The Ravens’ past three weeks have been framed by questions at quarterback, just as the week to come will be. For as long as Lamar Jackson wins and Joe Flacco sits out injured, the matter of their respective roles in Baltimore this season and beyond, uncertain but intertwined, will linger.
But as the team celebrated the defining play of its gutsy 26-16 win Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, it was not Jackson or his offense on the field delighting in the imminence of a third straight win and a more secure hold on the AFC’s sixth playoff spot. It was Brandon Carr and Brandon Williams and Chuck Clark and nine other Ravens posing in the end zone. (No flags were thrown for too many men in on the celebration.)
They were flexing for the cameras, their might never more obvious than after cornerback Tavon Young’s 12-yard fumble recovery and return for a fourth-quarter touchdown, and the only thing in the picture was this team’s hallmark: a dominant defense.
Thousands of words will be written and hundreds of questions will be asked this week about who will lead the Ravens offense into a high-profile showdown next Sunday against the suddenly handicapped Kansas City Chiefs. Jackson is undefeated but far from unblemished. Flacco is a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player who has struggled to recapture that unassailable form. There are cases to be made for both.
But at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, against a high-flying Falcons attack, it was the Ravens’ top-ranked defense that again set forth the law of the land: Thou shalt not pass, or run, or do much of anything, really. There is no safety net for an offense quite like a unit that can hold one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses to under 3 yards per play, less than half its season-long average.
“I just think it’s a testament to those guys, those players, those coaches,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t say it enough: Matt Ryan and the weapons they have are established. The stats say it. Your eye test says it. I think our defense deserves a lot of credit.”
Only a late touchdown drive, the Falcons’ only offensive score of the game, made Ryan’s numbers palatable. He entered the game averaging nearly 335 passing yards and over two touchdowns per game; he finished with 131 yards and one score. Only once this season had he completed less than 68.4 percent of his passes; he was just 16-for-26 Sunday, a 61.5 percent clip. His 5.0 yards per attempt were a season low.
There was little relief, either, from a running game held to 34 yards on 15 carries or an offensive line that allowed three sacks and seven quarterback hits. Even as cornerback Jimmy Smith cycled in and out of the game with various knocks and nicks, even with backup Chuck Clark starting in place of injured safety Tony Jefferson, the Ravens (7-5) held Atlanta's fearsome receiving trio of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley to a combined 77 yards on eight catches and 17 targets.
“We have a standard as a Ravens defense, whether we’re home, away or at a neutral site, on how we want to play football,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said after holding the Falcons (4-8) to 131 yards overall, Atlanta’s fewest 1999. “And that’s always been being physical at the point of attack, stopping the run and getting after the quarterback on third down.”
The Ravens have held an opponent to fewer yards this season — the Tennessee Titans finished with 106 in their shutout loss — but never has their aggressive, man-to-man defense felt as simpatico with the team’s offensive philosophy. For the third straight game, the Ravens finished with over 200 rushing yards, a feat unprecedented in franchise history and made only more impressive by Jackson’s nearly third-quarter-long absence because of a concussion scare.
After a 16-minute advantage against the Cincinnati Bengals and an eight-minute margin against the Oakland Raiders in time of possession the previous two weeks, the Ravens held the ball for nearly two-thirds of Sunday’s game. They called 32 more plays than the Falcons, whose total time of possession (20 minutes, 21 seconds) was less than the runtime of a typical network sitcom episode.
“Obviously, the offense helped us out, right?” safety Eric Weddle said. “The time of possession's been huge over the last three weeks, keeping us rested, keeping us fresh in the fourth quarter. ... So it's complementary football that we're playing, and we've just got to keep it rolling.”
“Not even just the team,” said Jackson, who finished 12-for-21 for 125 yards passing. “Our defense is rolling.”
After the game, Harbaugh was as elusive as Jackson (17 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown) on the topic of his starting quarterback. Had Jackson done enough to keep the job? “It’s a question that’s still yet to be answered,” Harbaugh said. And then, a few seconds later: “Sure. Absolutely. He’s done enough. He’s played great. He’s 3-0. He’s played well.”
But longtime starter Joe Flacco, he pointed out seconds after that, hadn’t even been cleared to play Sunday, still bothered by his right hip injury. He resumed practice last week, and Harbaugh expected him to practice more this week, but beyond that, he could not read the future, though he will help shape it.
“There’s no quarterback controversy, not inside,” Harbaugh said. “We’re rock solid. That’s not going to be a problem. Our guys know that whatever we do … we are blessed with our quarterback room. One of the guys on the sidelines doing the balls, he said, ‘I can’t believe your quarterback situation. You got the best quarterback situation in the league.’ ”
If that’s true, it’s only because the Ravens have the best defense, too.