After rattling off five straight victories following a narrow overtime loss in the season opener, the Baltimore Ravens were flying high heading into their Week 7 divisional matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. They had the best record on the conference at 5-1 and sat alone atop the AFC North with an opportunity to seize control heading into their bye week.
Unfortunately, they picked the worst week to have their worst game of the season to date and wound up getting humbled in a 41-17 defeat at home. While the final box score wasn’t indicative of just how close the game was through the first three quarters, it was still a tough gut-wrenching loss nevertheless.
As bad as the end result was, it might have been just what the Ravens needed heading into their week off. It not only quickly quieted a lot of the hype they were getting nationally during their win streak but it also likely gave them the reality check they needed that will force them to do some hard self-reflection before the second-half stretch.
The biggest issue on defense more than the occasional blown coverage and miscommunication in the second and third levels has been simply tackling. Head Coach John Harbaugh provided a blunt and candid answer about the ongoing problem when he addressed the media on Monday. It must be corrected if they want to be able to achieve their ultimate goals.
“The biggest problem we have on defense right now in terms of big plays is not getting guys on the ground,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s been underneath slant routes or screen routes…most of them have been catch-and-run plays. Go back to the Kansas City game, that’s been on-and-off a problem all year. Until we get that fixed, we’ll be a very mediocre defense, generally speaking. Our guys understand that.”
“When we play really good defense, we’re tackling. That’s got to get done. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Sometimes you’re not pushing to the right zones, there’s more space in there than they should be. Other times we take a bad angle. Sometimes the guy’s not covered. There’s different reasons for it but the results are uniformly not good. When we start doing all of the little things well, then we’re going to be a better defense.”
Heading into this season, most of the talk and criticism of the Ravens’ offense was surrounding their lack of balance citing an approach that was too run-heavy. Through the first seven games of the season, they have been able to flip the script with a much improved passing game but now their run game outside Lamar Jackson’s contributions haven’t been consistent or nearly up to par with what they’ve been since he became the full-time starter.
The precipitous drop-off in the run game can be mostly attributed to losing their top three running backs ahead of the season. Harbaugh believes that the team’s lack of production from their backfield, as well as the solution, has been and will require a collective effort.
“We have to run it better. We have to block it better. We have to scheme it better,” said Harbaugh.
The Ravens have historically performed at their best and looked the most formidable when they haven’t been the hottest team in the league during the regular season. In fact, they have thrived when being regarded as the underrated underdog that turns out to be the sleeping giant that wakes up down the stretch and makes a lot of noise in the playoffs.
While their sensational 2019 regular season wasn’t a fluke or aberration of the new era with Jackson at the helm, it was unfamiliar territory for a coaching staff, team, and organization that is used to fighting and clawing their way to the postseason. One can argue that they were on cruise control during their 12-game winning streak after starting 2-2 that season and that they weren’t as battled-tested as some of the other teams that were already in playoff mode during the second half of the season.
The AFC is still wide open with no clear-cut front runner despite what the Bengals did in Baltimore this past week. Now that some of their shine has worn off and they know what areas need to be addressed from a performance and personnel standpoint, the Ravens can get back to flying somewhat under the radar. When they come out of their bye it will be another team’s turn to live in the limelight while they grind their way to a championship run.