Even in Defeat, Ravens Still Have Look of a Playoff Team
The week after a tough loss in the NFL is always a long one. Coaches and players want to get back on the field to correct what went wrong the previous weekend, while fans are anxious to see their team get back to its winning ways.
It's the sort of week the Ravens are sifting through currently after losing to the New Orleans Saints, 24-23, Sunday.
Still, despite losing, there is plenty of optimism surrounding the Ravens this week. Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Raven Deion Sanders, now an NFL Network analyst, is buying into his former team's chances. When asked by NFL's Network's Charissa Thompson if Baltimore looks like a playoff team, Sanders gave a resounding "Yes, they do."
"My only concern with the Ravens was [quarterback] Joe Flacco, and he's playing pretty darn good. He's protecting the ball, he's pushing the ball down the field," Sanders said. "The defense is phenomenal. They came up short today, but this team definitely in the AFC they're…"
Thompson goes on to further ask Sanders who he thinks are ahead of the Ravens in the AFC, and he mentioned the Kansas City Chiefs (6-1) and New England Patriots (5-2). He had the Ravens compare similarly to the Los Angeles Chargers (5-2).
As far as Sanders' reasoning, it's difficult to argue with it.
If Flacco's play was your major concern with the Ravens, those fears should have ebbed away. Flacco has done well this season, throwing for 2,067 yards and 11 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He's fifth in the league in passing yards.
On Sunday, Flacco and the offense were somewhat inconsistent, but he still finished with 279 yards and two touchdowns without committing a turnover. Flacco's performance ended with him engineering an 81-yard drive in just 1:43, which was capped off by him connecting with wide receiver John Brown for a touchdown with just 24 seconds remaining in regulation.
"When it mattered most, Flacco was at his best," Baltimore Beatdown's Logan Levy wrote.
As for the defense, the loss to New Orleans hasn't affected its standing in the NFL as a top tier unit.
In fact, The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker thinks that by the end of the season, this will be remembered as one of the defense's best performances.
"No doubt, the Ravens will review the tape and see a dozen ways they could have kept their fingers in the collapsing dam just a little longer," Walker wrote. "But we'll likely look back at the end of the season, at all the 30- and 40-point games the Saints accumulated, and say the Ravens did well to hold them as long as they did."
Walker is thinking similarly to Sanders, writing "The Ravens held a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter against a sure playoff team and showed plenty of resilience in fighting back to a near-tie after [New Orleans quarterback Drew] Brees did his thing against them. They're a legitimate postseason contender."
One concern that Walker has about the Ravens postseason chances is their schedule. The Ravens are in the midst of a tough stretch, where they'll play at Carolina, followed by home contests against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Still, after the group's performance against New Orleans, Walker is confident the Ravens can win any of them. And the AFC North title is up for grabs.
"The Ravens' schedule is relentless," Walker wrote. "We've learned they can win any game on it, but at 4-3, their cushion is thin."
Close Game Struggles Continue for Ravens
The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec has identified one area that the Ravens will need to improve upon if they're going to make the playoffs this season: winning close games.
To Zrebiec, it's surprising the Ravens have lost two games this season by three points or less. Between having a quarterback who is known for playing well under pressure, a top-tier defense and the best kicker in the NFL, you'd think that close games would be an area where the Ravens would thrive.
"The pieces should be in place, yet the formula to win close games continues to be elusive for the Ravens," Zrebiec wrote. "And until they find it on a more consistent basis, they'll operate with very little margin of error in their quest to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season."
According to Zrebiec, the Ravens' struggles in close games date back to 2015, which was the start of the team's three-year absence from the postseason. Since 2015, the Ravens have gone 6-9 in games decided by three points or less.
They've also lost five straight games that have been decided by three points or less, a streak that goes all the way back to Week 15 of the 2016 season against the Philadelphia Eagles. As ESPN noted, "That was 674 days ago."
In games decided by eight points or less, the Ravens are 13-22 since 2015.
"There isn't much that separates most of the teams in the NFL," Zrebiec wrote. "[Sunday], six of the 12 games played were decided by one score. Teams are going to be in tight games most weeks and winning more of them than you lose is imperative for a team with playoff aspirations. The Ravens, though, are struggling to do it."
As for why Baltimore came out on the wrong side of a close game against New Orleans, the easy thing to point to is Justin Tucker's extra point miss. For Zrebiec though, there were plenty of instances before Tucker's miss that led to the Ravens losing another close one.
"From penalties to failing to get off the field on third down to dropping passes and whiffing on tackles, the Ravens did more than enough against a quality opponent to put themselves in a situation where they needed a final two-minute touchdown, plus the extra point, just to force overtime….," Zrebiec wrote. "In other words, the Ravens need to learn to make it easy on themselves so they're not so frequently in tight late-game situations."
