Losers of two straight following their 2-0 start to the season, the Baltimore Ravens have come back down to earth.
Last week the Ravens fell short against one of the AFC’s elite teams, the Kansas City Chiefs. On Sunday, they were blown out 40-25 by the visiting Cleveland Browns.
Now, after missing on a chance to distance themselves from the AFC North pack, Baltimore trails the Browns because of head-to-head competition.
NFL coaches and general managers often preach the importance of resisting the urge to overreact to early-season success or struggles. That’s because it often takes about four weeks for teams to define themselves.
So, with a quarter of their season in the books, who are the Ravens?
They’re a work in progress. In Lamar Jackson, they have a young, talented quarterback who continues to grow. They have an imposing rushing attack featuring veteran running back Mark Ingram as well as Jackson. And they have receivers and tight ends with big-play ability.
But the Ravens have problems on defense. In consecutive weeks, they have yielded 503 yards to the Chiefs and 530 yards to the Browns.
Last season, Baltimore boasted the stingiest defense in the league in that category, limiting opponents to 292.9 yards per game. But the Ravens lost a number of defensive play-makers, including linebackers Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley along with safety Eric Weddle. Now, young replacements must grow into their roles, and they need to do so in a hurry.
The Ravens entered this season with the belief Jackson would make a significant leap, and that his play-making ability could help compensate for some early defensive struggles. Jackson has indeed made great strides. However, the quarterback can’t do it all.
The inexperience and lack of cohesion on defense was evident on Sunday as the Ravens missed assignments both against the run and in pass coverage. That enabled a previously struggling Browns offense to hit on multiple big plays, which is something coach John Harbaugh stressed his unit can’t continue to allow.
“We just have to clean it up,” he said on Sunday. “The Browns did a good job. It’s as simple as that. When you have a gap control or a responsibility on a run play, you have to be there. When you have a coverage responsibility, you have to do it. That’s as simple as that. We’re not disciplined right now in that sense. [If] we don’t do our assignment like we’re supposed to too many times, it’s costing us big plays.”
With the Pittsburgh Steelers hit hard by Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending elbow injury and the Cincinnati Bengals rebuilding with a rookie head coach, this might wind up being a two-team divisional race.
The Browns have an aggressive and opportunistic defense to help ease pressure on Baker Mayfield and the offense. But if the Ravens hope to keep pace with their divisional foes, they’ll have to get more from that defense.
McCoy's time to shine in Washington?
Jay Gruden has a big decision to make this week regarding his quarterback for Sunday’s game at FedEx Field against the New England Patriots. The predicament might lead him to Colt McCoy, who has missed the preseason and first four weeks of the season while completing his recovery from a broken leg suffered last fall.
Gruden benched Case Keenum after yet another interception by the veteran and more overthrown passes in the first quarter of Sunday's loss to the New York Giants, and the coach gave rookie Dwayne Haskins a shot. The No. 15 pick in April's NFL draft showed his inexperience as he threw three interceptions while completing 52.9% of his passes.
Haskins’ struggles are understandable. Although fans clamored for him, coaches had maintained the Ohio State product still has much to learn before he’s ready to start.
Gruden made it clear after the game that he will not just hand Haskins the job. The rookie has to earn it, Gruden told reporters.
So where do the Redskins go from here? Gruden is strongly considering starting McCoy against the Super Bowl champs, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had yet to be finalized.
Gruden said during the preseason that had McCoy been able to plant his leg and throw at the time, he would have opened the season as the starter. After some time to heal, McCoy prepares for a second week of full-participation practices and could assume the reins of the offense.
Gruden has always been fond of McCoy, twice turning to him as the team's starter before injuries derailed stints in 2014 and 2018. McCoy knows the offense better than both Keenum and Haskins, which could lead to the quicker decision-making necessary to thrive behind Washington’s shoddy line.
Gruden is in win-now mode even if his roster isn't in the same position, and the pressure is intensifying. Since Alex Smith broke his leg against the Houston Texans last November, Gruden's team has gone 1-10. Without question, the coach is on the hot seat, and there was speculation last week that he could lose his job following Sunday. However, Gruden remains at work, and turning to his trusted veteran just might represent his best shot at survival for the time being.
CBA details being discussed
Negotiations between the NFL’s owners and players union have been on hold for the last several weeks, but each side continues to have discussions on the potential parameters of a new collective bargaining agreement, and optimism remains that a new deal could be reached by the end of the season, multiple peopl with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the discussions.
The current CBA expires following the 2020 season, but there’s a sense of urgency to hammer out the new deal by the end of the current season. If owners and the players' union aren’t able to do so, they could be looking at a work stoppage following next season.
Talks will resume later this season, but here are a few of the key aspects the two sides are discussing at this time:
• Expansion of the regular season to 17 games (not 18, which was previously discussed) and the playoffs to include more teams (possibly going from 12 to 14), as well as a reduction of preseason games.
• A relaxing or elimination of the policy for the testing of marijuana use.
• How to split up the revenue sharing pie. The owners currently get roughly 52 percent of football-related income while players get around 48 percent of revenue. The players want an increase so their portion is closer to half.
The league and television networks also must hammer out broadcast deals, and the owners know they’ll have much more leverage for a big payout if they have a CBA in place for the long-term rather than just for the coming year.