Mike Preston hands out the Ravens’ third-quarter report card

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about why he changed his playbook wristband in the 49ers game and the possibility of breaking Michael Vick's record.

The Ravens are in first place in the AFC North with a three-game lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they have a half-game lead on the New England Patriots for home-field advantage in the postseason.

They have the NFL’s hottest player in quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has become the first Raven favored to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. John Harbaugh is a Coach of the Year candidate and coordinators Greg Roman and Don Martindale might be interviewing soon for head coaching jobs.


Now, the question is can the Ravens maintain the momentum and finish strong?

No, we’re not talking about the playoffs but winning the final four games of the regular season. That’s when home-field advantage and opening-round byes in the postseason will be determined.

The Ravens still have to face two teams with winning records in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, but they also know that the Browns will be a tough game in Cleveland on Dec. 22.

If the Ravens beat Buffalo, they clinch a playoff spot. Harbaugh hasn’t even spoken to his team about that situation.

“No, I haven’t mentioned that,” Harbaugh said. “We know the goal is to win the game, and what follows with that is what follows with that. I did mention to the team, I said, ‘Where are we? We’re nowhere until we get there. And when we get there, we’ll be there. And we’ll take it from there.’”

It sounds so Vince Lombardi-like but it’s a Harbaugh original. Really. But before the Ravens push ahead, The Baltimore Sun looks back on the first 12 games of the season and gives out its third-quarter report card:

Quarterback: Jackson has been a starter for a little more than one year, but his progress has been remarkable. He has a tendency to slip back into poor habits but quickly regains focus, which he couldn’t do last year. He improves every game and is the only QB in history to produce at least 2,500 yards passing and 950 rushing in a single season. Jackson still has problems with accuracy but that’s minor to what he brings to this team with his overall game, especially his will to win. Grade: A

Running backs: When it comes to attitude, there is no player who has a more refreshing one than running back Mark Ingram II. He talks a good game and backs it up, having rushed for 837 yards on 166 carries. In the last four games, he has become more of an outside threat instead of just running inside the tackles. He is one of the best closers in the NFL when the Ravens have a lead in the fourth period. Backup Gus Edwards has filled in well for Ingram, gaining 460 yards on 91 carries. He and Ingram have combined for 11 rushing touchdowns, and Ingram has become a threat out of the backfield as a receiver in passing situations. The only thing missing is a speed guy who can deliver the big play off the perimeter. Grade: A-

Offensive line: Both Ravens offensive tackles are candidates to make the AFC Pro Bowl team. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been outstanding, especially pulling and making blocks down field, which seldom happens with tackles. Both Stanley and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. have been good at hooking or reaching ends allowing Ingram or Jackson to get outside. The most improved player might be left guard Bradley Bozeman. He was always a decent run blocker but has worked hard to improve pulling and trapping as well as pass blocking. Right guard Marshal Yanda seems to have found a second wind and looks fresh heading into the home stretch. Rookie Patrick Mekari has played well at center filling in for the injured Matt Skura. Grade: A

Receivers: The team has done well using tight ends Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle. These three complement the running game well, and Hurst and Andrews have improved significantly from a year ago as run blockers. Few safeties or linebackers can run with these three guys and the Ravens use them often on short to intermediate patterns as well as crossing them in the middle of the field. Andrews leads the team in receptions with 53 for 693 yards and seven touchdowns. The Ravens have used their receivers sparingly but rookie Marquise Brown has provided the Ravens with some big plays and has 36 catches for 520 yards and six touchdowns. Opposing teams have figured out that if you slow Brown, you can slow the Ravens outside passing game. The receivers, though, are good downfield blockers for Ingram and Edwards. Grade: C+

Defensive line: This group basically consist of tackles Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Domata Peko Sr. and end Chris Wormley because a lot of the Ravens outside linebackers and ends are interchangeable. The Ravens are ranked No. 6 in rushing defense and that’s because those three tackles are hard to move. They don’t get much pressure as pass rushers but few teams run up the gut against the Ravens. Williams has played well ever since his little run-in with safety Earl Thomas III after the Cleveland game. Peko played well for Pierce, who missed two recent games with an ankle injury. Wormley turned in his best game last Sunday against the 49ers and maybe that was a turning point in his career. He has been solid but came up big a week ago. Grade: B+

Linebackers: Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who leads the team in sacks with seven and is fifth on the team in tackles with 39, can dominate games and the Ravens need him to do that coming down the home stretch. He is the only consistent pass rusher on the roster. Rookie end/OLB Jaylon Ferguson has shown promise at times but lacks discipline to hold the edge and needs to add more pass rushing moves to his repertoire. Third-year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser has played well at times but the Ravens need him to take another step in the final four games. Patrick Onwuasor and Josh Bynes are solid inside but not exceptional. Teams might try to muscle up on the Ravens in the final four games because the Ravens, with the exception of their defensive tackles, don’t have anyone else special on run defense in their base unit. Grade: C+

Secondary: Early in the season, the Ravens struggled but they have played well since the middle of the season. Cornerback Marcus Peters has three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. Fellow cornerback Marlon Humphrey has established himself as the team’s shut-down guy but it’s great that the Ravens can rest him and move Peters into that role during a game. It’s no coincidence that the secondary has improved since Chuck Clark became the starting safety in Game 6. Not only is he a playmaker but he gets the rest of the back end in the right position including Thomas, whose play has also improved since Clark became the starter. Clark and Onwuasor are tied for the team lead in tackles with 49 and Humphrey is third with 48. Grade: B+

Special teams: It was pretty amazing that some fans were coming down on kicker Justin Tucker when he missed an extra point and a field goal earlier this season. That “slump” didn’t last long, especially when Tucker converted on the winning 49-yard field goal in the rain against the 49ers. He is the least of the Ravens problems along with Sam Koch, who is averaging 46.8 yards a punt. The Ravens may have found their return specialist in De’Anthony Thomas, who appears to be a step or two away from breaking one. More importantly, he is holding onto the football. Grade: A-


Coaching: Harbaugh seems to be having a lot of fun with this team. Maybe that’s because this group doesn’t have star players who are very boisterous. Roman has done well with an offense that is centered around the talent of Jackson, and he keeps Jackson in his comfort zone of throwing short to intermediate passes. He also seems to be ahead of his counterparts on Sunday. Martindale has used a lot of looks and fronts to confuse the opposition, but is extremely aware of the strengths and weaknesses on his defense. Regardless, Martindale has only one style and that’s to attack. He learned that while coaching with his old friend Rex Ryan, the Ravens former defensive coordinator. Grade: A

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