Five Things We Learned in the Ravens' 26-13 loss to the Titans

September 19, 2011

1. Prior to Sunday, the Ravens were adamant that they weren't going to overlook the Titans. John Harbaugh said he felt "embarrassed" for any reporter who suggested as much, implying it was such an absurd premise, he wasn't even going to entertain the question. For argument's sake, let say Harbaugh is correct. The Ravens may not have overlooked the Titans, but they certainly didn't match their urgency or their intensity. Look, we all know it's difficult to win on the road in the NFL. Just because it's a cliche doesn't mean it should be dismissed. There are a number of reasons home teams win about 61 percent of their games historically, but the main one is, it's really hard to summon the same intensity on the road as it is at home. It takes remarkable discipline. It's not just about fiery pregame speeches. It's about feeding off your teammates when they make plays, and channeling your motivation into specific physical execution. It's not very easy to just flip a switch and make it happen. But you know what? Really good teams are able to do it. They make a few plays early in the game, they don't let the crowd get too worked up, and they put all the pressure on the home team. I don't think the Ravens slacked off during film study this week. I don't believe they traveled to Tennessee and assumed it would be an easy victory, even though the Titans looked miserable in Week 1 against Jacksonville. But I do believe they weren't physical enough early in the game, and that helped Tennessee control the game. The Ravens talked a lot in the post-game about how they didn't want to blitz Matt Hasselbeck because he got the ball out of his hands so quickly, and that's a valid point. But in retrospect, maybe they should have blitzed him early and knocked him around a few times, even if he got the ball off and completed some passes, just to try and set the tone. It's probably fair to say the Ravens aren't going to be the offensive and defense juggernaut we saw against the Steelers. Most of us -- myself included -- probably got a little carried away by the impressive beat down the Ravens delivered in Week 1. But this team won't be as bad as the one we saw against the Titans either. There was a decent lesson learned on Sunday. Many of the errors were physical as well as schematic (and we'll get to those in a second), but the Ravens can now point to this game as a cautionary tale for the rest of the season.  "I don't think it's time to hit the panic button," Terrell Suggs said after the game. "They're professional athletes too. But what we need to ask ourselves is 'What was different from Week 1 to Week 2?" It's fun to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It's fun to have to entire town talking about how you look young and fast and dominant, and to have your old coach saying "this might be the best Ravens team ever."   It would have been more fun, though, to be 2-0 right now.   2. Instead of rehashing our endless debate about Joe Flacco, let's say this instead: The Ravens will not be a great team this year if they can't run the ball. I'm going to do something uncharacteristic this week and give Flacco a mulligan. I don't think he played particularly well. His two interceptions simply weren't very good throws, and he still breaks the huddle sometimes like he has all the time in the world to get to the line of scrimmage. A fourth-year quarterback needs to take charge of a game like this, and until late in the game, he couldn't seem to figure out what coverages the Titans were playing. But I've come to accept that he's the kind of quarterback who needs a credible running game to be at his best. If you give him the opportunity to use play-action passes that allow him to hit routes behind the linebackers, he can look like one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the game. But if he isn't running a balanced attack, that's when he looks average. And for whatever reason, he didn't have a running game on Sunday. It certainly didn't help that Ben Grubbs didn't start for the first time in 61 games. Grubbs has always been the most underrated member of the Ravens offensive line, and in Week 1, he and Bryant McKinnie looked like they were going to be a pretty darn good tandem. When the Ravens were forced to put Mark LeVoir in his place on Sunday, it was less effective. I can't say whether or not starting LeVoir over Andre Gurode this week was the right decision. Maybe Gurode's not in great shape, or maybe he doesn't know the playbook, or maybe the Ravens just aren't comfortable yet with him at guard. But I do think if Grubbs toe injury lingers, Gurode needs to get a shot to play there. With respect to LeVoir, there is a reason he's a free agent playing for the veteran minimum and Gurode is a 5-time Pro Bowl selection. Center and guard are different, sure, but when you break it down to the fundamental level, blocking is blocking. And Gurode has shown over the course of his career that he's pretty good at blocking. The Ravens offensive line just didn't move anyone off the ball on Sunday. Ray Rice never once took a handoff and slipped through the line with a chance to make a linebacker miss. They were better in pass protection than they were run blocking, but that's not saying a ton because Flacco still had to scramble around a lot. (There were times when Tennessee got pressure using only three lineman.) Despite the belief that Michael Oher was going to be a Pro Bowl tackle once he moved back to the right side, his old problem with false starts reared its head again. It's unclear why it's such a struggle for the Ravens to run the ball in short yardage, but sometimes it seems like Cam Cameron doesn't even try if the run isn't effective early in the game. That's logical, I suppose, but if it's 3-and-2 at midfield, and you have the best blocking fullback in football, I still think you have to try and run the ball. Harbaugh and Cameron said they don't want to compare this year's team to last year's team, but throwing the ball on 3rd-and-short sure did remind me of 2010. 