The Ravens entered the fourth quarter of their home opener with a three-touchdown lead thanks to one of the great performances of Lamar Jackson’s career. They finished it as 42-38 losers, licking their wounds after a disastrous defensive meltdown against the Miami Dolphins.
Here are five things we learned from their stunning loss:
Ravens don’t know where they’re going after epic meltdown
What can I say to sum up 15 minutes of unfathomable football horror? For Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, it was the recurring image of passes flying over his head. For her rookie teammate Jalyn-Armor Davis, it was a feeling that no one on the Baltimore defense could find the same wavelength as they tried to block the aqua blue avalanche heading their way. For coach John Harbaugh, it was the stinging realization that his team needed to mend their foundations in the weeks to come.
It wasn’t the most atrocious home loss in franchise history. It lacked the finality of the playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans that ended the Ravens’ antics throughout the 2019 season. It wasn’t marked by a single stunning play, like the 49-yard pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd who erased the Ravens’ playoff chances on the final day of the 2017 season. But for a boost, it was one for the annals.
You see, it wasn’t a tense contest for most of the afternoon. It was a party – a chance for Baltimore to shout hosannas for its sublime quarterback and refreshed squad.
For three quarters of their home opener on Sunday, the Ravens told us they were a reborn contender. They mocked the same Dolphins defense that suffocated them last season and covered their own defensive shortcomings with the takeaways that were so rare for them in 2021. Going into the game, we wondered if Miami had their number. When the score reached 35-14, it looked like the Ravens were saying no one would get their number in 2022.
Perhaps we should have read the first omens. The Ravens started with a 103-yard kickoff return. They interrupted Miami’s first drive with an interception. In their first real practice, they ran 18 plays and held the ball for nearly 11 minutes. All that, and with 10:54 left in the second quarter, they were tied at 7.
But whatever opportunities they left on the table seemed out of place in the light of Jackson’s masterpiece. His sharp scalpel shots put them up 28-7 at halftime, and when he slid 79 yards through the heart of Miami’s defense to make it 35-14 with 26 seconds left in the third quarter, chants of “MVP!” MVP!” echoed through M&T Bank Stadium.
Even the most cynical fan couldn’t have imagined the nightmare to come.
For the final 15 minutes, however, all of the disturbing storylines from the past year have returned to the building. The Ravens watched helplessly as Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, an uneven performer in his first two NFL seasons, completed a performance of 469 yards and six touchdowns. Injuries, fresh or lingering, hampered their more experienced cornerbacks, leaving much of the covering work for Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to bewildered rookies. The dominant front seven we saw in Week 1 against the New York Jets did nothing to hinder Tagovailoa. On offense, the Ravens couldn’t muster the kind of drive they relied on to put away games.
Assessing this slump against the electric event of the first three quarters, what do we know about the Ravens as we look ahead to 16 more weeks?
“There’s really no conclusion to be drawn at this point,” Harbaugh said.
Secondary health is already the #1 concern
We’ve spent the past nine months assuming the Ravens couldn’t reach the depths of 2021, when they finished last in pass defense. Humphrey and Marcus Peters would be back. Safety Marcus Williams would consolidate the back line. First-round pick Kyle Hamilton would be an immediate playmaker, and veteran Kyle Fuller would provide battle-tested depth. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald danced the plays in patterns not limited by traditional notions of position. No, it couldn’t get as bad as last year, when they gave up 435 yards to Derek Carr and 402 to Carson Wentz and 525 to Joe Burrow.
Well, Tagovailoa’s fourth quarter — 13 of 17 for 199 yards and four touchdowns — said 2022 could be just as bad.
With Fuller lost to a torn ACL late in the season, Brandon Stephens (quadriceps) inactive, Humphrey limited by groin pain and Peters fighting his way through after 20 months out with a torn ACL , they had to rely on Armour-Davis and another rookie, Damarion Williams, against the terrifying duo of Hill and Waddle.
We saw an array of horrors on Waddle’s 59-yard catch-and-run that set up Miami’s first touchdown. Linebacker Patrick Queen tripped and fell for coverage. Armour-Davis was knocked down by a block. Williams couldn’t push Waddle out of bounds.
As the Ravens protected a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, Hill passed Peters for a 48-yard touchdown. He dusted it enough that he had time to stop and wait for Tagovailoa’s underground pass to reach him.
