Baltimore fans are used to bemoaning their team’s lackluster offense. It’s a storyline that has plagued the franchise on and off throughout its history.
But frustrations with Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg hit a new peak last week after two consecutive putrid performances during which the Ravens were outscored 70-16.
So you have to credit Mornhinweg for his panache in calling a go route to Mike Wallace on the first play of Sunday’s game.
The Ravens had heard relentless criticism for their reluctance to throw downfield. But Flacco stood confidently in the pocket behind rock-solid protection from his offensive line and hit Wallace in stride for 52 yards, an early sign that we wouldn’t be watching the gruesome offense of Weeks 3 and 4.
The Ravens did not just sit on that early score. They kept the Raiders off balance by mixing runs and passes and switching tempos. Running back Alex Collins, for example, picked up 25 yards after a quick handoff during their second 75-yard touchdown drive.
Then in the second quarter, after the Ravens had established Collins and Buck Allen as running threats, Flacco play faked and heaved a gorgeous 54-yard bomb, again to Wallace. That throw set up an easy field goal by Justin Tucker.
It really can’t be said enough: Flacco is at his best when he’s able to throw play-action passes, set up by a consistent running game. When he’s forced to carry the Ravens with his arm, the opposing defense has the advantage. When he’s the big left hook coming after the jabs and body punches delivered by the running backs, he can still be an effective quarterback.
The Ravens started the second half with a more conservative approach, and it cost them. Two three-and-out drives gave the Raiders room to get back into the game.
That turned out to be a hiccup as the Ravens again ran effectively and picked up timely first downs in the late third and fourth quarters.
It’s honestly hard to read a team that was so incompetent for two weeks and then consistently effective on the road against a solid opponent. But we can’t write them off, and that’s something.
2) After two rough weeks, the offensive line responded with its best performance of the season.
Flacco rarely seemed comfortable looking downfield and stepping into a throw in losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers. Some of that was his own impatience but more often, he was reacting to defenders crashing into his space.
Almost every time he looked beyond 10 yards against the Raiders, however, he had ample time to throw with conviction.
Flacco took just two hits all day against one of the better pass rushes in the league, a massive credit to tackles Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard and the rest of an offensive line that had struggled since guard Marshal Yanda suffered a season-ending injury.
Khalil Mack, possibly the most devastating edge defender in the league, made no plays behind the line of scrimmage. Mack moved all over in search of a soft spot in the Baltimore line, and he couldn’t find it.
The Raiders came in with poor numbers against the run, and the Baltimore line exploited them there as well, especially on a ground-dominated scoring drive that ate up precious minutes in the fourth quarter. The numbers — 143 yards on 39 carries — won’t blow anyone away. But the Ravens achieved exactly what they needed to with their persistent runs.
This was Stanley’s second strong game in a row, and perhaps we’re seeing him emerge as the budding star he appeared to be late last season.
For Howard, the effort had to feel like vindication given that the Raiders dropped him during the summer. The Ravens right tackle is a calm professional by nature, and he told me last week that he wanted to keep his emotions muted for his return to Oakland. He also said he would take a professional pride in sticking it to his former team.
3) Dean Pees used his secondary creatively and achieved excellent results.
On one key play late in the second quarter, Pees put Lardarius Webb at safety, freeing up Tony Jefferson to blitz and bring down Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel with a vicious sack. Eric Weddle blitzed from the other side on the play and also had a clear line on Manuel.
The Ravens’ front seven had not reached the quarterback often enough against Pittsburgh or Jacksonville. So Pees decided to use his defensive backs to give the pass rush a jolt.
His strategy worked swimmingly.
Jefferson can be devastating when he plays close to the line of scrimmage rather than deeper in coverage, so credit Pees for finding ways to get him there. Anthony Levine Sr. also sacked Manuel on a safety blitz in the second half.
In coverage, meanwhile, the Ravens used rookie Marlon Humphrey as a de facto starter, and he again held his own, despite the fact Oakland tried to exploit his matchup with Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree posted another productive day against the Ravens, but his one big play, a 41-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, came against veteran Brandon Carr rather than Humphrey.
Oakland’s other star receiver, Amari Cooper, caught one pass.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith played sparingly after he returned a fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter. He’s trying to work through Achilles soreness, so the cautious workload was understandable.
The key takeaway is that, unlike in past seasons, the Ravens can endure an injury to Smith because they drafted an excellent player in Humphrey.
4) Matthew Judon finally lived up to the preseason hype.
The Ravens were thrilled with their second-year linebacker’s progress throughout training camp. And then he did very little to justify that praise through the first four weeks of the season.
Against the Raiders, however, Judon made several plays that demonstrated his ability to range all over the field.
He stuffed a run behind the line of scrimmage and later broke up a pass to the flat. He didn’t get to the quarterback, but that was in part because the Ravens are comfortable putting him in coverage instead of on the edge as a pure rusher.
It’s been interesting to watch the team’s linebacking unit take shape.
Patrick Onwuasor seems to have gradually taken the middle linebacker job away from Kamalei Correa, a shift justified by Onwuasor’s greater production.
But on the outside, the Ravens have kept their faith with Judon despite the presence of promising rookie Tyus Bowser. On Sunday, we saw why.
5) It’s amazing to say after Weeks 3 and 4, but the Ravens are positioned well.
The vibe around this team was uneasy at best after two weeks of inept offense and disappointing defense. A pair of humiliating losses had fans calling for an abrupt end to the Flacco era.
Sunday reminded us how quickly the story can change in a league seemingly devoid of overpowering teams. The Ravens played their best game of the season on the same afternoon the Steelers lost by three touchdowns at home. Just like that, the archrivals were tied again atop the AFC North.
If you’d told the Ravens before the season they’d win in Cincinnati and Oakland, they would have been thrilled. Next week, they get the woeful Chicago Bears coming to Baltimore on short rest.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
We don’t know whether the Ravens will be a playoff contender. We can’t say with any certainty they’re a good team.
But they’ve put themselves into position to be in position. Which feels remarkable given the depths they hit against Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.