OWINGS MILLS – It was a bitter enough loss that the Baltimore Ravens immediately issued vows of revenge the next time they encounter the New England Patriots.
It was also the kind of troubling collapse in the clutch that triggered major second-guessing from the Monday morning quarterbacks as the Ravens allowed 13 unanswered points in squandering a 10-point fourth quarter lead.
Falling 23-20 in overtime to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the Ravens’ conservative strategy from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the game drew heavy criticism as quarterback Joe Flacco threw short passes and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice tried to run up the middle with sluggish results.
Flacco wound up completing 27 of 35 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns, but did almost all of his damage in the first three quarters.
One day removed from the Ravens’ offense grinding to a halt with only three first downs in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, coach John Harbaugh defended Cameron’s approach and offered his take on what happened against the Patriots’ Cover 2 schemes.
“I think if you understand the coverage that they’re playing, we had good plays called,” Harbaugh said Monday during his weekly news conference. “We had downfield routes called against it. The check down is always really good against that if the downfield routes don’t express themselves. We had runs called against it, which you like against a three-man rush, especially some draws.
“I don’t think there was anything conservative about in that sense. I don’t think we executed it. I don’t think we did a good enough job as coaches explaining to our players exactly how to attack it. We say, ‘What can we do better as coaches and players to solve that issue?’ Here’s a team that had two weeks to prepare for us. They had some pretty good ideas against us.”
The Cover 2 has presented problems for Flacco in terms of reading coverages in the past.
He threw four interceptions against the Cincinnati Bengals’ Cover 2 earlier this season.
After watching the video, Harbaugh noted that the Patriots primarily used a three-man rush, two-deep coverage with the middle linebacker dropping deep.
Then, the Patriots sent another linebacker to shadow Rice if Flacco couldn’t find an open receiver and wanted to dump the football short.
“There are ways to attack that,” Harbaugh said. “Routes, they come open a little bit later against the three-man rush and you’ve got to be able to give those routes a little bit of time to get open. So, I don’t think there’s anything with the routes.
“I thought our guys ran good routes and all that. It’s just something that we need to grow and learn to attack a little better. There wasn’t anything that we haven’t seen before. Obviously, we could have gotten the ball downfield better there.”
The Ravens had built a solid lead, but operated as if it was a three-touchdown advantage.
Leading by three points with nearly nine minutes remaining in regulation, the Ravens opted to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-one at their own 47-yard line after Flacco was stuffed for no gain on a quarterback sneak the previous play.
The Patriots wound up driving 80 yards before kicker Stephen Gostkowski tied the game on a field goal to send it into overtime.
“At the end of the game, it was a decision,” Harbaugh said. “I think it could have gone either way. By virtue of the fact that they drove the ball down the length of the field, pretty easy to make that decision in hindsight. At the time, we had the lead. I liked the way our defense was playing.
“I think we stopped them three times after that, so it wasn’t like we couldn’t stop them. If we’d have gone for it, there’s a good chance we would have made it because it was fourth-and-inches.”
Flacco probably should have audibled out of the play that was called. There were three defensive linemen pinching inside.
“You can still run the quarterback sneak against that look,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just a matter of where you run the ball. Obviously, they can’t defend every gap, and Joe’s got some options in there where to take the ball. You can check out of it. You can check into it.
“Probably, those are things that we don’t want to talk about how we’re doing it, but I would say that we need to do it better. There’s no reason that you can’t get six inches on third-and-six inches. All of us, together, are figuring out how to do that, and that’s something that we have to do. I don’t want to get stopped on third-and-six inches anymore.”
Despite the setback that dropped the Ravens (4-2) out of first-place in the AFC North a half-game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, they remain a prime playoff contender for the third season in a row.
They’ve survived an arduous schedule, playing road games against the New York Jets, Bengals, Steelers and New England.
“We talked to the team about that last night and today," Harbaugh said. "You do get disappointed with the fact that we had an opportunity to go up there and put ourselves in real good position for a lot of long-term things, but we do have the big picture in mind."
Now, the Ravens are set to play six of their last 10 regular-season games at M&T Bank Stadium.
That starts with the winless Buffalo Bills (0-5) coming to town Sunday prior to the Ravens’ bye week when they should be 5-2.
"We’re 100 percent focused on Buffalo and 100 percent focused on what we can accomplish this season," Harbaugh said. "Both those things go hand in hand."
The Ravens lost to New England partially due to untimely penalties, including fullback Le’Ron McClain’s costly personal foul in overtime for shoving rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham.
Now, the Ravens have to regroup and focus as they face an inferior opponent with little to lose.
"You’ve got to move on," Flacco said. "I think we will grow from it; we will get better each week. We have a big game against Buffalo before we go to our bye. We get that win, we go to 5-2 and we are feeling pretty good about where we are."
Last season, the Ravens split half of their first six games before making it to the postseason as a wild-card entrant. They have ambitions of earning home-field advantage this season. And the Bills could be in danger of the Ravens taking out their frustrations on them after letting a victory slip away in New England.
"We are going home and then we are going to the bye week," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It’s going to be rough on Buffalo."