PRESTON: After wake-up call, Baltimore Ravens need to rediscover their identity
Maybe now the Baltimore Ravens have returned to their senses.
Late last week, they were a team in conflict, one that had gotten carried away with its own hype on offense and defense. In a 34-23 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night, the Ravens thought they were the San Diego Chargers of the early 1980s and Dan Fouts was the quarterback.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw 55 times, continuing a trend that began in the preseason and continued in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, when the Ravens lit up some sorry defensive teams. The Ravens got excited, maybe too excited.
They had three new receivers, Flacco was more agile and effective than in the two previous seasons and coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was dialing up plays as if he were the former coach he admires, Mike Holmgren.
But, hopefully, a new memo was circulated around The Castle: To have a consistent, successful offense in the NFL, a team needs to have a good, sound running game, build off it with play-action passes and mix in deep passes downfield.
It’s not that hard of a philosophy, and the Ravens need to get back to that sound, fundamental approach. The major focus in the offseason was to bring in receivers Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead IV and John Brown to improve a team that had converted on only 76 of 223 third-down attempts in 2017.
The passing game was supposed to complement a running game that was No. 11 in the NFL last season, not allow Flacco to throw the ball all over the stadium.
The Ravens had better get a grip.
Can't rely too much on Flacco: Flacco is good, but not great. He has won few games against the Bengals throwing 30 or 40 times, but even better quarterbacks can’t win throwing that much, either. Just ask the Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who threw 60 passes in the Steelers’ 42-37 loss to Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
The Ravens will say they threw so much because they got behind early in the game, and that’s partially true. But they came out throwing. Eight of the first 12 plays on their first four possessions were pass plays. Only nine of their 34 first-half plays were designed runs.
You could see this coming after the season-opening rout against Buffalo. The Bills were terrible last season putting pressure on quarterbacks, so the Ravens took advantage.
That was great, but the Ravens and Mornhinweg were having too much fun.
Feeling cocky: Against Cincinnati, they were still feeling cocky. Flacco wasn’t going to slow down the passing game because he wants to throw 40 or 50 times. What quarterback doesn’t?
But the Bengals aren’t the Bills. Maybe the most surprised person in Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday night was Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis. A year ago, the Ravens rushed for 150 yards on 42 carries in Week 1 against Cincinnati and for 118 yards on 26 attempts in the Week 17 rematch.
Lewis probably expected another wrestling match, but he got Flacco the mad bomber, a quarterback the Bengals have owned through the years.
Lewis is probably still laughing.
In need of balance: This is not to say the Ravens have to run the ball 30 or 40 times a game, but they need to have some semblance of balance. They don’t have the personnel — quarterback, receivers, offensive line — to be one-dimensional.
There is an assumption here that Mornhinweg is feeling the pressure. He has been criticized for a lack of creativity and excitement, but creativity doesn’t always mean the long ball. It can involve running a screen, a draw or rolling the quarterback out of the pocket when there is a lot of pressure.
Excitement might mean having running back Buck Allen run his route a couple of yards past the first-down marker instead of being stopped 1 yard short on a catch on fourth-and-2.
Jackson move made no sense: Here’s another thing: If the team is down by 14 points or more in the second half, why is rookie Lamar Jackson replacing Flacco?
It’s understandable if the Ravens had a big lead and inserted Jackson. He could help pound the ball, kill some clock and maybe even break a long run. But it made no sense to put him at quarterback in the comeback effort against the Bengals, when the objective was to have the best 11 players on the field who could spark a rally.
It’s as if the Ravens are trying too hard. They seem to be in conflict with themselves.
If the Ravens really want to make use of Jackson, insert him on 2-point conversion attempts. Put him in the empty set, where he is a threat as a runner up the middle or on the perimeter and is also in position to make short passes.
Learning experience: The Bengals game was a learning experience. Hopefully, the Ravens learned something about their defense, too. They were great in the preseason with all those blitzes and pressures, but they didn’t face a team with a passing game like the Bengals.
Cincinnati exposed weaknesses. If the Ravens don’t blitz, they can’t get pressure with their front four, and their safeties are slow.
This sounds just like last season. The Ravens couldn’t bring pressure because they had to either double-team or rotate coverages towards receivers such as A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. They were left to win one-on-one matchups, and they didn’t.
Room to get better: The return of cornerback Jimmy Smith from a four-game suspension will help the Ravens, but they are still going to need some of the young linebackers to step up and become more consistent pass rushers.
The Ravens have played only two games, but the loss to Cincinnati showed us another average team.
But there is room and potential to get better. They just have to remember who they are and play within themselves. This is not a fantasy league, and the Ravens aren’t a fantasy team.
They can’t afford to get lost in their own hype again.