The Baltimore Ravens have struggled to beat teams with losing records on the road this season and continued that trend as they lost 34-14 to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night in what was one of their worst performances of the season.
As good as the Ravens defense has been this season, not many people were expecting them to get beaten as bad as they did by the Chargers. The Chargers actually set a couple records against the Ravens defense. No team had ever scored on their first five possessions against a Ravens defense—ever—and that was the first time all season where the Ravens defense allowed a touchdown on the opening drive.
The Ravens actually started the game with a positive drive into Chargers territory, but after a Billy Cundiff missed field goal, the Chargers would drive down and score their first touchdown of the game.
After that score, the Ravens managed their own scoring drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass by Joe Flacco to Ed Dickson, but after that drive, the Chargers completely took over the game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers seemed to pass at will, his receivers were routinely beating the Ravens' defenders in coverage, and the Chargers were able to put up 27 unanswered points.
The Chargers were hot. There’s no doubt about that, but the fact that this game was so one-sided is very surprising to say the least. There were many people who thought the Chargers would give the Ravens trouble, but given the Ravens strong play recently—especially on defense—most people would have at least predicted a close game.
This was probably one of the most revealing games that the Ravens have played this season, and as always, we learn more about the Ravens—whether they win or lose.
Let’s take a look at what we learned about the Ravens after their 34-14 loss to the Chargers.
The fundamental problem in the game was the fact that the Ravens defense could not do anything to stop or even slow down Phillip Rivers and the Chargers offense.
That was the most obvious problem, but what exactly was going on? Why were the Chargers able to score on their first five possessions of the game when the Ravens haven’t allowed a team to do that not only this season, but in their entire history of as a team?
The answer to that question has multiple parts. First, the Ravens could not get any pressure on Philip Rivers. The Chargers' offensive line was fantastic all game long and managed to keep Rivers clean and free from any pressure. That allowed Rivers to sit back and pick apart the Ravens' secondary.
Second, the Ravens corners were getting destroyed in one-on-one coverage with the Chargers' receivers. The Ravens' good defensive play this season had many people fooled—including this writer—into thinking the big corners that the Ravens have with Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams would be a good matchup with the Chargers big receivers. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Sure, the pass rush didn’t help them out at all, but there wasn’t any amount of pass rush that could have covered up how poorly the Ravens' corners played against the Chargers. Smith and Williams just couldn’t seem to do anything right.
They were biting on double moves, playing with bad position, not contesting catches and simply getting outrun by the Chargers receivers. The Ravens defense was the biggest reason that the Chargers were able to have so much success, and the Ravens corners were the biggest liability on the defense.
Finally, Ray Lewis may have had one of his worst games in a very long time, and as hard as it is for Ravens fans to admit or even think about, he may be finally starting to show his age.
Lewis was clearly a liability in coverage as the Chargers successfully threw at his man almost every time he dropped in coverage, and even in running situations, Lewis was getting blocked out of plays. He had a few big hits, but for the most part, this was an embarrassing performance for Lewis.
His bad play in this game wouldn’t have been so glaring had the Ravens not played so well in his absence over the last few weeks. Maybe that’s unfair and maybe Lewis is still struggling with his injury, but the fact is this was a bad performance.
If it was because of his injury, then the Ravens' coaches are to blame for not resting him longer, and if it was because of his age, then the Ravens need to start thinking about rotating him with some of the younger linebackers.
Every team in the league has their own way of winning games. The Ravens have typically used their running game to play to the strength of their defense, and for the most part, that has been very hard to beat this season.
The Chargers are different with their game-plan. They like to pass the ball, force the opposing team into a hole and play to their offense. They were able to perfectly execute their game plan against the Ravens, and perhaps most importantly, force the Ravens outside of their game-plan.
What has been abundantly clear this season is that the Ravens are not a very good team when they are forced to play outside of their game plan. When everything goes according to plan—when they can run the ball effectively, get the lead and play to their defense—the Ravens are one of the hardest teams to beat in the NFL, but when they cannot sit on their game plan, they seem to fall apart.
It’s perplexing for Ravens fans and analysts because it makes the Ravens a hard team to figure out. They can look like the NFL’s best team against the 49ners one week and get dominated by the Seahawks the next.
Much of this problem is because the Ravens don’t have a very versatile offense right now. You could see it against the Chargers. When the Ravens were down by several scores in the third and fourth quarters, it was like they didn’t know what to do. They were disjointed and confused.
That has to fall back on the coaches for not being more prepared for that situations, but at the same time, the coaches can only do the best with the players that they have. The coaches certainly weren’t doing their best, but neither were the players.
