Top Six Questions as Ravens Head Into Bye
With the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the Tennessee Titans Sunday, Baltimore's playoff chances dropped from 42 percent to 29 percent.
The Ravens head into their bye with a 4-5 record and a mission to turn things around in order to get back into playoff contention. Here are six questions that will need to be addressed keep hope alive:
1) Can the offense be fixed?
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco summed up the offensive play after Sunday's loss by saying, "You can't play too much worse than we've been playing."
As such, it's reasonable to believe the Ravens can improve, but can they fix what's causing them to average just 15.2 points per game in their five losses? The offense has scored just five touchdowns in those losses and didn't reach the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter Sunday.
"Whatever we got to do to fix it, we got to do it," added wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Can they find the missing ingredients for big plays? Punter Sam Koch's fake punt, pass and subsequent penalty added up to 31 yards and was the biggest offensive play of the day.
Can they find a way to extend drives? The unit didn't cross midfield on six of eight drives, converting 38 percent of 16 third-down attempts. The Ravens ranked No. 28 in third-down efficiency coming into the game.
Can the passing attack do enough to deter defenses from stacking the box against Alex Collins and Buck Allen like Tennessee did? Flacco was forced to throw 52 times against the Titans, and the Ravens are 0-7 when he throws at least that many times, according to the ESPN.
"Baltimore now heads into its bye week, and atop the list of priorities is fixing this offense," wrote ESPN. "But after dropping under .500 midway through the season, it might be too late for the Ravens to turn it around."
"Are the Ravens miraculously going to have an offensive breakthrough with the week off while maintaining the status quo?" asked WNST's Luke Jones. "You'd like to think the bye could spawn some new ideas and the return of the oft-injured Danny Woodhead might help."
2) Can the defense do what it was designed to do this offseason, and go from 'good' to 'great' to overcome offensive deficiencies?
There's no doubt that the strength of this team is the defense, which is what the Ravens designed when they pumped draft picks and free-agent assets into the unit this offseason. What the front office did not intend, however, was the defense giving up a crucial 75-yard touchdown drive when the Ravens pulled within three points midway through the fourth quarter yesterday.
In fact, the Ravens were trying to prevent that very thing after giving up too many leads in the fourth quarter last year that resulted in losses.
Linebacker C.J. Mosley said after the game that the defense is "good," but it needs to finish to be "great."
"To be clear, this is a good defense, but the group hasn’t been great enough to overcome the major deficiencies on the other side of the ball or to justify the many resources exhausted on it this past offseason," Jones wrote.
"The Ravens may have cleaned up their issues stopping the run over the last two weeks, but the pass rush still isn't good enough to expect the group to become otherworldly down the stretch."
3) Can the Ravens continue to risk drops and/or interceptions by feeding Breshad Perriman?
It's been said many times that the Ravens just need to get wide receiver Breshad Perriman one big play, and that could be the spark to him unleashing the God-given talent the receiver puts on display in practice.
Early in Sunday's game, quarterback Joe Flacco gave the 2015 first-round pick plenty of opportunities to do so, but the spark didn't happen.
Instead, on the first deep pass to the end zone, Perriman only got one hand on the ball. On the second, he didn't aggressively meet the ball at its high point, and then it was knocked loose and intercepted. He also dropped a perfectly-placed ball that would've gone for a first down, but the Ravens were forced to settle for a 49-yard field goal.
"Perriman was hit just as he was trying to make the play [on the interception], and if this were a one-time thing, we could shrug it off," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker. "The trouble is he never seems to win those battles in traffic. He simply hasn't translated his remarkable physical traits — teammates still marvel at Perriman's practice feats — to brilliant plays Sunday afternoon.
"It's a shame because Perriman badly wants to live up to the first-round draft pick the Ravens used on him. As harshly as fans criticize him, he's perhaps harder on himself. At some point, and it might come after this season, the Ravens are going to stop giving him chances."
4) Can the Ravens consistently clean up mistakes that force them to play from behind?
The mistakes from Sunday's game have been reviewed.
There was Tyus Bowser's illegal formation penalty, Koch's shanked punt, Za'Darius Smith's roughing the passer penalty (more on that below), Flacco's two interceptions, the defensive letdown in the fourth quarter and Justin Tucker's onside kick that didn't travel 10 yards.
"In a very winnable and important game against another AFC playoff hopeful, the Ravens weren’t good enough to overcome their own mistakes and shortcomings," wrote The Sun's Jeff Zrebiec.
