NASHVILLE – Bearing virtually no resemblance to the hungry outfit that demolished the Pittsburgh Steelers a week ago, the Baltimore Ravens were victimized Sunday by a more aggressive football team that exploited every weakness.
Lethargic and erratic on offense as quarterback Joe Flacco struggled, confused and torched on defense by the Tennessee Titans’ suddenly potent passing game, the Ravens regressed markedly and were unable to avoid falling to a team they were expected to handle.
The Ravens were unable to maintain their tradition of beating teams with losing records, absorbing a frustrating, discouraging 26-13 defeat at LP Field as wide receiver Kenny Britt caught a career-high nine passes for 135 yards and one touchdown.
"It was a humbling experience," said cornerback Cary Williams after the defense allowed Matt Hasselbeck to pass for 358 yards and a touchdown on 30 of 42 completions. "It was a humbling loss."
The Ravens (1-1) dropped to 18-2 during the John Harbaugh era against teams with losing records.
Days prior to kickoff, Harbaugh dismissed talk of a letdown as foolishness. However, the Titans had dropped nine of their previous 10 regular season games and didn’t play well during a 16-14 loss to open the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"The team came ready to play and we didn’t," said running back Ray Rice, who provided the Ravens’ top offensive moment on a 31-yard screen play for their lone touchdown. "I’m not going to make any excuses. Our team is not going to make any excuses.
"They were the better team. I’m not going to be negative in any way. If you look at what they did on offense and what they did on defense, they deserved to win."
The Ravens were unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities and committed three turnovers.
During a listless first quarter, Flacco stumbled his way into a zero quarterback rating as he completed only 2 of his first 8 throws for 17 yards and one interception.
It was one of the worst games of his career as Flacco finished with 15 of 32 completions for 197 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for a 51.2 passer rating.
It was a major contrast to how Flacco delivered three touchdown passes against the Steelers.
"I think everyone didn’t play well, and that’s the bottom line," Harbaugh said when asked specifically about Flacco. "We win as a team, and we lose as a team. I’m not going to sit here and nit-pick one guy or another guy."
Although the pass protection was suspect as Flacco was sacked three times, he was also guilty of staring down reads and holding onto the football too long.
"Obviously, we didn’t do too many things that helped us out there," Flacco said. "We didn’t really keep ourselves on the field fort a very long time. We were never really able to get to them, wear them out a little bit and break them.
"We hurt ourselves with a couple penalties. We turned the ball over, all things that aren’t really a good recipe for winning football games."
Flacco got picked off in the first quarter by cornerback Alterraun Verner when he locked onto wide receiver Lee Evans.
And Flacco’s fourth-quarter interception to cornerback Jason McCourty happened when a throw got deflected by cornerback Cortland Finnegan that was intended for tight end Ed Dickson.
"I got a little greedy trying to make a play and let Ed make a play," Flacco said. "It just so happened that Finnegan got his hands on the ball and tipped it up and the guy was sitting back there for it. Probably getting a little too greedy, and it wasn’t a very good one on my part."
The Ravens managed only 15 first downs to the Titans’ 21 first downs as they were outgained 432 yards to 229 yards in total offense. Baltimore converted just 3 of 10 third-down opportunities, rushing for just 45 yards to average 2.6 per carry after gain 170 yards on the ground against the Steelers.
They intercepted Hasselbeck once as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs grabbed a Hasselbeck pass deflected by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but that was the lone turnover they forced after setting a franchise record with seven against the Steelers. And Hasselbeck wasn’t sacked.
"They beat us by winning in every way you can beat a football team," Harbaugh said. "I thought they had something to prove and they proved it. We didn’t play as well. I don’t have any theory right now. Everybody is going to have a theory and none of them are going to be right."
There are some tough facts to face after this setback, though.
The Ravens’ blockers struggled to protect Flacco or create holes for Rice to run through with the exception of a well-executed screen for a score where he broke through several tackles, including middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, and center Matt Birk and offensive guard Marshall Yanda ran interference for him.
The Ravens generated only a combined total of five yards on their first two possessions and didn’t earn a first down until Flacco found Lee Evans for a 13-yard completion with 4:40 remaining in the first quarter.
The Ravens did contain Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson, limiting him to just 53 yards on 24 carries for an average of 2.2 per carry with a long run of seven yards.
They were unable to solve Britt or his wide receiver teammate Nate Washington, who caught seven passes for 99 yards.
"We are a great team," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We ain’t even worried about it. We knew we weren’t going to go undefeated. That is the only thing that this game really confirmed. This team never had illusions of grandeur."
When backup running back Javon Ringer dashed untouched into the end zone on a 4th-and-1 in the third quarter as strong safety Tom Zbikowski got tied up with a blocker, the Titans built a 17-10 lead that they never relinquished.
Breaking a scoreless deadlock, the Titans launched their scoring in the second quarter on a 25-yard Rob Bironas field goal in the second quarter after he missed a 34-yard chip shot to start the quarter.
The field goal was set up by a fumble by backup running back Ricky Williams.
The Ravens tied the score heading into halftime on a Billy Cundiff 41-yard field goal with no time remaining on the clock after a 77-yard kickoff return from wide receiver David Reed.
However, that drive should have ended with a touchdown if not for Flacco being sacked by Dave Ball on third down.
In the fourth quarter, the Ravens had to settle for a 29-yard Cundiff field goal after a lengthy 11-play drive that got them down to the six-yard line before the march fizzled.
"We didn’t make enough big plays down the field in the passing game," Harbaugh said. "We have to do that. We have to make plays on third downs. We have to make plays downfield to open up the running game as well."
Now, the Ravens have to regroup as they travel to play the St. Louis Rams next Sunday.
"We always bounce back," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "None of us came out and said, ‘Let’s go 16-0.’ As a team, we have been battle-tested so many times. The 24-hour rule is win, lose or draw you come back to work and it’s over. The next week is upon us."