The Baltimore Ravens lost 17-10 in gut-wrenching fashion to the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in their first AFC Championship game in over a decade this past Sunday. There were several reasons why they fell short of advancing and played one of their worst games on offense of the entire season at the worst possible time.
Here are a few spicy yet conceivable takes warranted after the Ravens’ season-ending defeat.
John Harbaugh empowers coordinators too much in big games
One of the best traits of a good head coach is the ability to delegate and disperse responsibilities amongst his staff and let his coordinators in all three phases have autonomy. However, as the head coach, his primary responsibility first and foremost is to make sure that the team is in the best position to succeed in every phase. That means that if one of the play callers isn’t making the proper adjustments or is actively hurting the overall team’s chances of winning, it is on the head coach to exercise his power to veto and override an ineffective plan of attack.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh failed to execute this right on Sunday when first-year Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken strayed away in the complete opposite direction of the winning formula that got them to where they were. In the AFC title game against a Chiefs defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in both EPA and DVOA against the run, he called 47 dropbacks and the running backs touched the ball just six times all game and the team finished with just 16 combined attempts for 81 yards.
That imbalance of play selection was especially baffling given that the Ravens were the top rushing offense in the league during the regular season where they led the NFL in rushing attempts (541) and total yards (2,661) with an average of 156.5 yards per game. Another stat that drove the dagger even deeper with a menacing twist was the fact that the Ravens were 14-1 in games this year where their running backs combined for 25 or more carries and were 1-4 when they failed to reach that benchmark.
Over the past six years since Lamar Jackson has been the Ravens’ starting quarterback, Harbaugh has let his offensive and defensive play callers have too much autonomy, especially in big games on the biggest stages, and did not demand that they make a change in-game enough.
In 2022, the Ravens had the Cincinnati Bengals on the ropes on the road with Tyler Huntley under center but their lack of consistent involvement for running back J.K. Dobbins hurt their chances of pulling off the upset. He only carried the ball 12 times despite averaging 5.1 yards per carry and wasn’t given a single touch inside the five-yard line after scoring a two-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Dobbins believed that he would’ve been able to punch the ball across the goal line on the infamous fumble in the jungle play that resulted in a 98-yard return to give the Bengals a seven-point lead instead of the other way around which led to a postgame presser that went viral due to his clear and understandable frustration.
“I should be the guy,” Dobbins said. “I’m tired of holding that back. It’s the playoffs. Let’s go win the game. I’m tired of it. My teammates feed off me when I’m on the field. I should be out there all the time. That’s just not the case how it goes here.”
In 2021, despite having a secondary ravaged with injuries, he allowed former Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale to blitz his way to the bottom of the league in pass defense, giving up an NFL-worst 4,742 passing yards. In some of their biggest games over the past five years, he let both Monken and his predecessor, Greg Roman, completely abandon the run. As the head coach, he is well within his right to hop on the headset and tell either of his coaches to stick to what they do best and what got them there or stop doing what isn’t working and what they don’t have to personnel for at the time.
Offensive personnel decisions were just as puzzling as lack of balance
As utterly flabbergasting as Monken’s unbalanced and lopsided run-to-pass ratio was, his deployment of personnel was equally as questionable. Whether it was Justice Hill getting short yardage carries over Gus Edwards and barely picking up the first down or the fact that Nelson Agholor was outs-napping Odell Beckham Jr. until the fourth quarter and finished with almost the same amount of total offensive snaps (33-34), it simply made no sense.
There were third-down passing situations where second-year pro Isaiah Likely was the only tight end on the field and three-time Pro Bowler Mark Andrews, who had made his triumphant return for the title game, was just standing on the sidelines holding his helmet. Likely out-snapped Andrews, four-time Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard, and Charlie Kolar combined 39-36 was even more mind-boggling. In a game where the Chiefs were without one of their top inside linebackers and struggled to cover the middle of the field against the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, multiple tight end sets should’ve been a significant part of any plan of attack through the air but they opted to keep throwing it to the perimeter or over the middle to tightly covered wide receivers.
