BALTIMORE — Ravens players fell to their knees as Titans players raced toward the end zone, triumphant again, just as they were here last year in the AFC divisional round playoff game.
Titans workhorse running back Derrick Henry, held in check for much of the game thanks to a gritty effort from the Ravens’ patchwork defensive front, slashed off the left side, cut back and ran 29 yards for a touchdown in overtime to lift the Titans (7-3) to a 30-24 win against the Ravens (6-4) at M&T Bank Stadium Nov. 22.
The Ravens opened up a 21-10 lead midway through the third quarter, but the Titans, who had lost three of their past four games, got a pair of field goals from Stephen Gostkowski to cut the lead to 21-16, then took the lead with 2:18 left when wide receiver A.J. Brown broke through four Ravens would-be tacklers for a 14-yard touchdown catch.
The Ravens then drove nearly the length of the field in the final two minutes, but the drive stalled at the Titans’ 10-yard line when Lamar Jackson threw two straight incompletions. Justin Tucker came on and kicked a 29-yard field goal with 15 seconds left to force overtime.
The Ravens got the ball first in overtime but failed to gain a first down. Jackson was sacked on second down — his only sack of the game — and a third-down completion to J.K. Dobbins left the Ravens well short of the first down.
Tennessee took over at the Titans’ 27-yard line, and Ryan Tannehill connected twice with receiver Corey Davis to put the Titans quickly over midfield.
Three plays later, Henry bounced off a would-be tackle, cut back to his right, found running room and raced 29 yards for the game-winning score.
“We just can’t put 60 minutes together as a football team,” said defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, who excelled for three quarters in containing Henry. “We’ll put a half together. This week, we finally put three quarters together. … We’ve got to just play better football.”
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said, “It just looked like that team wanted it more than us. They were playing physical. When we went up, I felt like we just took our foot off the gas.”
Here are five quick observations of the game, which drops the Ravens to 6-4 heading into a short week and a trip to Pittsburgh to face the undefeated Steelers (10-0) on Thanksgiving night:
1. After three quarters of inspired play, the Ravens’ tackling failed them at critical times.
With Ravens run-stuffers Calais Campbell (calf) and Brandon Williams (ankle) sidelined, the Ravens knew they faced a monumental challenge facing the NFL’s 2019 rushing leader in Derrick Henry.
Led by Derek Wolfe (six tackles), the Ravens were up to the task for much of the game, but Henry and the Titans seemed to wear down the Ravens late, and the Ravens’ tackling faltered at the worst possible times.
Most notable was a 14-yard touchdown catch by A.J. Brown with 2:26 left. Brown caught the ball at about the 8-yard line, shook out of the grasp of Chuck Clark, then Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey whiffed on tackle attempts and Brown bullied Patrick Queen into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“We’ve just got to tackle him and stop him,” Queen said. “We know they’re good after the catch. … They get good yardage. That’s what our focus was on, tackling after the catch. And it’s just something we didn’t capitalize on.”
But that wasn’t the only one. Earlier, Brown had shed tacklers along the left sideline, and then Henry broke free for the game-winning score.
“I’ll take responsibility,” Wolfe said. “That last run … I played the block great, then went to make the tackle. He’s the best running back in the league for a reason. He got away from me, and that’s my fault. I’ve got to make that play, so I’ll take the heat for that. That’s on me.”
2. Missed chances in the red zone doomed the Ravens.
In the first quarter, Lamar Jackson rolled to his right and had Mark Andrews open in the end zone. Jackson’s pass was underthrown, though, allowing Titans safety Kevin Byard to close the distance and break up the play. The Ravens had to settle for a field goal.
In the second quarter, the Ravens had first-and-goal at the 7-yard line, but two runs by Jackson and an incompletion led to a field goal. Then on their final drive of regulation, the Ravens had two chances from the 10-yard line but Jackson threw incomplete both times, leading to another Tucker field goal.
Against a Titans defense that ranked 28th in the league in red zone defense, the Ravens reached the red zone four times but scored just one touchdown, a 2-yard run by J.K. Dobbins.
After one incompletion by Jackson near the end zone, receivers Dez Bryant and Mark Andrews just stood in the end zone for a second as the offense left the field, as if both were trying to let everyone know they had been options.