Going forward, the Ravens would prefer not to put the offense in position to overcome those mistakes because the unit has had a hard time scoring points from behind.
"The Ravens don't have enough margin for error to survive a string of gaffes," wrote Walker.
5) Can the familiar script of the last five years be broken?
If you ask Jones, the script we saw unfold Sunday was all too familiar.
"Some of the names have changed, but we’ve seen this defeat over and over and over again since Super Bowl XLVII," Jones wrote.
"A comatose offense that stumbles its way into some decent football late — but only after putting itself in a sizable hole. A defense that perseveres at a high level until needing to make a big stop in crunch time. And an array of little things from special-teams penalties to debatable coaching decisions sprinkled into a one-possession loss. It might as well be 2013 or 2015 or 2016."
The Ravens have been trying to escape "The .500 Monster," where they essentially lie with 35 wins and 38 defeats since winning Super Bowl XLVII four and a half seasons ago.
"Having lost five of their last seven going into their bye week, the Ravens are firmly in that mediocre spot that's become their residence for the last five years," wrote Zrebiec.
6) Can the Ravens win six of the next seven to put themselves in playoff contention?
Given the remaining schedule, the Ravens have a chance to go on a run and string together enough wins to advance to the playoffs despite their start.
The only game Viviano thinks the Ravens won't be favored to win is the visit to Pittsburgh in Week 14. With the Green Bay Packers losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Houston Texans losing quarterback DeShaun Watson, Baltimore is likely to be the favorite in both contests.
Four of their opponents – the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts – each have just three wins or less.
The debate around Baltimore is whether the remaining schedule really matters. After all, the Ravens have dropped winnable games before.
"There are plenty of ripe targets on the Ravens' remaining schedule," wrote Walker. "But they might need to go 6-1 to guarantee a wild-card spot, and that's a daunting ask for a team with as many flaws as virtues."
Jones Sides With Harbaugh's Decision to Go for It on Fourth Down
Fourth-down decisions are always criticized when the offense doesn't convert the first down, and yesterday was no different.
Harbaugh explained why he attempted to go for it on fourth-and-inches from Tennessee's 17-yard line when his team was down by 10 with nearly a full quarter to play. Had the Ravens called upon Tucker, he likely would have cut the deficit to seven.
But Harbaugh said the analytics tell you to go for it in that situation, and his gut told him the same thing. Harbaugh believes Allen reached the first-down marker, and the refs gave him a bad spot, just like they did earlier in the game on a fourth-down. In the second instance, there wasn't enough video evidence to overturn the poor spot.
Many wanted Harbaugh to take the points, but Zrebiec pointed out that several of the head coach's decisions (fake punt and another fourth-down attempt) suggested that Harbaugh knew the offense should go for touchdowns when it was close. The unit wasn't moving the ball with ease.
Jones explained why he thinks Harbaugh made the right call.
"I’ll side with the decision despite the outcome," he wrote. "As the 10th-year coach noted, anyone would tell you going for it in that situation is a no-brainer from a win probability standpoint. Yes, kicking a field goal does make it a one-score game, but you're then counting on your defense to not allow any more points and your offense to drive the length of the field again to score a touchdown, which was highly questionable at that point. Many cited Justin Tucker as the reason for taking the points, but having such a great kicker leaves me more inclined to go for the touchdown there, knowing I may not need to do very much later to get a shot at a 50- or 55-yard attempt to tie the game.
"Sure, if you know your defense will force a turnover on the ensuing possession, you'll take the three points every time, but we can't assume subsequent events play out the same or that Tennessee would have played the same defense had the Ravens trailed by seven and not 10 on their final touchdown drive. The decision was certainly debatable and I didn't like the play call itself, but it wasn't the egregious error some made it out to be, especially when replays indicated that Buck Allen picked up the first down. Alas, it was a bad spot and a predictable review outcome on a type of challenge that's difficult to win."
The Call Against Za'Darius Smith Was Questionable, But Harbaugh Didn't Absolve Him of Guilt
In my mind, there's no doubt that the referees called a weak ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty on outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith. Have a look:
That said, Harbaugh and Smith's teammates didn't absolve him of guilt either.
"It was a bad call, but it happened and they called it. So, it's our fault," safety Eric Weddle said. "He shouldn't put himself in that position, especially early in the game when [Matt] Judon killed [Marcus] Mariota and they could have easily called it there. So you knew anything close they were going to call."
"I wish he hadn't done it," Harbaugh added. "That kind of situation, I don't know how hard it was. Anything like that, that's not for me to judge, really. But it's unnecessary to even try to do that in that situation."