Recurring problems humble Ravens in lopsided loss to Cincinnati

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BALTIMORE — The Ravens looked invincible in last week’s demolition of the upstart Los Angeles Chargers, dominating defensively from start to finish and rushing for nearly 200 yards against a hapless run defense.

It was downright 2019-like as Baltimore suddenly owned the best record in the AFC entering Week 7 and sought the first 6-1 start in franchise history. Surely the Ravens would handle Cincinnati at home to enter the bye week on a high note, right?

But the NFL has a way of humbling even the really good teams as the Ravens “were beaten soundly” in the words of head coach John Harbaugh after the 41-17 blowout loss, the worst defeat of the Lamar Jackson era. Proving a 4-2 start was no fluke despite a tame early schedule, the Bengals were really good on Sunday. And Week 6 quickly became a distant memory for the Ravens.

“That’s how the National Football League works. It’s always week to week; it’s always game to game,” Harbaugh said. “There never is any running narrative. It just doesn’t exist. You have to come out and play your best every week, and we did not play our best — far from it really in any phase.”

Harbaugh is correct in saying every game is one of 17 data points over the course of a season. The 14th-year coach often says you’re never as great as your best game or as bad as the worst outcome, but problems on both sides of the ball returned after a one-week respite on Sunday, a concern for the Super Bowl-hopeful Ravens going into the bye.

A secondary that had smothered quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers last week looked much more like the unit that frequently struggled over the first five games of the season. The tackling was again poor as Baltimore surrendered an unseemly 10 plays of 20 or more yards, which included all five Cincinnati touchdowns. A pass rush that was potent early faded as Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was able to extend plays and give his talented receivers the chance to make plays. And the non-Jackson portion of the running game was once again a non-factor as the offensive line struggled to open running lanes or consistently protect its star quarterback.

Yes, it’s a week-to-week league, but these are recurring issues in need of improvement, something that was as true over the course of the five-game winning streak featuring three last-second victories as it was after Sunday’s 24-point defeat.    

Headlining the list of individual defensive struggles was two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who had the worst game of his career as rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase torched the Ravens to the tune of eight catches for 201 yards and a touchdown. Already without three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters for the remainder of the season, this defense simply isn’t going to be very good without the optimal version of Humphrey. Baltimore’s top cornerback was outstanding against the Chargers, but his overall performance so far this season hasn’t lived up to his high standard. Especially after losing so many notable players to injury, the Ravens really need their stars to be great every week. 

“The biggest assignment was on me to kind of stop their top guy (Chase), and I lost that matchup,” said Humphrey, who was also beaten by Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah for a 55-yard touchdown. “A lot of it kind of is on me. I’ve just got to play better, especially when the game plan is for me to have a big day. The coaches put the trust in me to kind of lead the defense, lead the game plan. I’ve just got to execute better.”

The other side of the ball experienced its own execution problems as running backs Devonta Freeman, Le’Veon Bell, and Ty’Son Williams combined to rush for just 29 yards on 11 carries, again leaving Jackson to do all the heavy lifting on the ground. While many had hoped the 187 rushing yards and three touchdowns — one each by Freeman, Bell, and Latavius Murray — last week were a sign of better days ahead, Sunday merely reinforced how lousy the Chargers’ run defense really is. 

Unfortunately, there may not be an easy fix as the veteran running backs aren’t explosive enough and former practice-squad member Ty’Son Williams lacks both awareness and experience, and the offensive line isn’t consistently opening running lanes either. Coaches and players repeatedly explaining how defenses are focusing on shutting down the running game implies opponents weren’t doing that in previous seasons, which would be a ridiculous sentiment.

The pass protection wasn’t much better on Sunday as the Bengals generated pressure on 48.9% pressure rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Losing right tackle Patrick Mekari to an ankle injury in the second quarter only made matters worse as Tyre Phillips struggled in his place. Unfortunately, the likes of a healthy Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda, and Orlando Brown Jr. aren’t walking through the Owings Mills locker room doors.

All of these deficiencies have led to Jackson needing to do more than ever this season, but he couldn’t do enough this time as he held the ball too long on several occasions and completed less than half of his passes against a stingy Bengals defense. The 24-year-old quarterback ran for a game-high 88 yards on 12 carries, but he again took more hits than you’d prefer, which is becoming too common with the rest of the running game not pulling its weight. You almost breathed a sigh of relief when Harbaugh wisely pulled Jackson in favor of backup Tyler Huntley with the game out of hand midway through the fourth quarter.

“I don’t want to say anything is not working. We were just passing the ball a little bit more today,” said Jackson about the stagnant ground game. “They stopped us sometimes when we ran the ball, but they weren’t just dynamic, just stopping us like that. We could have done better things out there on the field today. They did a great job.”

Though disappointed going into their week off, the Ravens have no reason to panic in a wide-open AFC in which every team has at least two losses and its own set of flaws. No matter the deficiencies, Baltimore always has a chance with a healthy Jackson, whose improved passing acumen has been more important than ever in 2021. You’d just like to see the Ravens make it easier on him and that much-improved passing game that still wasn’t designed to do it all.

In the same way you could poke holes in the first four weeks of their five-game winning streak, the Ravens must continue to focus on the process and not dwell too much on the outcome. Considering their many injuries in August and September, a 5-2 record at the bye is a very good place to be. But improvements are necessary if the Ravens want to keep their ultimate goals within reach as a difficult back half of the schedule looms. That includes a Week 16 rematch in Cincinnati that now takes on a much different look.

No, the Ravens are neither as great as they played last week nor as bad as Sunday’s result, but they definitely have work to do over this bye week and beyond.

“We can’t let this beat us twice. It’s one game,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “It hurts. It’s going to burn — division game at home. But at the end of the day, a whole lot of football left to play. It’s as simple as that.”