“We have to finish drives,” said Jackson, who finished 17-of-29 for 186 yards and one touchdown with one interception. “We’re driving the ball down the field. We just have to stop putting [Justin] Tucker out there. We have to punch it in.”
3. J.K. Dobbins proved it’s time to scuttle the running-back-by-committee approach.
All season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has advocated for sticking with his “stable” of running backs, with Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and rookie J.K. Dobbins rotating in relatively equal measure when healthy.
But it’s probably time the Ravens rethink that approach.
Dobbins has done everything to state his case as the No. 1 back. He is quick and shifty, with remarkable balance and good vision, and good things tend to happen when the ball is in his hands.
Early in the second quarter, J.K. Dobbins slashed through the middle for a gain of nine yards, to the Titans 7-yard line. It seemed the rookie back was starting to find his groove, with strong runs and gains of 10, 6 and 9 yards on his first three carries. But after that 9-yard gain, Dobbins was subbed out, and judging by his reaction, he was none too happy about it.
Dobbins was animated as he came off the field and came close to ripping his helmet off as he marched up and down the sideline. If there was one moment that epitomized how the Ravens have not allowed their backs to get into any kind rhythm, that was it.
In this game, Dobbins finished with 15 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown and also caught two passes for 15 yards plus a two-point conversion. Edwards ran three times for 6 yards and Ingram carried twice for 2 yards, both in the first quarter.
Head coach John Harbaugh said after the game that Dobbins’ increased workload was not a pregame plan, but just something that developed as the game went on. It should be the pregame plan going forward.
4. The difference in wide receiver play was striking.
Titans wide receivers Corey Davis (5-113) and A.J. Brown (4-62) finished with a total of nine catches for 175 yards. Brown scored the would-not-be-denied go-ahead touchdown. Davis caught a 50-yard pass when he got a step on Marcus Peters, who bit on play action, and then caught two passes in overtime.
Contrast that with the Ravens’ top two wide receivers: Marquise Brown went without a catch on three targets, and Willie Snead had three catches for 23 yards. The leading wide receiver for the Ravens in this game was Dez Bryant, who had an expanded role in his second game as a Raven and finished with four catches for 28 yards.
The Ravens’ passing game has many issues right now, but among them is the fact that the wide receivers are not making enough impact.
Brown is perhaps the biggest disappointment. The Ravens’ first-round pick, the subject of so much August optimism, publicly aired his frustration over lack of use a few weeks ago. But in the ensuing games, he has dropped about as many passes as he has caught. Against the Titans, he dropped a pass in his hands over the middle, and a deep shot to him was broken up in the end zone.
The Ravens have tried to stretch the field with Brown a few times in the past two weeks, but one was intercepted, others fell incomplete in close coverage and Brown has not shown the ability to win those contested catches.
The Ravens continue to rely heavily on tight end Mark Andrews, who had a team-best five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. But the production falls way off after that, and it is especially evident when the other team’s receivers make impact plays late in the game and in overtime.
5. A forgiving December schedule could keep this season from slipping away completely.
The talk as a Super Bowl favorite has rightfully vanished.
The Ravens are a shell of the team that plowed through the AFC last year en route to a franchise-record 14-2 regular season. Injuries have hit hard on both sides of the ball. The MVP quarterback is playing at a more pedestrian level. Playmakers have not emerged on offense as hoped.
At this point, the Ravens will need to work just to make the playoffs, and if they lose at Heinz Field in their Thanksgiving night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, they will be mathematically eliminated in the AFC North race. That’s a stunning scenario for a team that was a trendy Super Bowl choice in August.
Still, all is not lost. John Harbaugh’s teams have played some of their best games at Heinz Field, and the Ravens will relish the chance to put a blemish on the Steelers’ perfect record.
Win or lose that game, the Ravens have a forgiving schedule from then on. The collective record of the Ravens’ final five opponents (Dallas, Cleveland, Jacksonville, New York Giants, Cincinnati) is 16-33-1, and only Cleveland (7-3) has a winning record in that group.
The Ravens should win four of those five games, which would get them to 10 wins even if they lose to Pittsburgh. That still could be good enough for a playoff spot, although now they would lose any tiebreaker to the Titans and they are suddenly looking up at the Browns in their own division. But such is their fortune now.
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