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Column: Ravens, Lamar give Chargers, Herbert a hard-knocks schooling

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Union-Tribune
 2021-10-18

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Justin Herbert slammed his helmet on the bench, frustrated by another fruitless pass.

The young quarterback wasn't alone in his misery.

Led by NFL superstar Lamar Jackson — whose statistical line understated a dominant performance — coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens (5-1) whipped Team Spanos in every phase of the 34-6 rout.

If there was an over-arching lesson for Herbert and Co., it bore an East Coast address: though the AFC West has softened, largely because the Chiefs haven’t yet validated the Super Bowl-favorite status conferred upon them by oddsmakers, other AFC heavyweights such as the Ravens and the East-leading Buffalo Bills will be very tough to overcome.

Even with the Chargers (4-2) having beaten AFC contenders such as the Chiefs and the Browns, Sunday's step backward wasn’t surprising.

Harbaugh owns a Super Bowl ring and a .626 win rate in 14-plus seasons.

Brandon Staley of the Chargers, though off to a fine start, is six games into his career as a head coach.

The Ravens’ varied rushing offense — one that most opponents can’t adequately simulate in practice — exploited the NFL’s worst run defense. Veteran defensive coordinator Don Martindale once again won a chess match opposite a young quarterback. True to form, Harbaugh’s special teams scored a decisive victory.

No NFL star is playing better than Jackson, who is a much better passer than two years ago when he won MVP honors in his second season.

What was surprising was Baltimore’s overall dominance and its D holding Herbert to 195 passing yards while also stuffing the ground game — 12 carries for 26 yards — and permitting just one touchdown.

So if the Chargers were to blame the defeat on a bad matchup, they wouldn’t be wrong.

No other team on their schedule will create as many uncomfortable challenges as the Ravens did.

What Staley and Co. learn from the film will tell a lot about where the program is heading.

First-down plays on offense must improve. Last in that realm entering Sunday, the Chargers had overcome that bad habit only to find out it won't fly against the Ravens.

Of their 16 plays on first down Sunday before the score reached 34-6, Herbert and Co. had six bad outcomes: three incompletions, an interception and two runs that lost yards.

The Ravens exploited the offensive line’s subpar right side, made more vulnerable by a season-ending injury at guard in Week 5.

Tom Telesco hates trading draft picks. Predictably, in advance of the Nov. 2 trade deadline, the Chargers said last week they'll regain right tackle Bryan Bulaga this season.

Given Bulaga's many injury setbacks, the GM should trade for a reliable tackle if he can find one. Herbert is worth it.

It never makes sense to not target Keenan Allen for both middle quarters. Oddly, Herbert and coordinator Joe Lombardi did just that Sunday. Herbert went to Allen only twice before the deficit was 28 points.

Defensively, Staley’s unit fell well short of matching the Gus Bradley D that led the Chargers’ playoff victory at Baltimore in January 2019. A common thread to those two games: Both defenses were down multiple starters at linebacker.

No doubt Harbaugh recalled that after that playoff defeat as a 3-point favorite — the highwater mark of coach Anthony Lynn’s four-year run — a Chargers defender said Ravens blockers were tipping off plays by how they set up.

On their heels Sunday against both the run and pass, the defense tackled poorly and saw Jackson’s favorite target, Mark Andrews, find vast voids in a soft zone. If there's a rematch, will Staley align Derwin James against Andrews more often?

Jackson was devastating when he had to be Sunday. Such as when he ran 22 yards with a pulldown, rendering first-and-20 into a speed bump while orchestrating a 90-yard TD march on Baltimore’s first drive.

He has to be seen to be appreciated.

Jackson on Sunday was able to overcome the loss of his top three running backs, an All-Pro left tackle, his No. 2 receiver and top current blocker — a center who exited Sunday's third quarter — by restraining the Chargers with his terrifying run threat and gashing them with dart-like strikes.

As good as he was, he's had better games.

The Chargers' only TD came after Jackson put them on a short field with a gift interception.

In their film review, Chargers architect Telesco and John Spanos won't be surprised by harsh realities the Ravens exploited Sunday and that's not a compliment.

Special teams breakdowns such as the Ravens dominating on kick coverage and returns have marked the Telesco-Spanos era. Also familiar was another errant kick, although Tristan Vizcaino’s 12-for-17 line (70.6 percent) on one-point tries is envelope-pushing even for this program.

Under Telesco & Spanos, lopsided defeats have been very few. It is the physical, cold-weather programs with sound special teams that have been more apt to take the Chargers to the woodshed — be it the New England Patriots who blasted Lynn’s team one week after the upset at Baltimore or the special teams-driven Patriots last year or, most recently, a Ravens teams whose quarterback is the MVP race's front-runner at this early date.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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