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John Harbaugh’s coaching decisions cost Ravens at worst time

Updated January 11, 2020 - 10:13 pm

Many will say the Tennessee Titans’ 28-12 win over the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens in an AFC Divisional Game on Saturday night was an indictment on quarterback Lamar Jackson (three turnovers) and his collegiate-type offense, now 0-2 in the postseason.

Others will rave about Titans running back Derrick Henry (195 yards on 30 carries) and how he’s become an unstoppable force of nature behind a physical offensive line. And considering Henry became the first player in NFL history with two games of 175 rushing yards or more in the same postseason, that indeed might be true.

But the truth of the matter is this Ravens loss was on coach John Harbaugh and three critical strategic decisions that blew up in his face.

There will be plenty of stories written that will say Harbaugh followed the math, and the analytics showed he made the right moves. The numbers back him up.

But sometimes you have to toss those numbers in the trash and manage the game.

Harbaugh failed the Ravens for one big reason: He didn’t properly diagnose what kind of game he was in and then adjust as the game went on. He coached the game like he was a bull in a china shop, oblivious to all the signs that should have told him that he was in a much different game than he anticipated, and 180 degrees from the previous 10 games Baltimore won by an average of 20.5 points.

It was evident early on that the Titans, just as they had shown by going into Gillette Stadium and handling the defending champion Patriots, had come into this game with the same attitude and, more important, the Ravens were not sharp. Baltimore was the best first-quarter team in the NFL during the regular season, but they trailed 7-0 after Jackson’s first interception and a rather easy eight-play scoring drive from Tennessee.

But Harbaugh didn’t heed the warning signs on his next possession.

Error No. 1: Going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Ravens’ 45-yard line.

The Ravens have been the analytics darlings for their propensity to be aggressive on fourth down, and they entered this game 8-for-8 on fourth-and-1 during the season. But with the ball in their own territory, Harbaugh should have sided with caution. He needed to realize his team, after a three-week layoff (Another possible error: Resting his key starters in the finale meant they hadn’t played at game speed since Dec. 22), was rusty and he needed to buy time for them to find their rhythm. The last thing he needed to do was give the upstart Titans more confidence. This wasn’t some AFC North patsy Baltimore was playing and could bully. The Titans were for real.

But Harbaugh barged through the warning signs, went for it and failed. Titans coach Mike Vrabel — probably playing the disrespect card on the sidelines after the turnover on downs — further stuck the decision in Harbaugh’s face when Ryan Tannehill hit Khalif Raymond on a 45-yard touchdown on the first play. Suddenly, the Ravens were trailing 14-0.

Error No. 2: Going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 18.

The Ravens settled down a bit and chipped away at the lead to trail 14-6 at halftime and were set to receive the ball to start the second half. One more good drive and the Ravens were fully back in the game.

Baltimore was on its way, as it marched 68 yards in 12 plays into the red zone. But the Ravens faced another fourth down.

Instead of taking the points, cutting their deficit to 14-9 and continuing their momentum after a poor start, Harbaugh went for it again. Jackson was stuffed for no gain.

You can’t leave that drive without points. A field goal would tell the Titans that the Ravens were knocking on the door and it was just a matter of time before they punched in a touchdown to take the lead for good. Failure would give the Titans even more belief that they could pull the upset.

The Titans took the ball — and the surge of energy — and marched 81 yards, all of them gained by Henry, including a 66-yard burst, to score a touchdown and go up 21-6.

That was a 10-point swing.

Error No. 3: Going for two points down 16 with 11 minutes to play

The Titans tacked on another score to lead 28-6, but the Ravens threatened to mount a comeback when Jackson threw a touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.

That left Harbaugh with another decision: Kick the extra point and leave the needed 2-point conversion until the end of the game, or go for it now. Harbaugh went for it and failed again, meaning his team would have to convert two 2-point conversions to tie the game if it got that far. That ignored basic football since, now, the Ravens would have to run three 2-point conversion plays, and those aren’t practiced all that much.

In the end, this error didn’t matter because the Ravens failed on another fourth down with 4:31 to play — and because Harbaugh had already mismanaged the game right into the wheelhouse of the underdog Titans, who are one win from their second Super Bowl after starting the season 2-4.

Jackson has lessons to learn. The Baltimore defense got pushed around. And the Titans just played old-school physical football and took it to the Ravens.

But Harbaugh failed to adjust his coaching style to the game, and it cost his team even more.

Greg A. Bedard covers the NFL for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at gbedard@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GregABedard on Twitter.

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