Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 25-20 win over the Cleveland Browns

1.) This was a big win, no matter the details.

In a league with only a few dominant teams, seasons rise and fall on games decided by a few strange plays. Look no further than the 2015 Ravens, whose first eight losses in a 5-11 season were by eight points or fewer.


There's no way to find football poetry in the Ravens' two wins to start the 2016. They fell behind 20-0 Sunday against a rebuilding Browns team that started a backup quarterback. They needed a blocked extra point and a sketchy taunting call to escape Cleveland with a victory.

And yet here's your reductionist reality: Teams that start 0-2, as the Ravens did last year, make the playoffs about 12 percent of the time. Those that start 2-0 make the postseason more often than not; no 2-0 Ravens team has ever missed.


Sometimes, the how doesn't matter as much as the what.

I've written it many times over the years, but John Harbaugh's greatest strength as a coach might be that his teams never quit.

A 20-0 deficit on the road, even against the Browns, would spell doom for many teams. The Ravens, however, kept pushing their boulder uphill. They increased their aggression on offense, wore Cleveland down with punishing interior defense and swung the game on special teams.

Lawrence Guy could have treated a Cleveland extra point in the first quarter as a fait accompli. Instead he blocked it and changed the tide in a way that could not have been apparent at the time.

Not quitting could not save the Ravens last season. But it's a good habit to maintain, and it certainly has accrued to their benefit over the last nine seasons.

If they're playing meaningful games in January, don't forget that a blocked extra point and an ungainly 25-point rally created one of the building blocks.

2.) The Ravens' third-down struggles against Josh McCown highlighted a fundamental flaw in the defense.

When the Browns stunned the Ravens in Baltimore last year, McCown converted on 12 of 19 third downs. It's hard to win when you struggle so persistently  to get the other team off the field. And Ravens defenders spent the last week saying they'd have to do better.

That they couldn't pull it off speaks to a troubling reality for this defense—they're damned if they blitz and damned if they don't.

With Elvis Dumervil out and Terrell Suggs playing his way into game shape, the Ravens can't count on getting to the quarterback if they rush four. But if they blitz a defensive back, as defensive coordinator Dean Pees did on several key plays Sunday, their cornerbacks are vulnerable on the back end.

McCown is a journeyman, yes, but he's also a tough pro who throws accurately in the face of a blitz.

That was exactly what happened on Cleveland's first touchdown. Timmy Jernigan hit McCown hard as the Ravens blitzed on third down but not before the Browns quarterback could loft a perfect throw to Corey Coleman, who'd beaten Shareece Wright in the end zone.


The pattern repeated over and over as the Browns built a 20-0 lead. Either the Ravens generated no pressure rushing four and McCown picked them apart. Or they blitzed and McCown found the right one-on-one match-up to exploit, even if he took a jolt in the process.

To their credit, the Ravens kept coming, and their powerful interior linemen eventually wore down Cleveland's blockers. They punished McCown into near-submission in the second half.

But I'm not sure that's going to work against more dynamic offenses. The idea of this pass rush facing Ben Roethlisberger is enough to throw Ravens fans into a cold sweat.

The scary thing? The Ravens might not be able to do a lot to improve. Suggs is 33 and Dumervil 32. They'll likely become more dynamic players as the year goes on, but they're no longer sure things. The Ravens haven't drafted a high-impact edge rusher in years. Maybe Za'Darius Smith becomes one, but he's not there yet.

Jernigan is their only player who consistently creates pressure on four-man rushes.

That means Pees will likely continue relying on blitzes and the Ravens will remain vulnerable to big plays, even if their defensive backs perform well overall.

3.) The Ravens still excel on special teams and that's why they won.

Jerry Rosburg, take a bow.

Your unit helped in almost every way it conceivably could have.

Guy blocked that extra point — the Ravens get their hands on kicks as well as any team in the league — and Tavon Young returned it for a safety, a three-point swing that mattered a great deal in a close game.

Justin Tucker pounded 52- and 49-yard field goals like they were chip shots.

Punter Sam Koch pinned the Browns inside their 20-yard line twice.

Devin Hester made his first standout play as a Raven with a 48-yard kickoff return that the offense subsequently squandered.

We all know Harbaugh was a special teams coach before he took over the Ravens, and he cares deeply about the least glamorous phase of the game.  That interest continues to pay off season after season.

4.) The Ravens have to be alarmed by their inability to run.

We saw this at times last year and to a greater degree in 2013, but a Joe Flacco-led offense simply does not work without some kind of running game to set up play-action opportunities.

The Ravens averaged 3.1 yards a carry Sunday against a defensive front that's far from the most intimidating in the league. It was essentially a repeat of their performance from the opener against Buffalo.

That's not going to be good enough.

Justin Forsett and Terrance West aren't the most scintillating pair of runners, but the reality is they've had nowhere to go on most of their carries. The Ravens' offensive line has not won enough battles, either early in the game or late.

The Ravens have tried to create room for Forsett with pitches to the outside. But those haven't worked consistently either.

Right now, Flacco can't hand off with any confidence on third-and-short, and that's not the kind of team Harbaugh wants to coach.

Rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis are learning on the job on the left side of the line. Kenneth Dixon will soon rejoin the running back rotation.

Theoretically, the ground game should improve. But so far, the Ravens have clearly missed Kelechi Osemele, lost to a record free-agent deal in the offseason.

5.) The Ravens took off when they stopped playing so conservatively.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing to watch as the Browns jumped all over the Ravens in the first quarter was the tepid response from Marc Trestman's offense.

Flacco hardly even looked downfield until late in the second quarter. Mike Wallace, Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman — his trio of big-play threats — might as well have stood on the sideline as Flacco either handed off for nothing gains or flipped short passes to tight end Dennis Pitta.

It was hard to tell if the Ravens schemed it that way or if Flacco was thrown off by Cleveland's early pressure.

But as soon as he started throwing 20-yard passes to Smith, Perriman, etc., the entire offense opened up, and the Ravens climbed back in the game.


Flacco forced some throws and paid with interceptions. He would certainly benefit from playing off of a better running attack.


But it would be nice to see more naked aggression from him early in games. Gunslinger is still his best mode.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun