A lackluster 26-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans was not at all what Ravens’ fans were expecting in this game, especially after such a great start to the season with last week’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most experts were picking the Ravens to not just beat the Tennessee Titans, but to beat them decisively.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The Ravens couldn’t get anything going on offense or defense. The Titans couldn’t get their running game going but seemed to throw on the Ravens with impunity. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw two costly interceptions after throwing three touchdowns versus Pittsburgh last week.
The game started with a scoreless first quarter. The Titans seemed to start fast with momentum and were able to score with a field goal in the second quarter. The Ravens answered with a 31-yard touchdown catch by Ray Rice, but the Titans took the game over after that.
They scored two touchdowns and three field goals during the remainder of the game, while the Ravens only managed two field goals.
Looking back, this loss should have been easier to predict than most people realize. There were several key factors that played a part in the outcome of the game. Let’s take a look at what we learned about the Ravens from the loss to the Titans.
Maybe we should have seen this coming.
The Ravens lost their second game of last season to the Cincinnati Bengals. There’s nothing special about it being the second game, but the circumstances and the type of defense that they were playing are very similar.
The Bengals have been one of the hardest teams for the Ravens to beat in the Harbaugh-Flacco era. Even last season, when the Ravens had a 12-4 record and the Bengals were 4-12, the Bengals found a way to beat the Ravens in the second game of the season and really should have won in their second meeting as well.
One of the problems that the Ravens have with the Bengals is their defensive scheme. The Bengals run a cover-two defensive system that relies on a four-man pass rush up front and zone coverage in the secondary. For whatever reason, this scheme throws Flacco for a loop.
The Bengals aren’t the only team that runs it. The Indianapolis Colts run a variation on it (the tampa-two defense), and the Tennessee Titans put on a showcase today in how to perfectly execute the cover-two defense against the Ravens. The Ravens offense had no answer.
You have to give credit to the Titans defenders. It wasn’t all defensive schemes that beat the Ravens. The Titans defenders played extremely well. The corners and safeties played with great awareness and anticipation of what the Ravens were trying to do.
That being said, the Ravens' struggles versus cover-two defenses surround one player, Joe Flacco, and there are really only two possibilities for why the offense is so ineffective. Either offensive coordinator Cam Cameron isn’t calling the correct plays to exploit the weaknesses in the cover-two defense, or Flacco simply isn’t able to read the holes in the zone.
Either way you look at it, it’s bad for the Ravens.
Cameron needs to get together with Flacco to figure out what they need to do to beat this defensive scheme, because until they do, they will continue to lose to inferior teams like the Bengals and—although it remains to be seen—the Titans.
Perhaps the most troubling and worrisome aspect of the loss to the Titans was Matt Hasselbeck’s 358 yards passing versus the Ravens defense. Again, this is somewhat surprising after the Ravens secondary intercepted three passes last week.
There were two factors which allowed the Titans to dominate the Ravens through the air in this game. First, the Titans clearly have a better offensive line than the Steelers. Not only do they have the better line, but they also utilized the short passing game to negate the Ravens pass rush. These two factors kept Hasselbeck clean and comfortable in the pocket all game long. Even when the Ravens would blitz him, Hasselbeck would just hit a short route to take advantage of the pass rush.
The second biggest factor was that the Titans knew that the Ravens were thin in the secondary and exploited that weakness all game with four- and five-receiver sets. The Ravens had two of their best corners, Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr, out for the game. That left Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb as the starters, and the team only had Domonique Foxworth, who is clearly still struggling after an ACL injury, and Danny Gorrer, a practice squad player, as their only backups.
This made it extremely difficult for the Ravens to cover all the Titans wide receivers. They tried covering four and five wide receivers with their nickel package, but that left the linebackers and safeties exposed with receivers. They also tried putting in extra safeties and jamming receivers with linebackers.
Ultimately, nothing really worked well enough to win the game.
The Titans have a serious, big-time receiver in Kenny Britt. Britt is 6’3” and 215 pounds and was clearly dominating the Ravens smaller corners. Even Cary Williams, who is 6’1” tall, had a hard time covering Britt.
The Ravens had to focus so much attention on Britt that the other Titans’ receivers were basically being covered one-on-one, and when they tried covering Britt one-on-one, he made them pay. Britt scored a touchdown easily in one-on-one coverage versus Domonique Foxworth.
Ultimately, the Ravens need Jimmy Smith, but they just don’t need him for depth reasons. They need him to be the big, shut-down corner that they drafted.
There’s no doubt that the Ravens could have used more corners on the field today because depth was a serious issue, but no matter how many guys they have, they’ll never be able to stop offenses with elite receivers like Britt until they have a shut-down corner.
That’s because even if they can stop the elite receiver by double or triple covering him, there is probably another receiver running free in the secondary due to all the attention to the No. 1 guy.
Elite receivers like Britt put the defense on their heels. No matter how good the front seven is playing, they can still make you pay. We also saw it last season in Atlanta. Roddy White was unstoppable in that game. The Ravens didn’t have an answer and ultimately lost that game as well.
That’s where a shut-down corner comes in and why the Ravens need one so badly. The ability to shutdown a normal receiver on an average offense is a nice luxury to have and gives the defense flexibility. The ability to cover an elite receiver is an absolute necessity when playing against them, because they can single-handedly take over games if you can’t cover them.
There is much more that goes into these games than a single match-up, but it’s hard to believe that this game wouldn’t be different if the Ravens had a shut-down corner. Whether or not Jimmy Smith can be that guy for the Ravens remains to be seen.
To be sure, you will hear many Ravens fans saying that the sky is falling after that Ravens loss to the Titans, but the fact is the Ravens should take this loss exactly how they should have taken last week’s win—as one game.
The Ravens still have a great team, and in reality, it’s basically the same team that played extraordinarily well versus the Steelers last week. Whether or not the Ravens were on a high from the win over the Steelers or whether they were simply beaten fair and square, they need to put this game behind them.
They need to get back to what they did well versus the Steelers. They need to run the ball first and pass second. The offense’s struggles today need to be carefully analyzed by Cam Cameron and Joe Flacco to see if there’s anything that they can do differently versus cover-two defenses.
The defense needs to get its corners healthy as quickly as possible, because the lack of depth in the secondary was a huge issue today. And more importantly, they need to find an answer for elite receivers, because several good playoff teams have them.
The Ravens are going to be fine. They lost their second game of the season last year in a similar fashion to the Bengals and still managed to go 12-4 in the regular season.
That’s not to say that they don’t have problems. Obviously, they need to address all the problems that we clearly saw versus the Titans, but they still have all the makings of a Super Bowl contender, if they play their cards right. They just aren’t the world beaters that everyone proclaimed them to be after last week.
If anything, this loss shows us how much can change in the NFL on a weekly basis, and this week, that’s a good thing for the Ravens, because they have many changes to make after that fiasco.