Joe Flacco has to be one of the most frustrating quarterbacks in NFL to figure out. In games like the Chargers game, Flacco seems confused and unable to see open receivers or make the most basic throws. He wasn’t terrible and seemed to be battling on some plays, but the fact is that Flacco wasn’t able to carry the offense on a night where the defense was getting dominated.
That may sound unfair to expect Flacco to carry the team when everything is falling apart around him, but that’s what being a franchise quarterback is all about. That’s ultimately what the Ravens would have needed to win, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why the Ravens offense lacks versatility right now…When they need to throw the ball to win games, they have a very hard time doing it.
This offseason, one of the biggest question marks on the team was the offensive line, and in particular, the offensive tackle position. The Ravens struggled in 2010 to protect Joe Flacco, and it was clear that offensive tackle Michael Oher was not cut out to play left tackle.
One of the reasons why the Ravens were so thin at tackle in 2010 was because Jared Gaither, a supplemental draft pick from Maryland, was out with an injury all season. That injury forced Oher to play left tackle and right guard Marshall Yanda to play right tackle.
Gaither’s injury turned out to be one of the biggest injuries of the 2010 season, and going into the 2011 offseason, Gaither was still fighting to get back onto the field. That brought up criticism from the fans because Gaither had a reputation as a lazy player from his days at Maryland, where he was forced to enter the NFL early because of bad grades.
Gaither was a free-agent heading into the 2011 season because the new CBA allowed fourth-year players to be unrestricted free agents. At first, the Ravens seemed to give indications that they would resign him but would ultimately let him walk as it was clear that his injuries were still preventing him from practicing of playing.
Whether or not they should have resigned him is a matter of opinion, but there’s no question that Gaither has performed like one of the best tackles in the league when he’s been healthy—and that was well documented before Gaither left. His success in San Diego shouldn’t surprise anyone who knew how talented he is. Gaither’s only issue has been his health—particularly the neck injury that he had in 2009 lingered into 2010.
Gaither played a stellar game against the Ravens and has been a big part of the Chargers success recently. Since Gaither has started at left tackle for the Chargers, they have won every game and put up 109 total points while Rivers has only been sacked twice. That’s a remarkable turnaround after Rivers had been sacked 28 times in the previous 11 games, before Gaither started for the Chargers.
Another former Raven that started against the Ravens and played an excellent game was Antwan Barnes, who was surprisingly traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a low draft pick before the 2010. The trade was surprising because many fans and analysts were expecting a break-out season from Barnes.
Barnes was cut by the Eagles, and that seemed to justify the trade by Baltimore. However, Barnes was picked up by San Diego and became one of their best pass-rushers immediately. He helped lead the top-ranked Chargers defense last season, currently leads the team in sacks for this season and had an excellent game against the Ravens with four sacks.
Gaither and Barnes represent two of the more confusing personnel decisions that the Ravens have made in recent history. The most perplexing part is that both players could have greatly helped the Ravens in the season after they were released.
After releasing Barnes in 2010, the Ravens struggled with their pass rush all season and recorded a franchise-low in sacks, and this offseason, the Ravens were extremely thin at offensive tackle but still neglected to retain Gaither. Not to mention, Bryant McKinnie, who was signed to replace Gaither, is only a short-term solution. A young, healthy Gaither will probably be starting for the Chargers for the foreseeable future.
The Ravens have been one of the best teams at scouting, drafting and signing players in recent history, but even they would have to admit that they may have done things differently with Gaither and Barnes knowing what they do now.
The hardest part about this loss for the Ravens is that it gives the Pittsburgh Steelers the opportunity to take the lead in the division, and unlike the Charger’s division, a 12-4 record might not be enough to win the division if the Steelers win out.
The Steelers have been trailing the Ravens all season long because of the head-to-head tiebreaker that the Ravens have over them, but if they can finish the season with the better record, they would win the division and would force the Ravens into a wild-card spot and the fifth seed in the playoffs.
The bad thing about being the fifth seed is that they’ll have to play the fourth seed, which is likely to be the Chargers with the way that they’re playing, so the Ravens would have to play the Chargers in San Diego again.
Ravens fans aren’t the only ones that would dread that scenario. With the way that the Chargers dominated the Ravens, there’s no way that any of the Ravens' players and coaches want to see them again. The Chargers are just a terrible matchup for the Ravens. Even if they play their best, the Ravens would still have a tough time with them.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, they no longer control their own destiny after that loss. All they can do now is pray that the Steelers lose on Monday night, and if that doesn’t happen, pray that the Chargers don’t win their division. We all know that’s the last team the Ravens want to see in the playoffs.