Ravens’ ‘Next Man Up’ mantra being tested as injuries continue to pour in

Center Sam Mustipher played all 72 offensive snaps Sunday in place of the injured Tyler Linderbaum. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Kenyan Drake combined for 40 total snaps with J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell on injured reserve and Justice Hill out with a toe injury.

With Odafe Oweh sidelined and David Ojabo hurting his ankle on the first defensive series, outside linebacker Jeremiah Moon made his NFL regular-season debut and played 64 total snaps, 46 of them on defense. Journeyman safety Daryl Worley was on the field for a whopping 102 plays, including 76 on defense.

Mustipher, Gordon, Drake, Moon and Worley weren’t on the Baltimore Ravens’ 53-man roster heading into Week 1, and Gordon and Drake, who were practice squad elevations Sunday, still aren’t. Yet, in a reflection of just how banged up the Ravens already are, they were all relied on heavily in Sunday’s 22-19 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Outside linebacker Tavius Robinson, a rookie fourth-round pick who played seven defensive snaps in Week 1, was needed for 55 on Sunday. Geno Stone, who started the season as the No. 3 safety, logged 82 snaps on defense and 19 on special teams.

To their credit, the Ravens refuse to use their long list of injuries, which grows by the week, as an excuse for the mistake-prone performance against Indianapolis. But you didn’t have to look very hard Sunday to find evidence of the toll the injuries are taking on the team.

For the Ravens, it’s no longer “Next Man Up.” In certain positions, they’re down to the next man after the “Next Man Up.” With Hill hurt and Gus Edwards being evaluated for a concussion, the Ravens don’t currently have a healthy running back on their 53-man roster. They’re down to three healthy outside linebackers. And they have to go to Cleveland Sunday and face a Browns team that is playing extremely well.

Ravens running back Gus Edwards didn’t finish the game against the Colts after being evaluated for a concussion. (Brent Skeen / USA Today)

“We have guys that can get the job done,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday when asked if the injuries have become too much to bear. “It’s definitely relevant. It’s definitely something we’re contending with — we have to. It’s where we’re at right now. Like I said before, the good side is that guys are coming back. The downside is not all of them are coming back right now, or they haven’t already been there. No excuses, just get ready for the next game.”

On Sunday, the Ravens’ seven-man inactive list was essentially all starters who were hurt: Hill, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., left tackle Ronnie Stanley, Linderbaum, Oweh, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Marcus Williams. If you include Dobbins, on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles in Week 1, and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, on the reserve/non-football injury list with an offseason knee issue, the Ravens were down as many as nine starters.

They then went out and lost Ojabo to an ankle injury. Wide receiver/core special-teamer Tylan Wallace strained his hamstring and was put on IR Monday. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman exited with hamstring tightness. Stone missed a few plays with a rib injury.

Harbaugh predictably gave no concrete injury information on any of his players who are sidelined beyond saying the team expects to get some of them back on the practice field this week. The Ravens had better. It’s untenable for them to keep losing multiple players every week and not get anyone back.

Harbaugh takes blame

Harbaugh took accountability Monday for the confusion that led to rookie Zay Flowers calling for a fair catch on Rigoberto Sanchez’s free kick after a Ravens safety had given them a 19-16 lead with 2:03 to play.

Initially, the clock had been at 1:58 after the safety, clearing the two-minute warning and leading the Ravens to suspect that the Colts would attempt an onside kick or at least some variation of a short kick. When special teams coordinator Chris Horton huddled with his players, he gave them instructions to fair catch any kick in the air.

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Ravens coach John Harbaugh took accountability for a communication breakdown late in regulation vs. the Colts. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

What Harbaugh and the coaching staff apparently didn’t realize, at least not until their hands team had taken the field, was that after a booth review, the officials had added five seconds on the clock because the safety occurred when Gardner Minshew stepped out of the back of the end zone, not when he was sacked a few seconds later.

The Ravens tried to get the message to their players on the field not to fair catch the ball and instead run clock and clear the two-minute warning. Flowers, who was on the other side of the field, either didn’t hear the fair-catch call being taken off or didn’t understand the instructions.

“I’ll take responsibility for that,” Harbaugh said, blaming poor communication.

Where Harbaugh erred — and he acknowledged as much — was not using one of his two remaining timeouts to make sure everybody was on the same page. It also would have allowed Baltimore to react to how it appeared Indianapolis would approach the kick. The Ravens had normal returner Devin Duvernay up front as part of the hands team. If they concluded that the Colts were not going to go with an onside kick, they presumably would have dropped Duvernay back and had the experienced Pro Bowl returner field the free kick.

Either way, it’s not a stretch to say the confusion helped cost the Ravens the game. If Flowers had caught Sanchez’s free kick and ran off a few seconds, Baltimore would have taken over inside the two-minute warning with Indianapolis having one timeout. Three runs with the Colts taking a timeout after the first one and Indianapolis isn’t getting the ball back until there were less than 30 seconds to play. Instead, the fair catch, followed by a third-down penalty and a poor Jordan Stout punt, gave the Colts the ball at their own 38 with 1:41 left. That was more than enough time to get in position for the game-tying field goal.