Should Baltimore Trade for a Running Back?
For PressBox's Glenn Clark, the Ravens' struggles running the ball played a big part in the team's defeat on Sunday. The team ran for 77 yards on 23 carries, but Baltimore's running back trio of Alex Collins, Javorius Allen and Gus Edwards combined for 41 yards on 16 attempts.
It should be noted that the Ravens were up against the No. 1 run defense in the NFL without two of their starting offensive linemen. But Baltimore hasn't run the ball effectively all season, as the team is averaging 3.4 yards per carry (No. 31 in the NFL).
"It seems like the struggles running the ball are part of Baltimore's identity in 2018, rather than an early-season snag," PennLive's Aaron Kasinitz wrote.
Though Clark acknowledges there are multiple contributing factors to the Ravens' struggles on the ground, he still thinks the team should look into making a big change.
"The Ravens should attempt to upgrade the running back position at the trade deadline," Clark wrote. "I think it's possible the issue isn't really the personnel, but at the risk of experiencing a fourth straight season of falling short of the playoffs, they should consider the possibility that it is."
As for who the Ravens should go out and get, Clark mentioned a variety of running backs that are currently playing for teams that may be willing to trade, including San Francisco's Matt Breida, Atlanta's Tevin Coleman and Buffalo's LeSean McCoy. While all of those running backs would be nice additions, none of them seem like they would be massive game-changers. He also mentioned Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, but somehow, I don't see that happening.
Adding to the unlikelihood of the Ravens making a move is that the team already doesn't have a second-round pick in next year's draft because of the trade they made to draft Jackson. Though a clear path to a trade isn't apparent currently, Clark still thinks the Ravens should be looking to make an addition.
"Who knows who else might be available? Jay Ajayi wasn't known to be on the trade block a year ago before the Miami Dolphins shipped him to Philadelphia…," Clark wrote. "The Ravens need to deal with the issue from a long-term perspective this offseason. But in the meantime, if there's a chance they can upgrade it during the season, they need to be willing to explore the possibility."
Rookie Class Has Strong Showing Against Saints
The Ravens kept it close against the Saints, and, according to PressBox's Bo Smolka, that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the contributions of this year's rookie draft class.
"The rookie class had an impact and showed signs of progress," Smolka wrote.
Indeed, four different rookies made a positive impact on Sunday: quarterback Lamar Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews, left guard Bradley Bozeman and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
Of the four, Smolka thinks the Ravens should be most pleased with the performances of Bozeman and Brown, who were making their first NFL starts. Both rookies had to play because of injuries to left guard Alex Lewis (pinched nerve) and right tackle James Hurst (back).
Brown had a particularly good showing despite having to face Saints Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan for much of the game. To Walker, Brown "made a case that the Ravens' best offensive line by the end of the season will feature him at tackle and Hurst at left guard."
Much was made of Jackson's performance after he found the end zone for the first time in an NFL regular-season game, but for Levy, his impact can be traced back to Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
"The Ravens' use of Jackson has evolved since Week 1, and it has helped their offense immensely," Levy wrote. "Mornhinweg has shown their opponents different looks, even plays where Jackson would attempt a pass. These different concepts have forced defenses to respect Jackson's arm, and in turn, if he hands the ball off to a running back, they have more space."
Andrews, meanwhile, hauled in his second touchdown grab of the season. Though it was his only catch of the game, many pundits noted that he made a key block that sprung Brown on a 56-yard reception.
"All of this bodes well for a rookie class that featured 12 draft picks," Smolka wrote.
Though it was an overall strong performance from the rookies, Baltimore's first draft pick this season, tight end Hayden Hurst, has yet to break out. In the fourth quarter against the Saints, Hurst had the ball knocked out of his hands on a pass that, had he caught, would have put the Ravens in the red zone. Instead, Baltimore turned the ball over on downs two plays later.
- ESPN's Seth Walder ranked the NFL's starting tackle duos, and the Ravens combination of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right tackle James Hurst finished No. 19. "The Ravens' offensive line was outstanding in the team's Week 4 win in Pittsburgh," Walder wrote. "Stanley, facing Bud Dupree more than anyone else, sustained his block on 97 percent of plays in which Joe Flacco held the ball for 2.5 seconds or more."
- Wide receiver John Brown was highlighted in both Pro Football Focus' NFL Week 7 Team of the Week and PFF's Week 7 Sunday Standouts: Offense. "Brown caught all 7 of his targets for 134 yards and a touchdown. The shocking part of his performance, though, was that Brown turned in that production without the use of his biggest threat – the deep ball. Brown was not targeted once on a pass that was 20 or more yards downfield."