From the fortitude the Ravens showed in response to their most difficult week of the season to Mark Andrews' shifting role in the offense, here are five things we learned from a 24-10 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The Ravens cannot be dismissed as a top contender after they made the best of their worst possible week.
A skeptic could not have been faulted for lowering his ceiling on the Ravens' 2020 season after watching them play the first half in Indianapolis.
They’d endured a trying week, fending off questions about Lamar Jackson’s sloppy play in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, processing a season-ending ankle fracture to left tackle Ronnie Stanley, dealing with the ripples from cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s positive test for COVID-19. The news grew worse right away when defensive end Calais Campbell left the field after hurting his calf during the first series. Everything seemed to catch up with the Ravens as the Colts did what they pleased on both sides of the ball. Only a fumble return by safety Chuck Clark kept them competitive.
Forget thoughts of the Super Bowl. The Ravens were fighting to stay above water.
Then, they emerged from the halftime locker room as a team transformed.
The Ravens picked up their offensive tempo. Their line gave Jackson room to cook, and he responded by completing all 10 of his second-half passes, while using his legs to create better down-and-distance situations. An excellent Indianapolis defense that had seemed a step ahead of the Ravens for 30 minutes did not know what was coming next.
And let’s not forget Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense. The Colts shredded the Ravens on the edges in the first quarter, mixing a series of outside runs with quick passes to the flats. But the Ravens, playing without their best cornerback and best defensive lineman, controlled Philip Rivers and Co. over the last three quarters. Cornerback Marcus Peters created the headline turnovers, but the effort depended on contributions from less heralded players such as rookie linebacker Harrison and cornerback Terrell Bonds.
In the postgame locker room, the Ravens understood they had mounted a stand that could set up the rest of their season. They could have let another game slip away; instead, they rallied with their most complete half of the season.
“I think they understood the gravity of that win,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think they understood how tough that win was.”
The Ravens will get Humphrey and Campbell (whose injury wasn’t serious, Harbaugh said) back. They’ll move forward with confidence that they can still control a game on offense behind a reimagined line. They’ll know they met the most tumultuous week of their season with resourcefulness and what general manager Eric DeCosta described as “fortitude.”
This was a big one.
The Ravens finally found tactical answers on offense.
It would be difficult to overstate how shabbily the Ravens executed their offense in the first half. Confusion between Jackson and J.K. Dobbins led to a 1-yard loss on third-and-short that stalled their first drive. Marquise Brown, who complained about a lack of targets in the Steelers loss, bobbled a third-down throw from Jackson to bring a close to their next drive. Center Matt Skura struggled to deliver clean snaps after he cut his hand early in the game. When the Ravens finally moved into Colts territory in the second quarter, Jackson took a 13-yard sack to knock them right back out. The team’s running backs carried four times for 4 yards in the first half.
The Colts, led by outstanding linebacker Darius Leonard, seemed to anticipate every trick and counter attempted by Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Roman and Jackson have taken criticism for not adjusting in the face of such adversity. This time, however, they made the correct tweaks, starting with the notably quicker pace of their first drive after halftime. Though Gus Edwards' red-zone fumble derailed that initial push, it set the tone for what was to come.
Jackson played one of his best halves of the season, stepping into throws when necessary and demonstrating excellent judgement. Roman called some terrific plays, including a designed outside run for Jackson out of a power set that fooled the Colts and resulted in the Ravens' second offensive touchdown.
Give credit also to an offensive line that that faced serious doubts in the wake of Stanley’s injury. The Colts don’t blitz a lot, but they also don’t make many mistakes and pursue the ball as quickly as any defense in the NFL. Ravens blockers had to tighten their execution to give Jackson’s backfield room to work, and they did so.
The Ravens also delivered their most resilient defensive performance of the season.
They refused to make much of Humphrey’s absence or the fact that seven defenders deemed to have been in close contact with him were forced to miss practices.
“I don’t think it was challenging,” said Clark, the team’s even-tempered safety.
Such is the code in the NFL, where “next man up” serves as near-religious mantra. But the Ravens actually lived out that credo with their performance in Indianapolis.
