The Ravens started this season with a quirk: When they scored touchdowns, they struck from in close. Over their first four weeks, the Ravens’ offense averaged just 7.7 yards per touchdown play. The longest of those 14 scores was an 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Lamar Jackson to wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
It was a quirk because it wasn’t yet a problem. The Ravens entered Week 5 with the NFL’s best red-zone offense. Their sloppy turnovers and shaky second-half play mattered only so much to an offense that seemed to maximize every trip inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Now, though, ahead of the toughest test (so far) on the Ravens’ schedule, their offense is in something of a no-man’s land. They still aren’t scoring on big plays. And now they’re struggling to score on little gains, too.
In a wasteful Week 5 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and a grind-it-out win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens had an NFL-leading nine red-zone drives — but just two touchdowns. They averaged 3.4 points per drive, according to TruMedia, 25th in the NFL in that span.
The importance of those possessions has become only magnified because the Ravens still aren’t scoring touchdowns from anywhere else. They’re one of only four teams that haven’t reached the end zone from outside the red zone this season, along with the Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks.
The NFC North-leading Detroit Lions, who head to Baltimore on Sunday, have eight touchdowns of 21-plus yards this season (seven passes and one run). Their resurgent defense, ranked third in DVOA, according to FTN, is also good enough to keep the Ravens out of the red zone altogether.
As for what’s ailed Todd Monken’s offense when it’s reached there? In London, the blame was shared.
The Ravens had 17 plays inside the Titans’ 20 on Sunday. Officially, just three were pass plays. In reality, the split was more balanced: Monken called 10 designed runs and seven drop-backs, four of which Jackson turned into scrambles.
Monken tested Tennessee with a variety of looks. The Ravens ran five plays in both 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends and three wide receivers). The other seven plays were a mix of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver) and 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers).
The Ravens ran pre-snap motion on 13 of their 17 plays, which over the first five weeks had led to what the NFL’s Next Gen Stats considers a “successful” outcome on half of their red-zone plays. On Sunday, that success rate dipped to 30.8%.
Monken called read-options and even a pass-run option for Jackson. He probed Tennessee with outside runs and inside runs. There were passing concepts that asked wide receivers to win in isolation and concepts that tried to overload one side of Tennessee’s pass defense. Monken even called two play-action plays, which he had never done in the red zone before Sunday. But wins were rare.
The Titans have one of the NFL’s best run defenses, but they seemed vulnerable entering Week 6. The Indianapolis Colts had rushed for 193 yards and 5.7 yards per carry in a win over Tennessee a week earlier, and starting defensive tackle Teair Tart was unavailable because of a toe injury.
Still, in the red zone, the Ravens’ front didn’t win often enough. Some of their losses were self-inflicted. On the Ravens’ first red-zone trip, running back Justice Hill was stuffed for a 1-yard gain on second-and-5 after left guard John Simpson pulled to the right when it seemed his assignment was walling off defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. The miscommunication and ensuing pileup in the backfield spoiled a promising hole for Hill.
On the Ravens’ next drive, left tackle Ronnie Stanley couldn’t get to inside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair in time on a read-option play to keep him out of running back Gus Edwards’ running lane. Edwards was stopped at the 1 after a 2-yard gain, and Jackson lost 4 yards on third-and-goal after Tennessee forced him to bounce his designed shotgun run out wide.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Stanley was also knocked back off the line of scrimmage by defensive lineman Kyle Peko, ruining right guard Kevin Zeitler’s pulling lane on an eventual 1-yard gain by Edwards.
The Ravens’ skill position players weren’t guiltless, either. On a first-and-10 toss play late in the third quarter, tight end Isaiah Likely whiffed on an open-field block attempt on cornerback Kristian Fulton, who stopped Hill after a 1-yard gain on a play that deserved at least a few more.
“They’re a very good front; they have some very physical players,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “The whole game was like that. They’re a physical, tough run defense.”
Jackson, one of the NFL’s best red-zone weapons this season, was again the team’s most effective option there Sunday. As a scrambler, he had four carries for 15 yards. As a passer, he went 2-for-3 for 14 yards, highlighted by the 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Zay Flowers that, after a failed 2-point conversion and blocked extra point, gave the Ravens a 15-3 lead late in the second quarter.
But Jackson maybe should’ve had a passing touchdown a quarter earlier. On the third-and-4 play that ended the offense’s first red-zone drive, Jackson seemed to lock onto slot receiver Odell Beckham Jr., whose corner route to the red zone was well covered. Jackson threw the pass anyway, and it fell incomplete.
If Jackson had moved off Beckham, he might’ve seen wide receiver Rashod Bateman coming open over the middle of the field. Bateman’s viability as a target hinged on the presence of safety Shyheim Carter, but by the time Jackson’s pass was thrown, Carter had given up his leverage toward the back-middle portion of the end zone.
“We just didn’t get it done, and I say coaches and players together, we have to do a better job at game planning, a better job of executing and we can do it,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We’ve had great success in the red zone, and then we’ve kind of had a drought here, so it’s a long season. We’re capable of being great in the red zone, and I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of success going forward, but we have to find it, and we have to make it happen.”
Odds and ends
- Inside linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Marlon Humphrey took the long route to stopping Titans rookie running back Tyjae Spears at the Ravens’ 6-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Smith, who was pancaked just inside the 40 on the 48-yard catch-and-run, got back up and ultimately covered 62.8 yards on his shared tackle, according to NGS. Humphrey, who lined up on the opposite side of the screen pass, covered 58.7 yards to drag down the third-round pick.
- Titans quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Malik Willis were pressured on 14 of their 30 drop-backs Sunday (46.7%), according to Pro Football Focus. On those drop-backs, they combined to go 2-for-6 for 16 yards and take six sacks. Despite injuries to outside linebackers Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo this season, the Ravens are tied for first in the NFL in sacks (24).
- Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike had one of the best games of his career, finishing with two sacks and six pressures, according to PFF, both of which tied career highs. The challenge for Madubuike, who’s set to hit free agency next offseason, has been sustaining a high level of pass rush production. According to PFF, his win rate is 10.7%, which ranks 29th among the 61 interior defensive linemen with at least 100 pass rush snaps this season.