Ravens’ start has “super” company, but finishing is what matters

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The Ravens needed the “soul crusher” against Philadelphia on Sunday.

As big a part of their identity as anything since the start of the Lamar Jackson era, it’s that drive in the fourth quarter that kills both the clock and the opponent’s last hope of erasing a deficit. The four-minute offense – its conventional football name – is what allows a team to protect a narrow lead and not put too much pressure on its defense, and Baltimore has been better than anyone putting together fourth-quarter drives sometimes lasting as long as eight or nine minutes over these last couple seasons. It’s part of the beauty of having a historic running game and an offense that’s zigging while everyone else zags in a pass-happy NFL.  

A big-boy drive.

When the Eagles scored their second touchdown of the fourth quarter to make it 30-22 against a suddenly faltering Ravens defense that had done the heavy lifting for most of the afternoon, it was time for the offense to chew away the final 3:48 and go home to the bye week without additional drama, right? Even with Philadelphia having all three of its timeouts, just a few first downs would have done the trick in a game that had gone sideways since Jackson’s 37-yard touchdown run had given the Ravens a 24-6 lead with just under 20 minutes to go.

“It was meant for us to go out there and finish the game,” Jackson said. “I’m tired of our defense just going out there and doing it.”

Instead of finishing the game, however, the Ravens ran all of 37 seconds off the clock with a 1-yard Gus Edwards run, a Patrick Ricard holding flag – one of nine penalties on the day for the mistake-prone offense — turning second-and-9 into second-and-19, a 10-yard Jackson run, and a third-down incompletion to stop the clock and save the Eagles’ final timeout as Sam Koch then punted for the seventh time.  

With so much chatter about a record-setting offense from a year ago losing its identity and not being fully calibrated so far this season, no drive has been a better example of that. The offense couldn’t impose its will when it needed to, and the Ravens were fortunate to escape Lincoln Financial Field with a 30-28 win after linebackers Matthew Judon and L.J. Fort stopped a 2-point try with 1:55 to go.

The fourth-quarter scare itself isn’t reason for panic – winning on the road in the NFL is tough – but it should serve as a wake-up call for an offense that’s been the less consistent side of the ball through six games. When the defense wilted late on Sunday, the Ravens suddenly found themselves in trouble and without a comfortable answer.

“We’re just not there yet,” said right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. about the Ravens offense. “We understand that we’ve got a lot of work to do. But at the end of the day, we’re chasing perfection.”

Perfect is unattainable, of course, and this is when we again remind ourselves that the Ravens are coming off a franchise-best 14-2 season in which they set numerous league and franchise records and scored a whopping 58 offensive touchdowns. Duplicating that production and efficiency was always going to be difficult, even before the retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda. There’s only so much to be said about the offensive line without unfairly criticizing the likes of Tyre Phillips, Patrick Mekari, and D.J. Fluker, but no one on the current roster could have reasonably been expected to step in at right guard without some substantial drop-off.  

Yes, the Ravens need to find a way to make the offensive line function at least a little better while also developing better rhythm from both play-calling and passing standpoints. Ranking 22nd in yards per passing attempt (7.0) – down from 12th (7.6) last year — isn’t going to cut it with a ground game that hasn’t been as consistently dominant despite its strong overall numbers. The offensive line, the wide receivers, and, yes, Jackson must be better.

But this team is still 5-1, a fact that will likely need to be repeated more than once during the bye week and ahead of the Week 8 clash with undefeated Pittsburgh. This marks only the third time the Ravens have started 5-1 in their history, joining the 2000 and 2012 teams that both raised the Lombardi Trophy. That’s not to declare the 2020 Ravens are destined for the same fate, but it serves as a reminder that each of those championship outfits hadn’t even dealt with the worst of their adversity just six games into their seasons.

In 2000, the Ravens had never made the playoffs before and were still a couple games away from benching their starting quarterback in the midst of a five-game touchdown drought. The 2012 Ravens were pretty clearly inferior to the previous year’s team from an eyeball test standpoint and were still seven weeks from replacing their offensive coordinator to spark an improbable Super Bowl run.

Perhaps the Ravens escaped Philadelphia learning a valuable lesson. You may not need to play winning football for four quarters against a one-win, injury-depleted team, but that won’t fly in November and beyond when the schedule ramps up.

They have to finish on both sides of the ball, whether it’s with a “soul crusher” or better protecting a three-score game from turning into a nail-biter.

“I know it’s early, but when you have a lead like that, you can’t let off the gas pedal,” safety DeShon Elliott said. “We let off their necks. I feel like we have to be better than that.”