Five thoughts on the Ravens' 30-24 loss to the Tennessee Titans Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Both teams were dealing with injuries. Both had struggled lately and really needed a win to bolster their playoff chances. Fully expecting a tough afternoon, the Ravens came in with a solid plan and had the game in hand, leading by 11 points in the third quarter. No question, you're supposed to go home happy when you're in that situation. But the Titans were tougher down the stretch. Tougher and better. Suddenly, the Ravens couldn't tackle or stop Tennessee's offense. Suddenly, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' offense couldn't finish drives that could have made the difference. As the day turned ominous, the Ravens really needed just one big play from someone on either side of the ball to hold on. But that one play didn't come, and fittingly, the disappointing day ended with troubling postgame comments from Jackson. "That team looked like it wanted it more than we did," he said of the Titans, adding that it also seemed as if the Ravens "took our foot off the gas" once they had a double-digit lead. Not good, any of it.
In the end, the narrative coming out of the game was similar to the narrative that came out of the Ravens' loss to the Patriots a week earlier. And that narrative is as simple as it is surprising: The other team was tougher. It's surprising because the Ravens are known for fielding teams as tough as any in the NFL, and this year's is no exception. Sunday, Baltimore's kickoff coverage unit delivered a series of monster blows. DeShon Elliott hit Tennessee's Derrick Henry so hard on one tackle that the bruising back had to leave the field for a few plays. Most importantly, the shorthanded defensive front rose up and pretty much stuffed Henry through three quarters. But everything changed late. The Titans also are known for their toughness, and their brand of it was superior with the game on the line. Henry started shedding tacklers and picking up yards. Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown pushed through four defenders on his way to a touchdown. "We didn't tackle well at all" late and "that's probably the biggest difference in the game," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. Losing any way is disappointing, but losing by getting out-toughed truly challenges the Ravens' identity.
No question, it's a nice story that wide receiver Dez Bryant played a bunch of snaps for the Ravens for the first time and had an impact on the game, catching four passes from Jackson on five targets. His catches were the first for him since December 31, 2017, almost three years ago. Bryant, 32, has overcome a major injury and dwindling interest from other teams to get back on the field, and if this game is any measure, he does have something left in the tank. He certainly gives Jackson a big-bodied target with a resume that'll causes opponents to pay attention. All good. But let's be honest: The Ravens probably wouldn't need him if their plans for the 2020 passing game were being realized. But those plans are in tatters at this point. Marquise "Hollywood" Brown had no catches Sunday (one drop) and has just six in the past four games. Miles Boykin was never targeted Sunday. Rookie Devin Duvernay had one catch for five yards and one deep shot intended for him was intercepted. There's a multitude of possible explanations to explore, but the bottom line is the Ravens counted on their new generation of wideouts becoming difference-makers this season, but it's not happening right now.
The good news for the offense was J.K. Dobbins looked like the No. 1 running back of the future, rushing for 70 yards on 15 carries on a day when the Ravens' other runners, including Jackson, struggled to make gains on the ground. The offense has been searching for a spark. Dobbins provided it. And there was other good news for the offense. Mark Andrews was a big-play beast; you'd be hearing more about it if the Ravens had won. The unit turned nine of 15 third downs into firsts, a success rate that usually produces a win. But in an increasingly weird season, when little things like snapping the ball become problems, Sunday brought more frustrations. Penalties played a role in several late drives falling short. Dobbins led one early drive with a series of runs but then came out near the goal line. The Ravens produced just one touchdown on four trips to the red zone, and that's against one of the NFL's weakest red-zone defenses. Week after week, little things are adding up.
Short takes: Raise your hand if you predicted before the season that Bryant, tight end Luke Willson and offensive tackle Will Holden would be on the field for the Ravens late in an important game in November. (Didn't think so.) ... A change at center appeared to work as Patrick Mekari had no issues snapping the ball ... Derek Wolfe took the blame for Henry's game-winning touchdown, saying it was on him. But on a day when fellow D-line starters Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams were inactive due to injuries, Wolfe left everything on the field ... After finishing six games ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North last year, the Ravens now trail the undefeated Steelers by four games ... How did the Ravens lose their grip on the game after they took a 21-10 lead? The defense allowed a 50-yard reception that set up a Tennessee field goal. Then Jackson attempted a deep pass on a first down that was basically a jump ball and was intercepted.