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In a lot of ways, Sunday afternoon felt like déjà vu for the Ravens.
Sure, the setting was different as various players did season-ending press conferences over Zoom just a day after their 17-3 loss to the Bills. But the tone of the day was similar to that of the previous three seasons.
The Ravens talked about their hope for the future with a young roster and how they were confident further success was on the horizon. They talked about the season that was and what the upcoming weeks and months held.
And most importantly, they talked about how their offense collapsed in the most important game of the year and how mistakes, both mental and physical, were the reason the Ravens weren’t preparing for the next round. Instead of an AFC Championship Game to prepare for, they answered questions about what could have been and what was.
“The next step for us is just to finish,” safety Chuck Clark said. “We’ve been there. We know what it’s like to be there and get in a position and lose. The past three years, we’ve lost. The defense has been out there on the field, offense in the victory formation, taking a knee. I think that’s the worst feeling, honestly.”
The Ravens reiterated the feeling they felt was shared by every team in the league that didn’t win the Super Bowl, particularly the ones that saw their season end in the playoffs. But this year was supposed to be different for the Ravens.
After a dominating 2019 season where they went 14-2 and returned an MVP quarterback on a rookie contract. The 28-12 loss to the Titans in the AFC Divisional Round of last year’s playoffs was disheartening, but the mistakes in that game certainly didn’t squash optimism before the 2020 season.
The playoffs weren’t simply the goal, they were the expectation.
#Ravens 2021 free agents:
OLB Matthew Judon
OLB Yannick Ngakoue
WR Willie Snead
DL Derek Wolfe
C Matt Skura
QB Robert Griffin III
S Anthony Levine
WR Chris Moore
OLB Tyus Bowser
OLB Pernell McPhee
LS Morgan Cox
OL D.J. Fluker
WR Dez Bryant
CB Tramon Williams
— Andrew Gillis (@Andrew_Gillis70) January 17, 2021
But a year and five days after their loss to the Titans, they answered more questions about what went wrong in situations where they only knocked on the door of success.
“What kept us from going further is just not executing,” wide receiver Marquise Brown said. “We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to pick up first downs. We’ve got to convert on third down. We’ve got to protect our quarterback. We’ve got to get open for our quarterback. We’ve got to make the right reads. So, it’s a team effort. We’ve just got to execute, and we just didn’t execute.”
And after a five-game winning streak to make the playoffs, with a win in the Wild Card Round against the Titans, it seemed every issue that plagued the Ravens’ offense since September came back to bite them at the worst possible time.
The offensive line had protection issues. Center Patrick Mekari struggled with his snaps to Jackson. The running game was decent, but not explosive. Jackson was indecisive at times. The receiving corps didn’t have an option that demanded the ball.
If there was an omen for the night, it was when kicker Justin Tucker, who had missed more than one kick in a game just three times in his career, missed two field goals in the first half. Some errors were cleaned up over the course of the season and some weren’t, but they all showed up on Saturday.
“It’s about minimizing the mistakes and the pre-snap penalties and just all the things that we don’t typically do,” left guard Bradley Bozeman said. “We did things we typically don’t do in this past game. We’re continuing to strive to be great in the postseason, and unfortunately, (Saturday) just wasn’t our night.”
There’s no blame or questions to be placed at the feet of the defensive staff or players, as they held the second-best scoring offense in football to just 10 points and, were it not for a pick six by Jackson, likely would’ve been one more defensive stop away from another chance for the Ravens’ offense to take the lead.
“It’s just the little details,” Brown said. “We’ve got to just take that extra step forward to execute every drive. In the playoffs, every drive means something — points. It’s about putting up points, field position, changing the field. If you don’t put up points, change the field position. So, it’s just the little things that you’ve just got to be on top of. And the best team who plays that day is going to win. There are no re-do’s; there is no next game like in the regular season.”
Those little details, though, are the most difficult problems to solve for the Ravens moving forward.
The three big areas of concern for the Ravens, at least as of the end of the season, appear to be edge rusher, interior offensive line and wide receiver. The problem becomes where to find those replacements. The Ravens did so after last year’s loss in the playoffs, but questions certainly will be raised about this offseason.
“I was sitting on the sideline talking to one of the guys, I was sitting there, and I was like, ‘Even though we lost, this feels a lot better than last year’s loss to the Titans in the Divisional Round,’” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “When you look at it on the bright side, the biggest thing you want to do is get into the playoffs. To get to the Divisional Round twice, it’s something to look at in a bright direction. I think we were really close. I thought we had the team to do it.”
For the second straight offseason, the Ravens will be focused on honing their passing attack into one that can threaten teams more consistently down the field. Whether that can come without a big addition to receiver remains to be seen.
“Whenever you’re the No. 1 rushing and the (No. 32) passing, that’s not right,” Brown said. “That’s not balanced. So, we’ve got to find a way to balance our game. Even with our great rushing attack, we’ve got to be able to throw the ball, we’ve got to be able to move the ball through the air, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on and continue to try to implement into the offense more.”
Those questions won’t be easy to answer, but unless the Ravens find some solutions to what’s gone wrong in the last three playoff losses (where they scored 17, 12 and three points), they’ll be doing those same exit press conferences a year from now.
But optimism is high in Baltimore, and the solutions to those little details are some those in the building hope are right around the corner.
“Now, it’s time for everyone on this team, the coaches and all the players, to self-reflect and try to get better,” fullback Patrick Ricard said. “Try to have a great offseason and come back this next season and just try to get over this hurdle and make it to the AFC Championship, and make it to the Super Bowl.”