3. The West Coast offense, and quarterbacks with a quick release, have the potential to give the Ravens real trouble this year. It's no secret that the Ravens defensive backs are struggling right now. Not having Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr really hurt the Ravens on Sunday, and when you don't put enough pressure on the quarterback -- Baltimore had zero sacks -- your corners are going to be sitting ducks. The Ravens needed some pressure -- any pressure -- from anyone besides Suggs and Haloti Ngata, and they didn't get it. I feel for Domonique Foxworth right now because he's being asked to do a lot for a guy who is barely a year removed from major knee surgery. But anyone who thinks he should be cut or traded is acting foolish and emotional. The injuries to Carr and Smith should make it clear just how much the Ravens need depth at that position, and Chykie Brown isn't the answer. I think Foxworth will work his way back and get to be an effective corner again, even if he's just an effective nickle, but let's not pin all the blame on him for Hasselbeck's big day. Cary Williams had sub-par game too, and the Ravens linebackers remain a liability in man coverage. Hasselbeck burned the Ravens because they couldn't collapse the pocket, and he consistently delivered the ball within four seconds of taking the snap on almost every play. The Ravens have had trouble with quarterbacks recently who get the ball out quickly, and throw timing routes. Their game last year against Ryan Fitzpatrick is another good example. Somehow they have to figure out a way to confuse those kind of teams, or West Coast offenses are going to eat them up, even when Smith and Carr return.  4. David Reed's shoulder injury is going to hurt the Ravens considerably. We saw how effective Reed could be returning kicks last year, and after serving a one game suspension, he picked up right where he left off against the Titans with a 77-yard burst. But I think the Ravens are really going to to miss him in the passing game. I was really interested to see what Reed could do this week, working against the Titans third best corner. I thought it would give Flacco the chance to surprise the Titans, who would try to take away Anquan Boldin and the tight ends.  It never really materialized, but I figured Reed could be far more effective than Torrey Smith has been thus far. Reed was a really good player in college, a guy with good body control and great hands, and the opportunity was there for him to fill a need. But now that Reed has an injured AC joint -- we'll find out how long he's out after he has an MRI -- it's puts the Ravens in a difficult position. It's obvious that Lee Evans is hurting, and it's obvious the game is moving a little too fast for Torrey Smith right now. I don't know whether the answer is giving Tandon Doss or Laquan Williams a shot, but it's suddenly an area of real concern.  5. Ray Lewis said after the game that the Ravens lost because they turned the ball over three times. They actually lost because they couldn't get off the field on third down. It certainly hard to win a football game when you are minus-two in the turnover department, but if you look back at what happened on Sunday, you'll see that third downs hurt the Ravens more that turnovers did. Yes, Ricky Williams fumble cost the Ravens three points. The defense did a nice job holding the Titans out of the end zone on that drive. But Flacco's initial interception -- which looked like the combination of a good read by cornerback Alterraun Verner and a poor decision by Flacco -- didn't result in any points for the Titans. By the time he threw his second pick, the Ravens were already down 20-10. Consider, instead, these 3rd down plays on each of the Titans scoring drives after Baltimore grabbed a 7-3 lead.   On Tennesse's first touchdown drive, Hasselbeck converted twice on third down, including his touchdown throw to Kenny Britt in front of Foxworth. That tied the game at 10-10, and stole the momentum back from the Ravens. With the game tied at 10-10 in the third quarter, Tennessee was facing 3rd-and-8 from its own 27 when Hasselbeck hit Nate Washington over the middle for a 42-yard gain when he got behind Lardarius Webb. Three plays later, the Titans picked up seven yards on 3rd-and-8, a decision that led to them going for on 4th down. Javon Ringer's touchdown on 4th-and-1 made it 17-10. The next drive, the Titans picked up a 3rd-and-6 when Hasselbeck hit Washington for eight yards. That got them into field goal position, and they made it 20-10. Flacco's second interception cost the Ravens three points -- Tennessee didn't move the ball at all, but kicked a field goal to make it 23-10 -- but when the Ravens were desperately trying to mount a comeback, they couldn't force a punt. Trailing 23-13, Baltimore had the Titans facing a 3rd-and-9 from their own 21. They gave up a 28 yard pass to Britt. Three plays later, the Titans faced a 3rd-and-6 from Baltimore's 47. LaVelle Hawkins caught a 7-yard pass. When you add all those plays up, that's what cost the Ravens the game. Tennessee picked up crucial third down plays, and the Ravens punted the ball away when they had similar chances. kvanvalkenburg@baltsun.comtwitter.com/kvanvalkenburg

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