Humphrey is the key player on what Colts coach Frank Reich called the best fumble hunting team in the NFL. Without him, the Ravens had to rely on practice-squad graduates Bonds and Khalil Dorsey (who left the game with a shoulder injury) in a suddenly thin secondary. With Campbell on the sideline, they needed big efforts from Madubuike and Derek Wolfe. With linebacker L.J. Fort inactive because of a finger injury, they asked more of Harrison, who responded with nine tackles and sound coverage.
Outside linebacker Matthew Judon bounced back from his ejection against the Steelers to make an essential fourth-down hit on Rivers with the Colts driving, down 11.
The veteran Indianapolis quarterback also perceived a tactical adjustment, with the Ravens relying on Cover 2 more than man coverage in Humphrey’s absence.
“I think the biggest thing is that we all took it as, ‘Somebody just has to step up.’ We can’t complain,” said Peters, who stepped up with a forced fumble and a widely debated third-quarter interception. “We understand the situation that we’re dealt with right now. We know that things are going to be up and down throughout this whole year. So, we just have to find a way to adapt and overcome these types of situations.”
Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense has become the dependable heart of a team that was better known for offense in 2019. It’s even easier to say that after the Ravens maintained their level under adverse circumstances.
Mark Andrews' role has changed in recent weeks.
Many expected the third-year tight end to build on his 2019 breakout with gaudier receiving numbers this year. Andrews fueled those expectations by saying he aimed to enter the top tier at his position. He seemed well on his way with five touchdown catches in his first five games.
Over the past three games, however, Andrews has caught just eight passes on 15 targets for 75 yards and no scores. Halfway through the season, he’s on pace for 52 catches and 594 yards, totals that would fall well short of his numbers from last year. Pro Football Focus graded him 17th at his position coming into the Colts game, down from second in 2019.
On the other hand, he’s become a more authoritative run blocker, as evidenced by the blow he delivered to set up Jackson’s touchdown run. “As a tight end, you’re known sometimes for your pass catching, but you’re respected for your blocking,” Harbaugh said. “And Mark takes it very seriously. … That block he had on Lamar’s touchdown run was something that’s as good as you’re ever going to see.”
What does Jackson make of his favorite target’s changed role in recent weeks?
“He’s a great tight end. Defenses like to double him,” he explained. “Like I said, he’s a great tight end, but sometimes it’s just meant for him to block and let our running backs do their thing. It’s on the coach, really.”
Andrews hasn’t demonstrated obvious frustration with his reduced production as a receiver. But the Ravens will need to make greater use of his skill as an intermediate threat to reach their offensive potential. Andrews looks up to Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who keeps catching passes in droves despite heightened defensive attention. So he surely expects the same of himself.
For all their ups and downs in recent weeks, the Ravens have put themselves in fine position.
Many pundits seemed to write off the Ravens' chances in the AFC North after they faltered at home against the undefeated Steelers. That loss, combined with their sudden rash of high-profile injuries and Jackson’s uneven performance, marked them as a falling star.
After the Colts victory, which put the Ravens on a 12-win pace halfway through their schedule, the pessimism feels like an overreaction. By metrics such as point differential and Football Outsiders' DVOA, they never stopped being one of the league’s best.
With a relatively soft closing stretch (Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars, Giants, Bengals) looming after the Steelers rematch on Thanksgiving night, we can’t dismiss their chances of getting to 13 wins, which would be impressive by any measure.
We’ve learned the Ravens are built to win even when their offense isn’t clicking. Their DVOA ranking (third overall coming into the weekend) reflects their top-shelf defense and league-best special teams — in other words, the same model they won with long before Jackson came to town. The scary possibility for the rest of the league? Roman’s offense could still find its stride over the next eight games.
With several teams, including the Chiefs and Steelers, ahead of them in the playoff standings, the Ravens probably won’t earn a first-round bye. But after last season and their past playoff runs under Harbaugh, do they necessarily want one? If they’re good enough, they’ll get to a rematch with Kansas City regardless.
Now, you might say this all sounds terribly optimistic for a team that looked dead in the water at halftime in Indianapolis. Consider it an intentional counterpoint to the gloom so many felt after the Steelers loss, a reminder that the Ravens' path to fulfilling those lofty preseason expectations is not closed.