On Miami’s next possession, Hill sped past Armour-Davis, who seemed to think he would have a safety assist behind him. There were three Ravens who could have shaded on that side of the field, but none did as Hill caught a 60-yard touchdown with no one near him to tie the game at 35.
“There were communication issues across the defense,” Armour-Davis said when asked what happened on the play. “It’s something we have to sort out. It’s something we’ve been pushing all week, so it’s definitely disappointing.
When asked if the same answer could apply to the entire fourth quarter, the rookie said yes.
Logic tells us that was probably the nadir. Peters and Humphrey will feel better and play more snaps. So will Stephens, who looked like he wanted to play as he trained hard in front of coaches before the game. Armour-Davis will learn. But the Ravens can’t feel right, already looking at the same issues they couldn’t get past a year ago.
“You never thought we were going to have so many balls thrown over our heads,” Harbaugh said. “It just can’t happen; it’s not OK. I don’t care who’s over there, [or] what theyre doing.”
The Ravens killed their offensive demons 10 months ago
As disappointing as the day was, Jackson buried the idea that he couldn’t punish Miami’s offensive defense. His stats — 11 of 13 for 210 yards, three touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3 — tell a compelling story about how he got the ball going in the first half. On the contrary, he was better than the cold numbers said.
Facing a defense that had given him tantrums 10 months earlier, he only made an off-target shot at the last minute before halftime. His only incompleteness at this point was a beautifully feathered pass that tight end Mark Andrews dropped (not a phrase we utter often).
Jackson hit Rashod Bateman perfectly in stride for a 75-yard catch-up touchdown. He passed passes to Andrews and Demarcus Robinson in traffic. He hasn’t taken a bag all day.
Give credit to the Ravens pass protectors for this latest issue. They’ve spent all week hearing about how the Dolphins upset Jackson’s composure by cramming the line of scrimmage and firing safeties, unblocked, into Baltimore’s backfield. They did their homework on Miami’s Cover 0 while understanding the Dolphins might take a more patient approach this time around (which they did). Jackson operated from a clean pocket — “Our line did a hell of a job protecting me,” he said — and did more than enough damage to win the game.
The running game could not put away the game
Even though so much went well for the Ravens early on, their ground game continued to be a concern. Running backs Kenyan Drake and Mike Davis had 13 yards on eight carries on their nearly 11-minute drive that straddled the first and second quarters. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman turned to fullback Patrick Ricard and Andrews (on a straight snap no less) for two short conversions to extend that walk. The Ravens had four chances to hit the ball from the 2-yard line and couldn’t, with Jackson falling an inch down on third down and fumbling on fourth.
That’s a problem for a team that relies on the sport’s most productive ground operation.
We saw that weakness again in the fourth quarter, when the Ravens needed hard practice to blunt Tagovailoa’s momentum. They failed to convert fourth and ran on a drive and went three-and-one on the next. Drake and Davis, little helped by the same blockers who did a good job protecting Jackson, finished with a combined 12 yards on 11 carries.
“We are not there yet; we don’t block like we have to,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a good front, just like last week [against the Jets] was a good front, but we’re not doing that right now. So that’s one of the things that we have to look at carefully and try to get to where we need to be that way because that’s how you win games.
We don’t know enough to guess the Ravens for holding off No. 1 runner JK Dobbins for another week. As Dobbins detailed on Friday, he suffered an unusually devastating knee injury prior to last season, and we don’t know specifically what the Ravens are looking for to determine his readiness. What we do know is that they badly need a more dynamic threat in the backfield.
The defensive front has also disappeared
Nose tackle Michael Pierce and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike were among the best defensemen in the league in Week 1, and the Ravens generally owned the line of scrimmage in an easy win over the Jets. With the Dolphins on a starting right tackle and relying on ailing left tackle Terron Armstead (toe), Baltimore’s front seven looked set for another big day.
Instead, they had little impact on Tagovailoa as he fired at will as the game slipped away. The Ravens only had two hits from the quarterback and their only sack, by outside linebacker Justin Houston, came early.
Defensive tackle Calais Campbell credited Tagovailoa with the best performance of his three-year career: “He got on his feet, got rid of the ball, made quick decisions and passed the ball to his point guards and let them make plays. That’s what the quarterback does, so you have to give him his props. We were pressuring him and getting there sometimes, but he throws good, just putting him on the money [while] we press his face.
Fair enough. Sometimes the other guy is just good. But with their secondary discomfort, the Ravens could have used transformative play from their pass rush, and that never happened.
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