10 random thoughts, observations

1. Sunday was the type of game a team looks back on in early January, when it’s fighting for its playoff life or when it has to go on the road in the wild-card round, and realizes how damaging the defeat was. Think about the Ravens’ losses to the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars last year. Or the loss to the Miami Dolphins in 2021 and 2022. The home defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans in 2020 qualify, too. All games the Ravens had no business losing, but buried themselves under an avalanche of mistakes.



Zrebiec: In a game Ravens had no business losing, they found a way to do just that

2. Quarterback Lamar Jackson had some really nice moments for the Ravens Sunday. However, two plays in particular marred his effort. His fumble in the second quarter at the Ravens’ 19-yard line was his fourth fumble in three games, and a fifth was nullified by a penalty in Cincinnati. Jackson has 46 fumbles in 73 career regular-season games. Blindside hits are hard from a ball security standpoint. There are other fumbles, like the one Sunday, that are just due to carelessness. Those need to be cleaned up. The other regrettable play was Jackson taking a sack on Baltimore’s final drive of regulation. The Ravens had a first down at their own 49 with 23 seconds remaining and one timeout. There was plenty of time to get Tucker into reasonable distance for a game-winning attempt. In that situation, Jackson can’t turn the ball over or take a sack. The latter occurred despite the quarterback having time to at least throw the ball away. Jackson’s competitiveness is one of his best qualities, but there are times when he’d be well served to throw the ball away and live to fight another down.

3. The Ravens’ most successful play was Jackson running. He had 101 rushing yards and averaged 7.2 yards per carry. Obviously, the Colts knew that, too, and made adjustments to prevent it as the game moved along. Still, it’s hard to fathom that the Ravens had seven offensive plays in overtime and Jackson didn’t take off on one of them.

4. When the Ravens had the third-and-3 from the Colts’ 47 on their final possession of overtime, offensive coordinator Todd Monken probably knew Baltimore was going for it on fourth down assuming it didn’t lose any yardage on third. The head coach traditionally notifies his play caller of the plan before he makes the third-down call. If Monken knew or suspected that the Ravens would go for it on fourth-and-short, why not mix in a run on third-and-3? It’s a classic second-guess and the Ravens had an opportunity to make a play, but tight end Isaiah Likely dropped Jackson’s throw. Getting a couple of yards on third down would certainly have kept the run in play on fourth down.

5. Speaking of Likely, he finished with one catch for the third straight week. In all three games, he made the catch early in the first quarter and then never really was involved, at least from a pass-catching standpoint, the rest of the way. As egregious as the overtime drop was, and if he makes that catch, the Ravens would have probably woken up Monday with a 3-0 record, it came on just his second target. Three games and four total targets. That needs to change.

6. You certainly could scrutinize Harbaugh’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 in overtime rather than sending Stout out to try and pin the Colts deep. But trying a field goal attempt was never a viable option, even as great as Justin Tucker is. That would have been a 64-yard attempt on a wet field. Tucker had come up a few yards short from 61 earlier in the game. Tucker has been so consistent that it seems Ravens fans take 60-plus-yard field goals for granted. Yet, Tucker is 2-of-9 in his career from that distance in the regular season, with his two makes (66 and 61 yards) coming indoors at Ford Field. It’s just not a high-percentage option.

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As great as Justin Tucker is, he’s only 2-of-9 on regular-season kicks of 60-plus yards in his career. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

7. Talk about a roller-coaster game for Stout. At one point, he stood to be one of the game’s heroes. Not only did he do a really nice job flipping field position with a 65-yard punt in the second quarter, but it was his 53-yard punt late in the fourth quarter, which was downed at the 2-yard line by Jalyn Armour-Davis, that set up the safety that should have put the Colts away. Yet, less than a minute later, Stout’s poor 34-yard punt gave the Colts very good field position for their game-tying drive. Consistency remains the issue for the second-year punter.

8. The Ravens’ punt coverage has been so poor that it might be wise for the coaches to just instruct Stout to angle his punts out of bounds — if he can — until the staff feels confident that the issues have been fixed. After giving up a punt return touchdown a week earlier, the Ravens yielded returns of 32 and 16 yards Sunday.

9. Seventy-three of the Colts’ 139 rushing yards came on four Zack Moss runs, and three of those were the result of Ravens linebackers failing to set the edge. It’s not like the interior of Baltimore’s defensive front was getting blown off the line. Still, the Ravens could use more impactful plays from their defensive interior, especially with the outside linebacker group riddled with injuries. Broderick Washington, in particular, has been quiet with just one tackle and one quarterback hit. He curiously played just 24 of the defense’s 84 total snaps Sunday. Justin Madubuike also has one sack and one quarterback hit.

10. If the Ravens don’t sign another veteran running back by Wednesday, it’s probably a good sign that they expect either Hill or Edwards, if not both, to return Sunday. It’s hard to imagine they would go into Cleveland with a running book group consisting of Gordon, Drake and practice squad player Owen Wright to face arguably the league’s best defense.

(Top photo of Melvin Gordon: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

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