BALTIMORE — The Ravens’ 2-0 start seems like ages ago.
For the second straight week, the Ravens defense was gashed to the tune of 500-plus yards and the Cleveland Browns were better in every facet of the game as they blew the Ravens out of M&T Bank Stadium, 40-25, Sept. 29.
The Browns (2-2) used a succession of big plays to lay waste to the Ravens’ defense, breaking open a game in which they led 10-7 at the half.
Browns brash quarterback Baker Mayfield completed 20 of 30 passes for 342 yards, and running back Nick Chubb ran 20 times for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
The Browns had three plays of more than 50 yards, and the longest of those pretty much put a dagger in the Ravens. After Lamar Jackson hit tight end Mark Andrews with an 8-yard touchdown pass that cut the Browns lead to 24-18 with a two-point conversion, Chubb bolted around the right side for an 88-yard touchdown and a 30-18 lead with 9:35 left.
Here are five observations of the loss, which drops the Ravens to 2-2 with two increasingly critical AFC North games on deck:
1. The Ravens aren’t getting their money’s worth from their high-priced secondary.
The back end of the Ravens’ defense was supposed to be its strength this year, with a lot of financial resources poured into the group. Earl Thomas signed a four-year, $55 million deal, the largest contract the Ravens have ever given to a player from outside their organization. Slot cornerback Tavon Young was re-signed this summer to a three-year extension worth about $28 million.
Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith ($15.85 million) and Brandon Carr ($7 million) were retained despite fat salary cap numbers, and safety Tony Jefferson is in the third year of a four-year, $34 million deal. They also expended a first-round draft pick on cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
Young and Smith have been hurt most of the season, but to put it bluntly, the Ravens are not getting close to their money’s worth from this group, especially from the high-priced safeties.
The Ravens have been shredded for one big play after another, with a pass play of at least 50 yards in three straight games. It has been a litany of missed tackles and missed assignments and missed communication.
“This feeling does suck,” Jefferson said. “Obviously our fans deserve more. … We are a good football team. We just have to show it and make the plays.”
The Browns got a 65-yard catch-and-run to Jarvis Landry after Jefferson and others failed to tackle him after a short pass. Later, tight end Ricky Seals-Jones ran free down the middle of the field for a gain of 59, which set up a touchdown run by Chubb.
Each week, the Ravens have stressed that they have reviewed what went wrong on the previous week’s big play, and that they are correctable errors that have been addressed. That sounds like a lot of empty rhetoric at the moment.
2. The defensive losses seem to have been seismic.
The Ravens made calculated business decisions this offseason to let linebackers C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith walk away in free agency, and to cut loose safety Eric Weddle for a newer, younger model in Thomas.
The Ravens knew they were losing talent, but they liked their youth and speed and the Pro Bowl pedigree of Thomas. Through four games, though, this defensive group looks adrift and leaderless, and it seems to sorely miss the quarterbacking that Mosley, Weddle and to a lesser extent Suggs did on a down-by-down basis.
They have missed the pass rushing of Suggs and Smith, and also Suggs’ underrated ability to set the edge against the run, which has been a recurrent problem this season with younger linebackers.
If general manager Eric DeCosta and his personnel staff thought there would be a seamless transition to people like Thomas, Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young and Tyus Bowser in starring roles, he seems to have miscalculated.
It would help to get back injured players such as Jimmy Smith, who missed his third straight game, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who missed the game after a knee injury that “flared up on him” late in the week, according to Harbaugh.
Harbaugh said positional play and usage is being evaluated all the time. To be sure, the Ravens need to find some fixes — and fast.
3. The Ravens defensive issues are more than one player away from being fixed.
After the Ravens defense was torched for more than 500 yards in back-to-back games – the first time in franchise history that has happened — the calls will surely grow for the Ravens to go all-in on swinging a trade for disgruntled Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
To be sure, Ramsey is an elite playmaker who would make any defense better. But even if the Ravens were to make a deal – which would probably cost an exorbitant amount in draft capital, perhaps a player and major salary investment – the past two games have proved that this defense is more than one elite cornerback away from being fixed.
The Ravens already have a close-to-elite cornerback in Humphrey, who was the lone defensive highlight against the Browns as he held Odell Beckham Jr. to two catches for 20 yards. That, incidentally, ended Beckham’s streak of 60 straight games with at least three catches, the longest such active streak in the league.
The Ravens need to be getting more from their young outside linebackers, both as pass rushers and as edge-setters. They need to be getting more from their inside linebackers. They need to be getting more from their safeties. None of those players are named Jalen Ramsey.
“We’ve got to know what we’re doing wrong and what we’re doing right,” Humphrey said. “Not a lot’s being done right lately.”
4. The Ravens’ offense was hurt by huge mistakes at bad times.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson was not willing to put the onus all on the Ravens’ defense.
“Our job is to score points,” he said, noting that if the defense is struggling, “We just got to punch it in a lot more. We’re not relying on our defense to go out there and stop everyone.”
Jackson finished 24-for-37 for 247 yards and three touchdowns, including a garbage-time 50-yarder to Willie Snead when it was 40-18, but he also threw his first two interceptions of the season, ending a franchise-record streak of 248 passes without a pickoff.
And the offense badly misfired in other ways too against a Browns defense that sacked Jackson four times but was missing three of its starting four defensive backs because of injuries.
The biggest miscue was a fumble by Mark Ingram (12 carries, 71 yards) that halted what had been an impressive seven-play, 49-yard drive with the Ravens trailing 17-10. As they did all day, the Browns drove effortlessly after that turnover for a touchdown and 24-10 lead.
Earlier, Jackson had Chris Moore wide-open down the left sideline, but Moore had to go up for the high throw and came down with one toe out of bounds. Later, on a fourth-down play, Jackson threw to the flat for tight end Mark Andrews, but Andrews had taken off upfield on an out-and-up route. The ball fell harmlessly incomplete, and a frustrated Andrews came off the field and slammed his helmet into the turf.
That seemed to sum up the Ravens’ day.
5. The balance of power in the AFC North has shifted.
The Browns were an easy target of ridicule after a summer’s worth of hype was followed by a 43-13 loss to Tennessee in the season opener. But now they are 2-2, hold a tiebreaker over the Ravens and have a favorable second-half schedule.
With Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the season, with the Cincinnati Bengals regrouping and with the Ravens facing serious defensive issues, the AFC North is the Browns to win.
As for the Ravens, they head to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh next week with a much greater sense of urgency. Everyone in the division is chasing the Browns now.
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