After gutting overtime loss to Titans, Ravens are running out of time — and solutions

Jonas Shaffer, The Baltimore Sun
·8 min read

As Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry pulled away from the Ravens late Sunday afternoon, the path of his 29-yard overtime run tracing an “L” on the field that might as well belong to him, all was lost in Baltimore. Or maybe it just felt that way.

The Ravens’ 11-point second-half lead? Thrown away amid a wave of dud drives and missed tackles in a 30-24 loss.

The Ravens’ bully-ball identity? Dismissed by a Titans team that was once again stronger and stouter and, ultimately, better at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Ravens’ playoff chances? Fading fast after a second straight bad loss and third defeat in four games.

Last year, the Ravens seemed to gather momentum as they headed down the season’s homestretch, with even narrow wins catapulting them onward. This year, they lose something every week — winnable games, key players, running lanes, offensive creativity, the ability to tackle. On Sunday, it was fair to wonder whether they’d also lost their will to win.

“It looked like that team wanted it more than us,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said.

It might not be long before they lose even more. After how the 2019 regular season ended, with the Ravens blasting the Pittsburgh Steelers at home and establishing themselves as Super Bowl favorites, it was unimaginable that the 2020 AFC North crown could be out of reach by December.

But these are strange times indeed. The 6-4 Ravens are third in the division, behind the 10-0 Steelers and 7-3 Cleveland Browns. If Pittsburgh completes the season sweep on Thanksgiving Day at Heinz Field, the two-time defending champion Ravens would be eliminated from AFC North title contention. A wild-card berth would be their only way back to the playoffs.

“Obviously, with the circumstances being what they are, with us wanting to get to the playoffs and understanding the end goal and everything, it’s not easy at all, dealing with losses,” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “This team has a bunch of fighters. We’ve got a bunch of men that love this game, that love to play for each other. Ultimately, we have to do a better job and find a way to finish games and start pulling away.”

With Tennessee (7-3) back in town, Sunday offered a kind of cleansing. The Ravens could move past not only a confounding loss to the New England Patriots but also the stench of last year’s playoff stunner. They could not change what had happened in that 28-12 loss, of course, but they could chart a course for a new postseason run.

What the Ravens instead produced was 60-plus minutes of paradoxical play. They looked more prepared for the Titans’ strengths and less capable of seizing on their weaknesses. They were getting the better of a banged-up, obviously flawed Tennessee team while looking all the more exposed themselves.

In the fourth quarter, a tenuous advantage finally fell apart. The Ravens had led 14-10 at halftime and 21-10 early in the third because of a defense that was playing soundly and an offense that wasn’t getting in the way. A series of small mistakes led to another big implosion.

After throwing an interception on his final drive of the third quarter — his sixth pick this season, equaling his 2019 total — Jackson took over in the fourth with a 21-16 lead. On a second-and-9 run in Ravens territory, he appeared to reach the first-down marker. The officials ruled him short; a challenge by coach John Harbaugh was unsuccessful.

So, on third-and-1, the Ravens called a quarterback sneak for Jackson, lined up under center. But tight end Mark Andrews (five catches for 96 yards) moved early — false start. On third-and-6, Jackson had Andrews open over the middle — but missed him. The Ravens punted.

That was a dangerous prospect, because it meant giving Henry, the All-Pro, another dream to crush. Over the game’s first three quarters, he’d been limited to just 44 yards on 18 carries, hemmed in by a Ravens defense missing defensive end Calais Campbell and defensive tackle Brandon Williams. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill (22-for-31 for 259 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) had been the offense’s biggest weapon.

The Titans kept on hammering away — with Henry, with fakes for Henry, with everything in their explosive arsenal. With three minutes remaining, a sack by Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon forced Tennessee back into a third-and-10 from the Ravens’ 14-yard line. Tannehill went to his top target, wide receiver A.J. Brown, who caught an in-breaking route well short of the sticks. According to ESPN, he had an 11% chance of scoring.

Safety Chuck Clark had a shot to wrap him up 4 or 5 yards from the first-down marker. Brown wriggled free. Then cornerback Marcus Peters tried to grab him by the waist. He couldn’t. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey whiffed on a tackle attempt. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s last-ditch attempt to rip the ball out didn’t work. Brown went into the end zone standing up. A successful 2-point conversion made it 24-21.

“You have to tackle better,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the best run-after-contact team in the league. We did well early, but we didn’t finish strong enough.”

The finishing fatigue was contagious. Against a lowly Titans defense missing its top pass rusher (Jadeveon Clowney), its leading tackler (Jayon Brown, who left the game late in the second quarter with a season-ending dislocated elbow) and its starting strong safety (Kenny Vaccaro), the Ravens amassed just 306 yards in four-plus quarters. That was the fewest any offense has posted against Tennessee this season.

The closer the Ravens got to scoring, the more their shortcomings became apparent. They moved inside the Titans’ 20-yard line four times Sunday, with an interception return by outside linebacker Tyus Bowser helping one drive greatly. They scored just one red-zone touchdown.

The last failure was the most gutting. Taking over with two-plus minutes left, the Ravens needed a field goal to force overtime and a touchdown to win. They moved the ball smartly and efficiently at first, getting to Tennessee’s 14 with just under a minute remaining. Then wide receiver Dez Bryant was charged with a false-start penalty after center Patrick Mekari, starting his first game this season in place of Matt Skura, seemed to snap the ball prematurely.

After two incompletions by Jackson (17-for-29 for 186 yards, a touchdown and an interception), the Ravens had to call on kicker Justin Tucker for a game-tying 29-yard field goal.

“We just have to fix our mistakes,” said rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, who led the Ravens with 70 yards on 15 carries, including a touchdown. “We can’t do that against a great team like Tennessee. We just have to fix it. We lost as a team. So that one play didn’t lose the game for us; that didn’t do anything. We have to work as a team. We all had something we have to correct, so that’s what we’re going to do. We will fix that.”

The Ravens are running out of time and pieces. An offense that entered Sunday missing All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley and versatile tight end Nick Boyle got no help from wide receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (no catches) and Miles Boykin (no targets). Coordinator Greg Roman will be scrutinized, too, especially after the Ravens went nowhere on three predictable play calls to open overtime: first-down run, second-down pass, third-down check-down.

When Tennessee got the ball back, it seemed the end was near. Tannehill continued to go after Peters and Humphries, who struggled in man coverage. Henry (28 carries for 133 yards) moved the pile every time he got a touch. As he took the ball on the game’s final play, the Ravens flooded the line of scrimmage. They could’ve stopped him. They should’ve stopped him.

But they couldn’t, and the most remarkable thing was, no one was all that surprised.

“We just can’t put 60 minutes together as a football team,” defensive end Derek Wolfe said. “We’ll put a half together. This week, we finally put three quarters together. And we have to play better in the fourth quarter. I don’t know if it’s because guys are getting worn down; I don’t know what it is. … That’s a good football team over there. They have a lot of injuries, too, a lot of young guys playing, so there’s no excuse. We’ve got to just play better football.”

RAVENS@STEELERS

Thursday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

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