Ravens vs. Browns: Takeaways from Baltimore's 24-18 Loss to Cleveland
As has been the case all year, Baltimore started slowly and fell behind early. The secondary was exposed by Jason Campbell, who had a great day and led the Browns to victory.
The offensive line was once again a huge concern, leading to a foundering running game and a hurried Joe Flacco.
Penalties and poor play cost the Ravens the game, and it may have cost them their chance to make the playoffs.
Here are the most important takeaways from a game that the Ravens and their fans will want to forget.
The Slow Starts Aren't Going Anywhere
In six of the last seven games, opposing teams have scored before the Ravens managed to get on the board. It's not just about who scores first though.
Three of their first four drives against the Browns were three-and-outs. The running backs went nowhere, averaging 1.8 yards per carry in the first half (a number that only decreased as the game went on). Joe Flacco had a 58.9 passer rating after the first 30 minutes.
The offense converted three of their eight third downs in the first half and only held onto the ball for 12:33, compared to the 17:27 that Cleveland had possession.
Baltimore has been unable to start games well, and they're leaving their comebacks until it's too late. Unfortunately, there has been nothing to suggest that they will buck that trend any time soon.
The Line Is Offensively Bad
Going into this game, the Ravens knew they were facing one of the best defenses in the league and a dominant defensive front.
The offensive line didn't get the memo.
They were manhandled for the entire game, giving up five sacks and getting absolutely no push in the running game.
Much ado has been made about the blocking scheme, and rightfully so. The linemen are frequently confused by stunts and blitzes, and they are too hesitant to burst off the line of scrimmage.
The season-ending injury to Kelechi Osemele doesn't help matters either.
Baltimore needs to make some changes to their scheme, because their linemen are not as bad talent-wise as they're being made to look each and every Sunday.
That title might be misleading, as the woes of the Ravens' secondary are a primary concern for the coaching staff.
Jason Campbell shredded the Ravens defense on Sunday, completing 23 of his 35 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and a 116.6 passer rating. Not to be disrespectful, but this is Jason Campbell we're talking about here; that shouldn't happen.
Entering this game, Davone Bess led the league with nine drops, but he left the game with two more touchdowns. Greg Little was 10th on the drops list, and he burned the Ravens for seven receptions and 122 yards.
Some of the credit should go to those receivers for stepping up in a big game, but the Ravens secondary was terrible for most of the game.
The coverage was weak, tackles were missed and yards after the catch were given up like Halloween candy.
The defensive front played fairly well, shutting down the run and getting some pressure on Campbell. On the other hand, the secondary was completely outmatched, and it cost Baltimore the game.
O Deep Ball, Where Art Thou?
Joe Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and his receiving corps are equipped with blazing speed. So why haven't they been able to connect on deep balls this year?
Last season, Flacco threw a deep pass (20+ yards) on 17.3 percent of his dropbacks, which was the highest percentage in the league, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
More importantly, he connected on 40.2 percent of those deep balls. This year, he's not throwing them as much, and he's only hitting on 29.7 percent of those attempts.
We saw how out-of-sync he was with his downfield receivers on two occasions against the Browns.
Firstly, he misread the coverage and threw a terrible, underthrown pass to Jacoby Jones, who was surrounded by defenders. It was a bad decision by Flacco, but he severely undershot his target.
The same thing occurred later in the game when he connected with Torrey Smith for a 46-yard gain. The big play looks nice on paper, but Smith had beaten his man and would have been able to score a touchdown if the throw had been on target. Instead, it was another weak throw which Smith had to come back to.
Part of the problem is that the porous offensive line isn't giving Flacco many opportunities to let plays develop downfield, but he's not even connecting on them when he gets the chance anyway.
Getting big plays would be a huge help to an offense that is struggling to move in the right direction, so that needs to be an emphasis moving forward.
The Offense Is in Flacco's Hands
The quarterback is arguably the most important position in all of sports, and the Ravens have gone as Flacco has gone over the past few years.
But their Week 9 game showed that even more responsibility will be placed on his shoulders moving forward.
Like they did against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore operated primarily out of the shotgun, used three-wideout sets and let Flacco go no-huddle and make calls at the line of scrimmage.
The logic behind this is clear: the ground game isn't working—and doesn't look like it will work any time soon—and the depth at receiver means that it makes more sense to get three wideouts on the field in order to spread out defenses.
It looks like this will be the offensive style moving forward and, while it hasn't resulted in victories, that's a good thing.
First, Flacco is actually good at running the no-huddle, and it should be the approach of the team moving forward—not just this year but for the future.
Secondly, there is no reason to believe that the running game will pick up, so Baltimore may as well get their best playmakers on the field instead of continuing to pound away with Ray Rice and picking up no yardage.
Too Many Critical Mistakes
Not to take anything away from the Cleveland Browns, but the Ravens played a large role in their own demise.
They have not been the fundamentally sound football team that head coach John Harbaugh would like them to be, and their lack of discipline came back to haunt them against the Browns.
Baltimore committed nine penalties that cost them 80 yards (four of which gave Cleveland a first down), and they also made some bad special teams plays that gave the Browns great position.
The first was Tandon Doss' muffed punt, which he failed to recover and gave Cleveland the ball in the red zone.
Secondly, there was Sam Koch's 25-yard punt when the Ravens had the chance to pin the Browns back with bad field position. Instead, Cleveland started from their own 29-yard line and drove all the way down the field for a game-clinching field goal.
The Ravens have not been able to get out of their own way, and it's been the biggest reason for their inability to win close games.
Their last five games have all been decided by less than one touchdown, and Baltimore has lost four of those close contests.
Penalties, miscues and poor special teams play have plagued the Ravens, and they need to stop shooting themselves in the foot if they want to get some wins on the board.
The Ravens May Have Cost Themselves a Shot at the Playoffs
Coach Harbaugh and Joe Flacco had never lost to the Cleveland Browns before Sunday. They had also never lost after a bye week. However, both of those streaks ended this week.
The two have also never missed the playoffs, and that streak could be in jeopardy this year.
The good news for the Ravens is that the Cincinnati Bengals lost this week as well, and with two games remaining against the Bengals, the Ravens still should not be ruled out of winning the division crown (although they need to win both of those games).
Unfortunately, they haven't given us any reason to think they can suddenly turn up their level of play either.
Consequently, there are a number of teams battling for the last wild-card spot in the AFC, and the Ravens are currently sixth in line for that spot. There is a lot of football to be played, but the Ravens may have dug themselves a hole that's too deep to climb out of.