Lack of poise and championship experience was glaring
For a team that prided itself on playing its brand of football no matter what and relished in the role of being the bully, the Ravens let the Chiefs make them commit numerous uncharacteristic mistakes resulting in self-inflicted wounds that hurt them as a whole. No one side of the ball was immune from committing these costly mental gaffes and errors as they regularly got baited into drawing penalties or turning the ball over.
In the case of standout first-round rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers, he was guilty on both counts. Despite putting together the most productive game of the year with a team-leading and career single-game 115 receiving yards on five catches, one of which was for the Ravens’ first touchdown of the game, his taunting penalty in the fourth quarter reduced a 54-yard gain by 15 yards. On the first play of the final period, he fumbled what would’ve been a touchdown at the one-yard line and it was recovered by a Chiefs defending in the end zone for a touchback.
Multiple defenders let Chiefs nine-time Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce bait them into unsportsmanlike penalties for retaliating to his instigations. As one-sided as the penalty count was, some of the ones that the Ravens were hit with could’ve been avoided by walking away and letting their pads do the talking. They also could have made sure not to hit Patrick Mahomes late or even as he was throwing the ball so as to not give the officials any reason to even consider calling roughing the passer given the proclivity for the particular crew that officiated their game to rule in the road team’s favor more often than not as Sharp Football Analysis’ Warren Sharp brought to light in the lead up to the game.
it was a fascinating decision to put Shawn Smith on the Chiefs game— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 23, 2024
the last 3 years:
with other refs, home teams win 55.9%
but with Smith, home win rates drop to 40.8%
with other refs, home teams cover the spread 50.1%
but with Smith, home cover rates drop to 37.0%
Even though the Ravens had a handful of players on the team with previous deep playoff runs and Super Bowl experience with Beckham Jr., Agholor, and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy who has been to three Super Bowls and won two. It was evident that the Chiefs, who were playing in their sixth straight AFC championship, possessed the wealth of experience amongst both their players and coaching staff to know how to play within themselves and not beat themselves. Not to insinuate that the stage was too big for the Ravens, but this was the team’s first title game appearance in over a decade and the only player that was around for the first one still on the team was their future Hall of Fame kicker, Justin Tucker.
Ravens will be back and more prepared
To piggyback off the last point, the only way to gain experience on the big stage is to make it to the big stages. As painful of a learning lesson as Sunday’s defeat was, it was still a useful experience that the Ravens will be looking to grow from and ensure that it doesn’t happen again all offseason and throughout the 2024 regular season this fall.
Although they have a massive amount of pending unrestricted free agents that either had career years or played pivotal roles on this past year’s team, their talented young core remains intact highlighted by Jackson, and also includes two-time All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith, All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton, Pro Bowl center Tyler Linderbaum, Flowers, three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Andrews, and Likely.
There’s a chance that they could retain All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and a couple more ascending players to keep an eye on as defensive tackle Travis Jones and running back Keaton Mitchell who will be heading into their third and second seasons this fall, respectively. While it would be hard for Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta to hit as many home runs in the bargain bin as did this past year with the likes of Van Noy, fellow 10th-year outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, and seventh-year nickel back Arthur Maulet, history shows that he’ll be able to nail one or two at least between the start of free agency and even the early portion of next season.
Perhaps the biggest learning lesson and takeaway from this embarrassing loss to the Chiefs will be that Jackson won’t hesitate in the future to unleash the full force of his dynamic and electrifying skill set in games when it will benefit the team the most. This past Sunday, there were several instances where he had open lanes to take off and pick up positive yards and even first downs but he chose to buy time to try to pass instead. That is something that neither of the winning quarterbacks from Sunday’s championship games was reluctant to do as both Mahomes and Brock Purdy of the NFC champion 49ers took every opportunity to move the chains with their legs that came their way.
So much profanity on Inside the NFL pic.twitter.com/6zSXPbtulU— ️ Red Tribe Cinema (@ClayWendler) January 31, 2024
As impressive and downright awe-inspiring as the strides and plays that Jackson made as a pure passer this past regular and postseason, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, there will often be no time to second guess or wait for something else to develop when taking off was an option and made the most sense.