Five thoughts on the Ravens' 40-25 loss to the Cleveland Browns Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
For the Ravens, this was an unusually important game for late September, presenting a choice between two distinctly different kinds of seasons going forward. A win would have given them a 3-1 record and at least a two-game lead over every other team in the AFC North, quite a position to be in. But they lost, dropping them into a tie for first place with a 2-2 record. It's a disappointment after a 2-0 start and increases the likelihood that they'll be scratching for position in the division and wild card races for the rest of the year. Call it what it is, an opportunity lost, and the Ravens have only themselves to blame. While their offense limited itself with repeated mistakes, their struggling defense really took it on the chin against Baker Mayfield and Cleveland's offense. Ravens safety Earl Thomas III said during the week that it got old listening to all the offseason hype about the Browns, but you know what? They came into Baltimore and lived up to every word.
The Ravens' defense actually started nicely, forcing the Browns into a three-and-out to open the game, with linebacker Tyus Bower sacking Mayfield to finish things off. But that was the Ravens' only sack, and also one of the last times the defense stopped the Browns, who gained more yards (530) than Kansas City did against the Ravens a week earlier (503) thanks to devastating big plays of 88, 59 and 59 yards. Embarrassing? "Very much so," Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce said. A thumbnail summary of the defense's performance: ineffectual pass rush, more receivers running free in the secondary and a rushing defense that got worse as the game went on. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh made the issues sound simple, explaining that gaps in the run defense aren't being properly filled while coverages in the secondary also aren't being properly executed. I didn't hear anyone quibbling with his assessment. "Not a lot's being done right," said cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Needless to say, the Ravens need to start making fixes for them to have any shot at a successful season.
For the second week in a row, the Ravens' opponents went with a defensive strategy centered on taking away the deep pass that Lamar Jackson likes to throw. And for the second week in a row, the Ravens' opponents prevailed. But I wouldn't say the Browns' defensive strategy was a slam-dunk success. The Ravens actually moved the ball well and could have scored a lot more points than they did. But they were error-prone on that side of the ball. The biggest of the mistakes, no question, was a pivotal fumble by running back Mark Ingram II that halted a promising drive in the third quarter. The Ravens were down by a touchdown at the time, but they were on the move and seemingly poised to tie the game up. Instead, the Browns took possession and soon led by two touchdowns. Other mistakes by the offense included a misplayed handoff by Jackson and Ingram in the red zone, Mark Andrews dropping a pass to halt an early drive and Chris Moore failing to get both feet in bounds when he was wide open for a big gain (neither pass was perfect, but those plays should be made) as well as Jackson and Andrews mis-communicating on a fourth-down route as the Ravens tried to rally late. Jackson's two interceptions, his first of 2019, weren't as important, coming in garbage time.
On a day when a lot went wrong, a highlight for the Ravens was Humphrey's impressive work against Cleveland's biggest offensive star, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who caught two passes for 20 yards, paltry totals, despite being targeted seven times. Humphrey admitted after the game that he'd been hearing from folks about the chance to defend Beckham since the Browns acquired him in the offseason, and the Ravens certainly gave him the chance, as their plan called for Humphrey to pretty much shadow Beckham, i.e., line up opposite wherever he went. Beckham's teammates more than filled in for him, as the Browns totaled 342 passing yards, but Beckham wasn't open much. When he became frustrated and took a swing at Humphrey in the second half, Humphrey battled back, leading to a slew of penalties. Humphrey said he apologized to Beckham after the game but didn't necessarily get an apology in return. "It's hot out there. We're just competing," Beckham said.
Short takes: Ingram's fumble was costly, but he ran well again, averaging 5.9 yards on 12 carries … Thomas led the Ravens with six solo tackles and eight overall … After beginning the day as the only team in the NFL that hadn't lost a turnover in 2019, the Ravens lost three and forced only one … The Ravens only trailed by six in the fourth quarter and had the Browns in a first-and-15 hole when Cleveland's Nick Chubb turned a simple toss play into an 88-yard touchdown run that all but clinched the game. I'd have to call it the most stunning lapse by the defense since the fourth-and-12 nightmare against the Cincinnati Bengals in December 2017 … Nice praise for Jackson from Cleveland safety Jermaine Whitehead: "Probably one of the best athletes I've played against."