best offenses in the league over a full 60 minutes, but the scarcity of early points and a lack of tempo that was painfully on display Thursday night are leaving previously intimidated, lesser opponents in games more often than not, evident by a so-so plus-14 point differential through nine games. In fact, the Dolphins were the ones doing the intimidating Thursday night as Brian Flores’ persistent cover 0 blitzes from the secondary — something the Ravens said they expected to see — overwhelmed Roman, Jackson, and an offensive line that’s struggled in pass protection all season. A less consistent running game relying more heavily on Jackson isn’t helping either. 

That offensive line and choppy running game are the biggest reasons why the Ravens have fallen off a cliff on third downs, entering the weekend ranked 29th in conversion rate after finishing in the top four the previous two seasons. They were an abysmal 2-for-14 on third down against the Dolphins with nine of those 12 failed conversions needing nine or more yards.

Make no mistake, no offense prefers to be in such a down and distance, but the Ravens entered Week 10 ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric for third- and fourth-and-long situations — “long” defined as seven or more yards — this season. Perhaps even more disturbing is that Baltimore ranked seventh in that category last season and third two years ago. No one would confuse this offensive line with the one featuring an All-Pro version of Ronnie Stanley and future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda two years ago, of course, but is this group really that much worse than last year’s unit? Now with a better cast of pass-catching weapons, why does Jackson sport a 52.2 passer rating on third downs after thriving on that down in his first two seasons as a starter?

It doesn’t add up for an offense so good in other ways, but such a deficiency is likely to hurt more against tougher opponents ahead.  

Though the utter mess of an offense deserves most of the on-field blame for Thursday’s loss — which included Sammy Watkins’ disastrous fumble returned for a Miami touchdown in the fourth quarter — the defense once again saw an otherwise strong performance spoiled by big plays that continue to plague Wink Martindale’s group. The Dolphins’ two longest plays of the game accounted for 10 points and a third of their total yardage.

And they both came on unforced coverage busts.

With the score tied 3-3 with less than a minute to go in the first half, an apparent mix-up between cornerback Anthony Averett and safety Geno Stone led to a 52-yard completion from Jacoby Brissett to Isaiah Ford. That led to the easy field goal that gave the Dolphins the lead for good going into halftime.

But the dagger came with less than four minutes to go after the Ravens had somehow managed a penalty-aided 99-yard touchdown drive to close the deficit to 15-10. Despite sleepwalking all night, Baltimore was a defensive stop and some Jackson magic away from another inexplicable victory. Instead, no one bothered covering a motioning Albert Wilson as Tua Tagovailoa delivered an easy pitch-and-catch for 64 yards. The Dolphins scored the game-clinching touchdown a few plays later. 

That just can’t happen, a sentiment uttered over and over in a miserable night for the Ravens. Though still in perfectly fine shape in the standings, Baltimore became the latest contender — perceived anyway — to fall flat on its face in an AFC still waiting for the cream to rise to the top.

Now with a mini-break before preparing to play at Chicago for Week 11, the Ravens need to find some semblance of answers for the deficiencies still ailing them. Otherwise, what happened in Miami could merely be a sign of what’s to come as the schedule picks up after Thanksgiving.     

When falling so hard against one of the final “lesser” opponents remaining on the schedule, a 6-3 record can’t hide your problems any longer.

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