Execution is the most important factor in determining the winner of a football game, but the Baltimore Ravens seemed to ignore this key tenant of football 101 on Sunday. To be clear, the responsibility of this disaster falls solely on one group, the offense. The defense and special teams miraculously kept the score close and prevented the Chargers from running away with a win. As Baltimore’s defense was demonstrating its Super Bowl caliber strength, the offense did nothing but the opposite.
Baltimore’s offense ran rampant on the Chargers two weeks prior, in Week 16 of the regular season. Rookie running back Gus Edwards led the charge on the ground, with 14 carries and 92 yards. Lamar Jackson and Kenneth Dixon followed up with 13 carries for 39 yards and 8 for 28 respectively. The Ravens finished with 159 yards on the ground on 35 rushing attempts. This allowed the Ravens to once again control the time of possession, and keep the ball away from the Phillip Rivers led offense. While this formula worked in the first instance, it did not in the second.
The Chargers took advantage of a few mistakes by the Ravens to completely stifle the offense. The first mistake came from Ronnie Stanley. The former first-round talent was caught positioning his left foot behind his right on pass plays. The Chargers noticed this during their film review of the Ravens and used it to determine what kind of play offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was calling. This mistake was not a one-time thing either, it happened throughout the game, and can be explicitly seen on the first drive of the game. I broke down the situation on this film review video.
The Chargers also took advantage of another mistake the Baltimore Ravens made, relying on Lamar Jackson. By no means is this an attack on Lamar Jackson, but he was obviously unprepared for his first playoff start. Lamar Jackson got by for weeks by using his legs and his break-away ability as an offensive utility and escape plan when no pass was available. Whether by design or not, Jackson could take off and run. The Chargers cracked the enigma that no other team had been able to solve, and thwarted Lamar Jackson’s rushing intentions. The Chargers replaced inside linebackers with defensive backs, and typically put three of these defensive backs in the box. The Chargers gambled that these defensive backs would have enough lateral speed to catch Jackson on outside runs, and just enough power to stuff rushers up the middle like Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon. It worked.
The rushing attack was completely neutralized. The Ravens only rushed for 90 yards on 23 attempts, an average of 3.9 yards per attempt. Lamar Jackson finished with 9 rushes for 54 yards, a 6.0-yard average, but the damage was done, and the attack fell short of effectiveness. Jackson remained without a reliable escape route, as the Chargers defensive front kept up the pressure all game. The offensive line was not able to control the onslaught of pass rushers the Chargers sent at Jackson. As a result, Jackson was sacked seven times to lose 55 yards. The extreme pressure and lack of an escape route left Jackson restless in the pocket, and he was not able to read defenses correctly or deliver a ball with accuracy.
To say Lamar Jackson struggled passing the ball is an understatement. At the half, Jackson boasted a 0.0 quarterback rating, and only completed 2/8 passes for 17 yards. Those two completions were also his first two passes, he missed on six straight after that. He also threw one interception. On one pass attempt, he hesitated for what seemed like a lifetime, ignored an open Crabtree, and a wide-open John Brown for an easy first down. He decided that instead of passing to one of these receivers, he should scramble. He fumbled the ball, picked it up, and threw to the feet of Willie Snead. On another play, Jackson made a good read throwing to Willie Snead, but the ball was so inaccurate it was almost intercepted. Not until the fourth quarter, when the Chargers took the defensive backs out of the box to play prevent defense, did Jackson come alive.
Many fans criticized the gameplan that Marty Mornhinweg put together, and claimed that he made no adjustments at all in the second half. This would be a legitimate complaint if it were true. This article is not to defend him, but Mornhinweg attempted to make changes throughout the game. In the second half, the Ravens used six personnel groups that they did not in the first half. This refers to the number of running backs and tight ends on the field. Baltimore came out swinging immediately in the third quarter, trying a two running back and one tight end group with Maxx Williams lined up as the fullback. Baltimore ran first, then passed, but Lamar Jackson was sacked on the second play. The Ravens tried to use stronger formations with more running backs and tight ends than in the first half in an attempt to salvage the running game. In fact, the Ravens did not run a two running back set until the third quarter.
