As general manager of the New York Jets, Mike Tannenbaum never wanted to overreact. His charge was to build a winning roster and sustain it. If the players he drafted and signed were good enough to win in the AFC East, they were good enough to win in the playoffs, too.
One problem, though: The New England Patriots played in the Jets’ division. And they had a quarterback who tested Tannenbaum’s resolve. “It was frickin’ Tom Brady,” he said Friday.
On Sunday, the Ravens (6-3) will return to Baltimore to face the Tennessee Titans (6-3) — or is it the frickin’ Tennessee Titans? — in a game rife with playoff implications and oh-what-could’ve-been reflections. Ten months after Tennessee bullied the Super Bowl favorite Ravens in an AFC divisional-round matchup, the scars of the historic upset are still evident. So are the changes it necessitated.
To gaze upon the 2020 Ravens is, in many ways, to see a team molded by Derrick Henry’s bulldozing runs, by Jurrell Casey’s pivotal strip-sack, by a banged-up Ravens offense’s postseason flop. That 28-12 playoff loss “is over with,” Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said Wednesday, but it echoed throughout their offseason. And it still resonates.
“We know what happened last year,” said rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who was on his way to a national championship at LSU when the Ravens’ own title dreams were derailed. “And we know that nobody wants that to happen again.”
It was a night of hard lessons. Some have been harder to follow than others.
Upgrade run defense
The Ravens lost just three games last season. The first time, they couldn’t stop the Kansas City Chiefs’ passing attack. In their next two losses, to the Cleveland Browns and Titans, they were run all over.
Henry finished with 30 carries for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff win, including a 66-yarder midway through the third quarter that knocked the Ravens back on their heels. If the 2019 team had one obvious soft spot entering the playoffs, it was indeed its run stopping. The Ravens finished the season No. 21 in run defense efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
“You don’t ever expect to get into a car crash until you get into a car crash, and I feel like that’s what it is,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said afterward. “We were riding. We were rolling hot, and it hit us.”
So the Ravens got insurance. First, they traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, one of the NFL’s best run stoppers. After a free-agent deal for defensive lineman Michael Brockers fell through over injury concerns, they signed defensive end Derek Wolfe, who’s been the superior player this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and a cheaper one, too.
In the draft, the Ravens added Queen in the first round, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and inside linebacker Malik Harrison in the third, and defensive tackle Broderick Washington in the fifth.
When Campbell and defensive tackle Brandon Williams have been available, the Ravens’ renovated run defense has been among the NFL’s most impressive. While they’re allowing 4.5 yards per carry — also their 2019 average — the unit ranks third in the league in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
But the Ravens’ loss Sunday to the New England Patriots was a bracing reminder of how costly a porous run defense can be. With Campbell and Williams unlikely to play, the Titans will no doubt challenge it again.
“We have young, tough guys who are ready for the challenge, who are going to step up,” safety DeShon Elliott said Wednesday. “So I feel like with them going into this week, being able to prepare the way they need to prepare, they’ll be OK. They’ll be ready to go. All I can tell them is to just go in there and play their game.”
Protect Lamar Jackson
As the Ravens rolled to a 14-2 record over the final three months of the 2019 regular season, Jackson emerged as one of the game’s best players. And one of its best-protected players.
After being sacked four times in the Ravens’ Week 4 loss to Cleveland and five times in their Week 5 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson took just eight sacks over his next 10 games, and never more than two in one game.
Then Tennessee came to town, and for a night, one of the NFL’s best offensive lines looked only average. Casey sacked Jackson twice, and his forced fumble in the third quarter soon led to a 28-6 Titans lead. The Ravens allowed four sacks and seven quarterback hits overall, compounding their unexpected rushing struggles.
The game would be the last of Marshal Yanda’s Hall of Fame-worthy career, and it foreshadowed a trying 2020 for the Ravens’ line, one in which his absence has loomed large.
More than two months into this season, the Ravens still haven’t found a suitable replacement at right guard. Ben Powers, drafted in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, has been limited to reserve duty. D.J. Fluker, signed last offseason after the Seattle Seahawks released him, has been better off as a swing tackle. Tyre Phillips, a rookie and converted college tackle, has struggled with his health and consistency as a starter. Fourth-round pick Ben Bredeson has played just five offensive snaps.
With center Matt Skura yet to rediscover the form he had before a season-ending knee injury last year, the line has weak links that have been hard to mask. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens’ leaguewide rank in adjusted line yards, which measures offensive line success based on run totals, has fallen from third to 19th. Their adjusted sack rate has slipped from eighth (6%) to 24th (7.5%).
Injuries have made a return to last year’s form unlikely. The top three pound-for-pound blockers on the 2019 Ravens — left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle), tight end Nick Boyle (knee) and Yanda (retirement) — are out for good. This week, the team went back to the drawing board, trying to find a winning combination at practice.
“I would just say this: We’re a work in progress right now with the injuries in the offensive line, and we’ll be working on it,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday.
Develop passing offense
Even after a meaningless Week 17 game and subsequent bye week, the Ravens did not enter their showdown with Tennessee last season especially healthy. Skura was lost for the season. Tight end Mark Andrews was banged up. Running back Mark Ingram II was limited in practice. And tight end Nick Boyle ended up missing most of the second half with an apparent lower-body injury.
With those injuries, a handful of early-game mistakes and a smart Titans game plan, Tennessee finally managed to negate the Ravens’ strength — their record-breaking rushing attack.
“If you’re going to lose to an opponent, make them beat you left-handed,” said Tannenbaum, an NFL analyst for ESPN. “Take away what they do great.”
After all but abandoning the Ravens’ run-first principles, offensive coordinator Greg Roman turned to the air. Jackson finished 31-for-59 for a career-high 365 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown had a game-high seven catches for 126 yards.
It was clear all season that the Ravens’ passing attack, one of the NFL’s most efficient, had promise. Maybe it would even be good enough to help the offense withstand a run-game regression. But it was also clear the Ravens needed help.
Their front office has tried to find it, though largely through the draft. Their coaching staff has tried to develop it, though the coronavirus pandemic upended their offseason. Still, progress has been elusive.
Brown, the first wide receiver taken in the 2019 draft, has looked more like a No. 2 option in recent weeks. Andrews’ production has fallen despite increased playing time. Second-year receiver Miles Boykin has little on-field chemistry with Jackson, and rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche II are trying to find their way. Only Willie Snead IV has been a reliable option for most of the season.
Jackson’s struggles as a downfield passer have played a part, too, handcuffing an offense that has the speed to warp coverages. If the Ravens are going to reemerge as Super Bowl contenders, they’ll need more from the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player.
“They’re going to be there in the end,” Tannenbaum said. " They’re well coached. They’ve got playmakers, and they’ve got a good defense. And Lamar’s going to have to make three or four great plays in the playoffs. And if he does, they have a chance to win a title. And if he doesn’t, they won’t.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Ravens by 6
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