BALTIMORE — The Ravens took a big step toward winning the AFC North by besting reeling rival Cincinnati in a 34-20 final on Thursday night.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about their Super Bowl chances after losing three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews to what “looks like” a season-ending ankle injury suffered on the opening drive, according to head coach John Harbaugh. That Andrews was ruled out for the rest of the game so quickly was an ominous sign, and additional testing was expected to reveal the full extent of the damage sustained on Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson’s hip-drop tackle, a takedown method the NFL has discussed outlawing because of its injury risk.
Not only has Andrews arguably been the NFL’s second-best tight end behind only Kansas City’s Travis Kelce over the last few years, but the 28-year-old has served as the security blanket and improv partner to quarterback Lamar Jackson, their seemingly innate connection often demoralizing opposing defenses even when playing perfect coverage. At times when the rest of the offense has been a mess, throwing the ball to No. 89 has yielded results only rivaled by Jackson’s transcendent running ability.
No, you don’t just brush off the loss of a contributor and leader of that magnitude with the “next man up” platitude reserved for more ordinary players.
To be perfectly clear, Jackson is the only loss that would sink the Ravens’ championship aspirations, a reality they endured the last two seasons. But Pro Bowl inside linebacker Roquan Smith might be the only individual you’d definitively rank ahead of Andrews on the list of players not named Jackson they could least afford to lose, especially considering the decline of oft-injured left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the way the defense has excelled even without three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey for extended stretches this season.
Even for an 8-3 team with still so much to like on both sides of the ball, this one hurts.
“That’s the guy who I entered the league with. We’ve been bread and butter, peanut butter and jelly — whatever you want to call it,” said Jackson, who passed for 264 yards and ran for 54 in the win over the Bengals. “It’s very tough because that’s my boy. That’s receiver [No.] 1 sometimes. … He’s been having a remarkable year — one touchdown away from a record I think.
“That’s tough, but we have to somehow do it without him. We have [Isaiah] Likely. We have Charlie [Kolar]. We have guys who are going to step up, but it’s tough.”
While Andrews will have to wait for that one score to tie Todd Heap for most career touchdown catches in team history, the Ravens fortunately have some time to ponder adjustments to their passing game as they’ll play just one game over the next 23 days with the bye week to follow their Nov. 26 game against the Chargers in Los Angeles. As Jackson noted, the fourth-round selections of Likely — who flashed promise filling in for Andrews last year — and Kolar in last year’s draft give Baltimore young options with potential, but they’re not going to replace the impact of an elite tight end by themselves.
Baltimore’s wide receivers — beyond standout rookie Zay Flowers — will certainly need to step up like they did Thursday to combine for nine catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns. The explosiveness and production from Odell Beckham Jr. was particularly heartening with the former three-time Pro Bowl selection making four catches for 116 yards, easily his best performance as a Raven. That Jackson and the offense closed the second quarter with touchdown passes to Nelson Agholor and Rashod Bateman despite losing Andrews on the first drive and rushing for just 30 yards in the first half was encouraging.
But such collective outputs will need to become more of the norm moving forward as Andrews has averaged 7.2 targets, 4.9 receptions, 60.6 receiving yards, and 0.5 touchdowns per game since the start of the 2019 season. That’s not even fully considering the high-leverage third downs and red-zone opportunities for which he was frequently targeted.
“To replace a player like Mark Andrews, it’s going to take everybody,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to take a team to do it, and our guys will be up for the challenge and up for the task, but those receivers are obviously going to be a big part of that. They played really well.”
Unlike previous rosters that had little pass-catching depth, the 2023 Ravens are better equipped to overcome this loss, especially with offensive coordinator Todd Monken not as dependent on the tight end position as predecessor Greg Roman. One could even attempt to find a silver lining of this potentially making Jackson a better passer in the long run since he’s occasionally been accused of having too much tunnel vision for Andrews to the detriment of the rest of the passing attack.
But considering how critical — and available — Andrews has been to this offense from the moment Jackson became the starting quarterback, anyone trying to downplay this loss hasn’t been paying attention over the last five years. The Ravens can still win a Super Bowl this season, but the road became more difficult — and more of an unknown offensively — even in victory on Thursday.
“It’s very unfortunate. It’s a big hit for this team,” said Beckham, who’s no stranger to suffering a devastating injury. “Mark has been an integral part of this team since him and Lamar have been here. We’ve just got to find a way to step up.”