Welcome to Ravens Reality Check, where we take our whiskey neat but always ask for national hot takes about the Baltimore Ravens to be served on the rocks.
It’s one of those tough Mondays, where a forensic dismantling of a 33-31 loss to the Cleveland Browns doesn’t make the letdown any less frustrating. And the same folks who have largely been trumpeting the Ravens in recent weeks are now poking holes in them (myself included) — that’s the nature of the game.
1. The Ravens cannot be trusted in the fourth quarter!
Do you guys know “The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point” meme? That’s what came to mind watching Skip Bayless criticize the Ravens for coughing up a double-digit lead.
This is one of those takes where the eye test matches with reality, unfortunately. ESPN’s Jamison Hensley pointed out that, since the start of last season, the Ravens have lost seven games when they led in the fourth quarter, tied only with the Indianapolis Colts (who beat them earlier this year in a blown fourth quarter). Considering that the Ravens have been viewed as a demonstrably better team than the Colts over the last two years, that’s not flattering company.
Jonas Shaffer broke down how unique the Browns loss was in his game story yesterday, in part because of the margin the Ravens were winning by. But there’s little doubting it’s part of a troubling trend that has been going on for months: As the game progresses, the Ravens struggle more. DVOA whiz Aaron Schatz shared an unnerving statistic Monday morning about the Ravens’ quarter-by-quarter progression:
The reasoning varies, and the Ravens weren’t particularly good in any one phase against Cleveland. A lot of folks will look at the run game, which dried up for 44 yards on 13 carries in the second half. After a 39-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the game, Keaton Mitchell got just one carry for two yards in the second half — a head-scratcher even though many fans didn’t know who Mitchell was before his breakout game against the Seahawks.
It’s hard to put an exact finger on it when the defense was getting bulldozed and the offensive line was on its heels for just about the entire second half. Of course, a lot of folks can and will put this on quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was not very good in the game, leading to our second take …
2. Lamar Jackson can’t be trusted!
There were at least two throws against the Browns that I had a hard time understanding: Jackson’s first pick on an underthrown ball to Rashod Bateman, and a throw where Jackson heaved it up in the end zone to the diminutive Mitchell in triple coverage (easily intercepted, but wiped out thanks to a Browns penalty). Jackson was definitely under pressure, but he could have been a lot better and help the Ravens get over the hump — instead, he made a number of decisions that dug their hole deeper.
All that said, it’s exhausting, week after week, to wade through national hot takes about Jackson that change with the breeze. To a handful of commentators with the biggest platforms, he’s either the best dual-threat passer in the league who has deserved to be paid like it, or a charlatan waiting to be exposed. These takes are often issued by the same commentators, depending on how the Ravens performed recently.
I feel for ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, who was clearly over having Stephen A. Smith — “Of course he’s worth the money,” Smith said three weeks ago — revert to old talking points. The highlight of his morning stint was arguably when he asked the panel if they have similar turnover concerns about Joe Burrow, who had two picks in a loss to Houston: “I don’t look at turnovers as just a black-and-white thing,” Orlovsky said.
Not that “First Take” should be anyone’s go-to for rigorous statistical analysis, but it seemed particularly galling that former Raven Shannon Sharpe was cherry-picking statistics that were designed to be unflattering, such as pointing out that Jackson’s passing touchdowns (10) are the same number as Patriots’ QB Mac Jones. Sharpe, of course, has been touting the Ravens as the NFL’s best team for at least two weeks.
He’s technically right, but Jackson is also the second-leading rusher (481 yards, 5 TDs) for the NFL’s top rushing attack by yardage after the Ravens already lost top back J.K. Dobbins for the year. The unpredictability of his game predicates the entire Ravens offense, and is at the core of why the Ravens went on a four-game winning streak and scored 30 points in five straight games (including this loss).
Jackson’s bad performance (13-of-23 passing) still leaves him as the third-ranked passer in completion percentage (70.3%). Before the Browns, Jackson was one of the safest passers in football, with just three interceptions in nine games. How quickly we forget that Cleveland is one of the best defenses in the league, even though the matchup was hyped as such.
Comparing Jackson’s stats to Jones, a quarterback who was benched midgame this week for the league’s 31st-ranked offense, doesn’t provide context as much as completely skew it.
There are definitely things Jackson can be criticized for: I, for one, wonder what this says about how Jackson will perform against teams with great pass rushers he might see in the playoffs, like Kansas City’s Chris Jones or maybe the Browns again, should they make it. You could also look at how his passer rating (82.5) and yards per attempt (6.7) are lowest in the fourth quarter, calling into question his late-game execution.
But inevitably, talking heads fail to zero in on the heart of the matter without inflammatory, misleading comparisons.
3. The new AFC North favorite is … the Steelers!
Here you have to separate the gut reaction from the results. Does this feel correct? No. It would be easy to breeze by this take if it hadn’t been offered up by at least two different analysts, including Maurice Jones-Drew.
On the one hand, the Steelers have won games against the Browns and the Ravens already this season, and they’re 6-3. On the other, they’ve been outgained on offense in almost every game they’ve played. How can that be a real contender? ”Good Morning Football” analyst Shaun O’Hara argues it’s good coaching — and honestly, that’s hard to argue against, given Mike Tomlin’s track record.
To me, however, these takes lack the context of how much harder the Steelers are going to have it: They have four division games remaining, including three on the road. In the last four weeks, they’ve gone 3-1 with wins over the Rams, Titans and Packers — not exactly juggernauts. They have Arizona and New England left on the schedule, but also scrappy Indianapolis and the Seahawks, one of the better NFC teams.
How many scheduled wins are left for a team that ranks 28th in offensive yards and 28th in defensive yards? Of the quarterbacks in the division, you’d probably rather have the other three over Kenny Pickett. The New York Times statistical model gives them a 17% chance (Baltimore still leads with 44%).
It is a credit to Tomlin and the Steelers that they’ve managed to stay in the division race in spite of their more obvious inadequacies, but with the Browns and Bengals rounding into form and the Ravens with seven wins, it’s hard to see how the Steelers thread the needle here to come out on top.