The Ravens were up big again late Sunday afternoon, and then they weren’t, and John Harbaugh did not need to consult the film or the box score or a palm reading to understand why.
“You saw the fourth quarter,” the coach said after Sunday’s 33-31 loss to the Cleveland Browns, “and the plays that were made.”
Sometimes football is that simple. Over the final 15 minutes inside M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens scored one touchdown; the Browns scored two, and added a game-winning 40-yard field goal as time expired. The Ravens had one turnover; the Browns had none. The Ravens had one play of at least 10 yards; the Browns had seven. The Ravens had four penalties; the Browns had three.
Even in a season of Ravens blowouts, not every double-digit lead is built to last. The Ravens have proved that time and again over the past two years, losing seven games in which they held a fourth-quarter lead. Their late-game shortcomings Sunday were especially resonant because of what they represented: long-running issues on not just offense but defense as well, recurring weaknesses undercutting a franchise renowned for its toughness.
“If we had finished strong in every game, we’d be undefeated, which is what we’d like to be right now, but we’re not,” Harbaugh said after practice Monday. “Those three games where we didn’t finish the way we needed to, we lost. That’s what we’re working on right now, certainly.”
The Ravens, who play the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night, need longer than a short week to address their fourth-quarter flops. The blame is widespread, from a turnover-prone Lamar Jackson and fading ground game on offense to a confounding implosion on defense.
Jackson was 12-for-18 for 212 yards, a touchdown and an interception entering the fourth quarter Sunday. He then went 1-for-5 for 11 yards, with wide receiver Rashod Bateman dropping a possible first-down catch.
Accuracy, though, has not been Jackson’s problem in the clutch. According to Sports Info Solutions, Jackson has a 66.5% completion rate, a 78.6% catchable-ball rate and a 68.4% on-target rate over the first three quarters of games since the start of the 2022 season. His numbers in clutch situations, defined here as the fourth quarter or overtime period of games in which the Ravens lead or trail by no more than 14 points: 63.4%, 77.2% and 68.3%, respectively. A downgrade, but only slightly.
Other metrics have largely held steady, too: his yards per attempt (7.4 over the first three quarters, 7.2 in the clutch late), his sack rate (7.0% early, 7.2% late), his success rate on drop-backs (46.1% early, 44.5% late).
|First quarter to third quarter||“Clutch” plays in fourth quarter|
|Yards per attempt||7.4||7.2|
Where Jackson has struggled in the fourth quarter and overtime is also where he struggled Sunday. The pass that caromed into cornerback Greg Newsome II’s hands and was returned for a touchdown was his fifth interception in clutch circumstances over the past two seasons. According to TruMedia, Jackson’s interception rate (5%) is the sixth highest in the NFL among 44 qualifying quarterbacks and more than four times his rate over the first three quarters of games (1.2%, which ranks fifth).
All five picks have been costly. Jackson threw two in a Week 4 loss last season to the Buffalo Bills, who outscored the Ravens 13-0 in the second half. An interception in Week 6 last season helped set up a go-ahead New York Giants touchdown in another hard-to-swallow loss. The end-zone fade that Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr. nabbed in Week 5 last month cost the Ravens their best chance at second-half points in a 17-10 defeat. And Newsome’s pick six Sunday drew the Browns to within a point midway through the fourth quarter.
The Ravens’ ground game hasn’t thrived in the clutch, either. Over those first three quarters with Jackson on the field, they have averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 0.10 expected points added per designed rush, according to TruMedia, both NFL-best marks. Their success rate on designed runs is 46.5%, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles.
In those relatively close fourth quarters, their production with Jackson under center has faded to league-average company: 4.4 yards per carry (sixth best), minus-0.01 EPA per designed rush (17th), 40.0% success rate (14th). In the fourth quarter Sunday, the Ravens rushed 10 times for just 29 yards, including one scramble for 7 yards.
“Those guys were trying to keep us off the field, but it’s football,” Jackson said Sunday. “Every Sunday isn’t going to be our day. Today, it wasn’t.”
No fourth-quarter component is more Jekyll and Hyde than the Ravens’ defense. By almost every measure over the past two seasons, they have been one of the NFL’s best defenses through the first three quarters, if not the best. Over that span, they lead the league in points per game allowed (10), defensive success rate (61.8%), yards per play allowed (4.6) and defensive EPA per drive (0.88), which measures how much better or worse an offense is at the end of a possession than at the beginning.
In the fourth quarter is where things fall apart. Within those 14-point margins, the Ravens have more closely resembled the New York Giants, ranking 31st in points per game allowed (7.0), 28th in defensive success rate (57.0%), 30th in yards per play allowed (5.5) and last in defensive EPA per drive (minus-0.69).
Those clutch-time vulnerabilities have flared up in Ravens losses and tight wins. In Week 5, the Steelers entered the fourth quarter with 175 yards, then added 114 more. In Week 8, the Arizona Cardinals eclipsed their three-quarter yardage total (135) in just the fourth quarter (175). On Sunday, the Browns averaged 7 yards per play in the fourth quarter after posting just 4.4 per play over the first three quarters.
This is not a new issue. Even after the Ravens acquired inside linebacker Roquan Smith last year, they remained vulnerable. They allowed 18 fourth-quarter points to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their third game after the trade. That was a loss. They allowed 10 fourth-quarter points to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their eighth game after the trade. Another loss. These were not Dolphins-in-Week-2 catastrophes — Miami scored 28 points and amassed 233 yards in the final period of that 42-38 comeback victory last year, when the Ravens’ secondary was hamstrung by injuries — but they were significant setbacks.
While the Ravens’ run defense struggled late Sunday, giving up 45 yards (5.6 per carry) in the fourth quarter, their pass defense has been their biggest undoing since 2022. In those competitive endgame scenarios, they rank 30th in the NFL in yards per fourth quarter allowed (66.8) and last in EPA per drop-back (minus-0.25). That stands in stark contrast, once again, to their first three quarters, in which they rank first (131.9 yards per game) and first (0.16), respectively.
“We didn’t make the plays that we needed to make,” cornerback Brandon Stephens said Sunday. “It has nothing to do with them [Cleveland]. It’s us, but yes, they made the plays they needed to make, and they came up big, and we came up short. That’s all it is.”