In the first half, Lamar Jackson passed eight times. In the second half, he passed 20 times. In the first half, the Ravens called 14 run plays. In the second half, the Ravens called seven and Lamar Jackson scrambled on three attempts. The fact of the matter is that the Ravens tried to make adjustments, but the adjustments made did not work. Baltimore tried to revive the rushing attack immediately in the third quarter by using different personnel groups and new formations. But the average run of the third quarter went for 2.2 yards. Down 20-3 by the first possession of the fourth quarter, the Ravens had to go focus on passing more than running. The Ravens consistently used a one running back one tight end personnel group in the fourth quarter and ran 14 pass play straight with that group, but only because it was working. The average yardage gained with that group on the field was 7.87 yards per attempt, and in the fourth quarter, it was 9.39 yards per attempt.
To say the Ravens made no offensive adjustments is just plain wrong. They did, but the execution was the cause of the unit’s woes, not playcalling. Edge rushers occasionally went unblocked, Lamar Jackson made bad reads, receivers dropped balls, and running backs hit the wrong hole. It was just one giant mess of an offensive effort, but by the fourth quarter, the unit started to mesh. The offense’s attempt to make a comeback in the fourth quarter was a simple scenario of too little, too late. The defense and special teams units kept Baltimore alive, but the Ravens ran out of time and were forced to rely on extremely low probability of success plays, such as the multiple onside kicks attempted.
The Ravens defense strained the Chargers offense in various ways. The unit took away Los Angeles’ ability to run the ball. Neither the two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon or second-year running back Austin Ekeler could effectively rush against the Ravens. Gordon rushed for 40 yards on 17 attempts, and Ekeler rushed for 29 on 11. Quarterback Phillip Rivers actually had the highest average yards per rush of any Charger on Sunday. He rushed three times for 15 yards for an average of 5 yards per carry. The Chargers finished the day with just 89 yards on the ground on 33 carries. The very low 2.7 yards per rushing attempt is less than stellar, to say the least, and forced the Chargers to find most of their production through the air.
Phillip Rivers threw the ball 32 times, but only converted 22 attempts into completions. He only passed for 160 yards, 21 yards less than he did in the first meeting between these two teams. Aside from Mike Williams who caught two passes for 42 yards, no other receiver caught passes totaling 40 or more yards. Phillip Rivers did a good job of spreading targets out between receivers, but what he gained in balance, he lost in production. He never found a productive connection with a receiver that would allow the Chargers to run away with the score. The lack of offensive production started to break in the third quarter, however, as the Chargers got advantageous field position, and took advantage of an exhausted Ravens defense. The continual three and outs by the Ravens offense coupled with long drives by the Chargers offense broke the defense’s ability to keep pace. Los Angeles’ first touchdown came in the fourth quarter, and at that point, it would be nearly impossible to turn the game around.
The special teams unit played lights out, minus one mistake. That one mistake was allowing multiple long kick and punt returns. The Ravens special teams unit, however, was able to keep the score close enough to allow a late-game comeback attempt. This was done with not one, but two blocked kicks. The first came on a 41-yard Chargers field goal, and the other came on a blocked punt at the 29-yard line. Za’Darius Smith got a hand on the field goal for the block, and Javorius “Buck” Allen blocked the punt. But even with the special teams help, putting the Ravens in good field position, the offense could not capitalize.
No touchdown was scored by the Ravens until the fourth quarter, but by that time, it was already too late to mount a serious comeback attempt. Many Ravens fans and media members believed that head coach John Harbaugh should have put in quarterback Joe Flacco. While I thought the same at the time, and still do retrospectively, I don’t think the Ravens would ever have done it. Baltimore decided to go down with the sinking ship on Sunday to show support for their young quarterback. If Harbaugh put Flacco in the game, it could leave doubts about Jackson’s future in Baltimore. The Ravens did not want to deal with that, and that’s probably why no change was made. Overall, this game could have gone better, but the Ravens chose to stick with what got them to the playoffs in the first place.