The Ravens’ offense didn’t save its worst for last Saturday, not quite, but it came close. For three quarters, the Ravens had stopped and started, thrown away points, dropped balls, squandered momentum, done everything but put a real scare into one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
Midway through the fourth quarter of a dispiriting 13-3 loss to the Browns, though, the Ravens authored a fitting masterclass in ineptitude, replete with all the markings of a wasted and wasteful afternoon.
With nine-plus minutes left, the Ravens (9-5) faced fourth-and-4 in their own territory, a 10-point deficit and swirling Cleveland snow. They’d run all over the Browns for most of the afternoon, but they weren’t going to pass. They were barely going to get the ball snapped in time. The whole operation looked rushed — the hurried claps from quarterback Tyler Huntley; the slight pauses of uncertainty as he scrambled to his right; the pass to wide receiver James Proche II, who landed out of bounds without the ball, another flop of a drive ending with a thud.
The Ravens could take solace afterward in knowing they remain heavy favorites to make the playoffs (97% odds, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections). But with quarterback Lamar Jackson sidelined, the defense losing key players to injuries, and their normally reliable special teams faltering, Saturday’s loss was not an advertisement for their postseason prospects.
Big problems will follow the Ravens as they head home for a Christmas Eve game next Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons. Their offense has scored just two touchdowns in the 11 quarters since Jackson’s Week 13 knee injury. Their defense took two potential significant hits with injuries to cornerback Marcus Peters (calf) and defensive lineman Calais Campbell (knee).
And their AFC North lead, maybe most importantly, is gone. They’re now looking up at the Bengals, who could take a one-game lead in the race for a top-four seed with a win Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With a loss, Cincinnati (9-4) would fall back into a tie with the Ravens, who won their Week 5 meeting and will travel to Paycor Stadium for next month’s regular-season finale.
“Disappointing loss, a tough loss for us,” coach John Harbaugh said after only the team’s second loss in the past eight games. “Did not play well. Have to put up more points, bottom line. We have to do things better in terms of moving the ball through the air, making plays in the red zone, not turning the ball over. Those are things that will cost you a game in December, and that’s what happened.”
The Ravens’ first AFC North loss of the season cast a spotlight on everything their offense does well and everything it does not. Running backs J.K. Dobbins (9.6 yards per carry) and Gus Edwards (7.9 yards per carry) combined for 180 yards, bouncing through and around a Browns defense that entered Week 15 as the NFL’s sixth worst, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics.
They could’ve had more, too, if not for Dobbins’ limited long speed, still returning after arthroscopic knee surgery, and an abandoned approach from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who ran the ball once in the fourth quarter.
Entering the season, the Ravens were 8-0 all time when rushing for at least 195 yards on at least 7 yards per carry. They’re 0-2 this year, with losses to the New York Giants and the Browns. The Ravens’ 198 rushing yards are the most by a team that’s scored no touchdowns since the 2013 Los Angeles Rams, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Some days, you are able to get a ton of offense and you cannot score,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said. “The ball just did not roll our way today. Obviously, it is on us. You should not rush for 200 yards and have three points.”
The Ravens’ lackluster passing game was one culprit. Huntley had thrived in his first appearance in Cleveland (6-8), where he replaced an injured Jackson in Week 14 last season and nearly led a second-half comeback (27-for-38 for 270 yards and a touchdown). But a week after being knocked out of the Ravens’ narrow road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he struggled.
Huntley finished 17-for-30 for 138 yards in his sixth career start, though his receivers weren’t a big help. One costly red-zone interception in the third quarter came after veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson bobbled the ball into the hands of cornerback Denzel Ward. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, who’d fumbled out of bounds on the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage, terminated another drive later in the third quarter with a second fumble.
On third and fourth down, Huntley was just 4-for-10 for 48 yards. With tight end Mark Andrews (three catches on seven targets for 31 yards) blanketed again, Ravens wide receivers combined for just 58 yards.
