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Mike Preston: Few teams in the NFL are as balanced as the Ravens | COMMENTARY

Here’s how the Ravens graded out at each position after Sunday’s 33-16 win over the Texans.

The Ravens got off to a slow start in the first half against the Houston Texans on Sunday but still won by 17 points. They might be the most balanced team in the NFL.

It’s balance on all three sides of the ball: offense, defense and special teams. A few years ago, the Ravens lacked big-time, game-changing players, but now they have them in all areas. Many of those players were picked in recent drafts, including cornerback Marlon Humphrey, wide receivers Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay, tight end Mark Andrews and quarterback Lamar Jackson. They’ve also hit in free agency (running back Mark Ingram II) and trades (cornerback Marcus Peters).

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This game against Houston was supposed to serve as a bigger test for the Ravens than the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, and it did, at least for a little while. But when the Ravens struggled in some areas, such as running the football and protecting Jackson, they scored off turnovers forced by Humphrey and Peters. Then there is Mr. Automatic, kicker Justin Tucker, who converted on all four of his field-goal attempts.

“I’m proud of this one, we kind of ground it out,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Nine different receivers caught passes, the third-down battle was tough and one of big differences was the 14 points off turnovers and we finished the game strong. We have a bunch of guys [on defense] who call themselves dogs and they just love to play. They play with a certain style of football. It defines us.”

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Every team in the NFL has one or two weaknesses, and the Ravens have their own, especially in the middle of their offensive line. Center Matt Skura is still trying to fully recover from major knee surgery last winter and right guard Tyre Phillips is suffering from the usual rookie growing pains. If the Ravens fall behind big early, it will be a struggle for them to come back, especially with an offense dominated by the run.

But few teams are as balanced as the Ravens. Next up are the defending NFL champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, on “Monday Night Football.”

That game has been highlighted ever since it was announced. Cleveland was considered a tough game because the Browns are an AFC North opponent, and Houston was expected to be competitive because it made the playoffs last season. But the Ravens were still expected to win both games. On Sunday, the Ravens made the Texans quit, like the legendary “No mas” encounter between boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Durán.

While the offense struggled, the Ravens defense delivered the major blows in the first half with two turnovers, including Humphrey forcing a fumble that resulted in a 22-yard touchdown return by linebacker L.J. Fort.

After the offense made some halftime adjustments in the running game — probably just offensive linemen getting ticked off — the Ravens shoved the ball down Houston’s throat with running backs Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins.

That’s where the balance comes in. The Ravens stuck with Ingram for most of the first half before unleashing the more powerful Edwards in the third quarter. When they needed a key third-down conversion in the fourth quarter, Jackson threw a pass in the right flat to Dobbins, who broke a tackle to get the first down. Imagine being the Texans. Once Ingram gets tired, out come the fresh legs of Dobbins and the power of Edwards.

“We understand as receivers that it all starts with the run game,” Ravens receiver Miles Boykin said. “All of our catches, all of our big plays come off of running the ball first. So, we understand that if we can’t run the ball, we’re not going to be able to pass the ball. Just in terms of playing in this offense, you can’t be greedy. And I love to see my teammates get the ball, and I love to see my teammates make plays. So, anything it takes, I would do for my teammates. If it’s blocking, it’s easy.”

Then there is Jackson. He can beat you as a passer or a runner. When the Ravens couldn’t protect him for nearly two quarters, he made plays outside of the pocket either on option runs or by eluding the pass rush. When he has time to throw, it’s hard to contain speedsters Brown and Duvernay on crossing routes. Andrews is successful anytime, anywhere on the field.

Defensively, the Ravens made great moves during the offseason bringing in ends Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe to improve their run defense. There are still some holes in it, but the Ravens improved from a week ago. If they can continue to shut down the other team’s rushing attack, it fits right into their strength of having perhaps the best pair of cornerbacks in the NFL.

There is also the development of rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. They’ll get better with time, but their speed is already impressive. It’s another great weapon, and they’ll only be more successful as the season progresses.

Barring injury, especially to Jackson, the Ravens will be serious Super Bowl contenders, and they are still one of the youngest teams in the NFL. But the Chiefs game will provide them with a new and different challenge.

Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in the NFL and has beaten Jackson in their two previous meetings. If the Ravens really want to make a statement, it has to be made next Monday night. The Ravens have failed to win a playoff games in two straight years, and Jackson was criticized for not being able to win big games during his college career at Louisville.

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He’ll get a chance to prove his critics wrong against Kansas City. It should be a great game because the Ravens are just as balanced as the defending champs.

Now they have to prove they are just as good.

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