“You can’t turn the ball over,” Harbaugh said. “You have to run routes the right way to get between defenders and free the ball. You can’t fumble the ball. You have to put the ball away when you’re getting upfield. That’s winning football; our guys know that. It starts with that. We have to just have a better passing game, basically. It’s not a good enough passing game right now across the board to do the things that we’re hoping to do. So that will be priority one.”
Said Huntley: “You have to score to win, so I’m very mad that we didn’t.”
Last week, the Ravens had escaped Pittsburgh with a win made possible by good timing — an interception here, a first-down conversion there, a handful of clutch field goals booted through. On Saturday, they couldn’t get the job done when they needed to.
From the start, the Ravens looked sloppy on a short week. On their opening drive, fullback Patrick Ricard was stopped short of the line to gain on fourth-and-1, ending a promising 10-play, 71-yard drive inside Cleveland’s 10-yard line.
“I always want to be the guy that they look to, but whatever the coaches call, we have to make it work,” Dobbins said. “We have to join each other and be together. When they call something, we have to do it, and we have to convert. It is not on anyone except for us. We have to take a look in the mirror, and we will.”
Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, making his first start in Cleveland, got some help, too. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey had said Tuesday that the Ravens wanted to give Watson a “not-so-soft welcoming” to their AFC North rivalry. Over his first two games since returning from an 11-game NFL suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, Watson had mostly struggled, completing 59.4% of his passes and throwing more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one).
On Saturday at FirstEnergy Stadium, he at times looked as close to his All-Pro form as he has since being mired in sexual assault allegations. Watson finished 18-for-28 for 161 yards, often picking on safety Kyle Hamilton. The rookie allowed six completions on seven targets for 46 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
But maybe the game’s biggest play came on a sack. The Browns would take a 13-3 lead on a 91-yard touchdown drive kept alive by a flag on outside linebacker Justin Houston, who was penalized for taking Watson down by the face mask on a third-and-7 scramble. Ten plays later, including a fourth-and-1 conversion in Ravens territory, Watson found wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones on a 4-yard catch-and-run score, eluding Humphrey and inside linebacker Patrick Queen on the way to the end zone.
“A lot of that was just self-inflicted wounds,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “I had a play on that drive that I wish I could get back. I’m sure ‘J-Hou’ wishes he could have brought his hand down, but it is not one play. It was a variety of plays throughout. I know all of the guys are going to hone in on that this week and try to get better and not let those plays beat us twice this coming week.”
The Ravens’ only score of the game, a 53-yard field goal by kicker Justin Tucker midway through the second quarter, came after wide receiver Devin Duvernay and Huntley botched a third-and-long handoff that Duvernay was fortunate to recover. Tucker’s kick was the 355th made field goal of his career, breaking a tie with kicker Matt Stover for the most in franchise history.
But it was an off night for even Tucker. The Ravens entered halftime down 6-3 after Tucker narrowly missed a 48-yard attempt as time expired. His first misfire from inside 50 yards this season capped another messy drive. After converting a third-and-7 with 27 seconds left, the Ravens had taken a timeout close to midfield. Huntley appeared to have communication difficulties when he huddled up for the next play, and the Ravens’ quick snap wasn’t quick enough. They were called for a delay-of-game penalty, a distance that loomed large on Tucker’s miss.
Later, as the Ravens looked to trim the Browns’ deficit to one score in the fourth quarter, Tucker had a 50-yard field goal blocked by Browns defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. He later took responsibility for the defeat in the locker room, a sentiment his teammates quickly dismissed. There was more than enough blame to spread around.
“I think we all felt like we left one out there,” Humphrey said. “Someone just said in the locker room that you can’t let this one beat you twice. Even though we are in a good spot right now, it just feels like we are like a wounded dog. I think [we should] let 24 hours go by, come back to reality and then come back to whatever day we are in this week and get back to work on Atlanta.”
Falcons at Ravens
Saturday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM