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Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker talks about his NFL-record 66-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions, 19-17.

From Justin Tucker cementing his status as the greatest kicker of all-time to the defense struggling to tackle for a third straight week, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ thrilling 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

Justin Tucker is the GOAT

When Lamar Jackson calls someone the GOAT, you tend to believe that his designation as the “greatest of all time” more accurately means “one of the greatest of all time.” He has called Tom Brady the GOAT. He has called Aaron Rodgers the GOAT. If he calls into ESPN’s alternate “Monday Night Football” broadcast this season, he might call Peyton Manning the GOAT.

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But when Jackson or tight end Mark Andrews or anyone in a Ravens jersey calls Tucker the GOAT, the best kicker in NFL history, you tend to believe that they think no one else is better. Or close to him, really. If Tucker had retired after his just-far-enough, game-winning 66-yard field goal Sunday, he would rank not only as the most accurate kicker in league history but also the owner of the longest make in league history. Precision and power — the Ravens have a kicker who can do both.

Maybe the greatest compliment Sunday for Tucker came from a machine. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats algorithm, he had a 10% chance of making that 66-yarder. Despite having missed a 49-yarder earlier in the game. Despite never having made a kick longer than 61 yards in his NFL career. Despite no kicker ever making a kick longer than 64 yards in league history. Tucker’s odds of doing the unprecedented were somewhere between the odds of a No. 2 seed and No. 3 seed losing in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

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“He’s a huge part of our game,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “If we’re not getting it done, he’s going to come through and give us three points here, three points there. He did throughout the game; he missed one early on and came back and won us the game. That’s legendary right there. Can’t take nothing from that guy.”

The world’s best athletes sustain excellence with constant tinkering, fine-tuning this and strengthening that. Tucker, 31, joked that as he’s become “more and more of a dinosaur in this league,” he’s had to figure out how to maximize his leg strength, changing little things in pursuit of bigger kicks. Within the past year, that meant starting to boot long field goals as if they were kickoffs. NBC analyst Drew Brees on Sunday compared Tucker’s unorthodox run-up on his game-winner to a center fielder doing a crow hop before throwing for home.

In pregame warmups, Tucker was booming kicks — but not from 65 yards. “Thankfully, we found an extra yard and a half that I didn’t have three hours before,” he said afterward. He was grateful for the extra push. The Ravens were grateful to see it doink through.

“To see [and] just witness firsthand history being made, it’s surreal,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “I’ve played this game for a long time — really, since I was 6 in little-league football, all the way up to my 14th year in the NFL. You just hope for moments to be great and just to be a part of something special. I’m completely humbled and honored to be on the field and block for that play. An NFL record to win the game in a hostile environment, it’s special. I’m so happy to have been a part of it.”

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This is already one weird season

When the Ravens’ game Sunday was descending into chaos, a tweet from The Ringer’s Kevin Clark came to mind.

“The Seahawks have literally never played in a normal game,” Clark tweeted Nov. 11, 2019, somewhere near the end of their overtime win over the host San Francisco 49ers.

Seattle still isn’t back to totally normal games this season — it followed a solid Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts with a fourth-quarter collapse in an overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans and a no-show Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings — but the Seahawks might have company aboard the NFL’s crazy train. The Ravens have played three games this season. All three have been instantly memorable and totally bonkers. To recap:

— In Week 1, the Ravens had an early two-touchdown advantage over the Las Vegas Raiders, a deficit that has been a death knell for opponents. The Ravens entered this season with an 81-0 record under Harbaugh in games in which they held a two-touchdown lead. The team had last dropped a regular-season game with a 14-point lead in 2004, against the Cincinnati Bengals.

That the Ravens ultimately lost was surprising. How they fell was even more so. They had a three-point advantage with 37 seconds remaining in regulation, then watched Derek Carr and Las Vegas storm into field-goal range with two completions before forcing overtime. The Ravens got a reprieve in overtime with a wild end-zone interception after a game-winning touchdown was overturned. Then they watched Jackson lose his second fumble on a strip-sack, and the Raiders get the actual game-winning score two plays later.

— In Week 2, the Ravens were home underdogs against the Chiefs, a rarity in Jackson’s era as starter. Somehow, though, a 3 ½-point spread felt far too generous toward the Ravens. Kansas City had torn them apart almost a year earlier, also in prime time; afterward, Jackson had called the Chiefs his “kryptonite.” And these Ravens were playing short-handed, their deepest, most talented positions (left tackle, running back, cornerback) neutralized by injuries.

It didn’t matter — not when Jackson threw a pick-six on the game’s opening drive after Sammy Watkins slipped on a route, not when Kansas City entered the fourth quarter up 35-24. The Ravens kept on charging ahead. They forced quarterback Patrick Mahomes into the first September interception of his career. They got rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh to punch out and recover a fumble on a carry meant to salt the game away. And they got Jackson to find a crease on a fourth-and-1 run that finally shattered the Chiefs’ series dominance.

— In Week 3, the Ravens needed a historic kick to beat one of the NFL’s worst teams.

After what it saw in Week 3, Las Vegas expects another Ravens nail-biter in Week 4. The unbeaten Denver Broncos opened as 1 ½-point home favorites ahead of Sunday’s showdown. Denver’s won its past two meetings at Mile High, but it is a venue that has already seen the wildest game in the Ravens’ playoff history. That “Mile High Miracle” in the 2012 playoffs is a high bar to clear. Only David Simon could cook up a game Sunday that comes anywhere close in terms of sheer drama. There’s just no way ... right?

With the Ravens’ injuries, Jackson’s still-developing talent, Tucker’s rocket leg, Harbaugh’s aggressiveness and football’s inherent instability, anything could happen. Three regular-season games down, 14 more to go.

Sunday’s game continued a troubling trend for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense

Let’s start with a bit of a walk-back. Yes, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who entered Week 3 as one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated receivers, should’ve finished with more than three catches on seven targets for 53 yards. Yes, his suddenly shaky hands would’ve been an easy scapegoat in a devastating loss.

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But his game deserves a fair accounting. And upon further review, the so-called drop in the middle of the end zone early in the second quarter that robbed Jackson of a 25-yard touchdown was actually not a drop at all. At the last second, Lions safety Tracy Walker III got a fingertip on the ball — enough to alter its trajectory, but not enough to keep the pass from striking Brown in the hands.

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That seemed to underscore how Jackson’s day went. He finished 16-for-31 (51.6%) — his first time this season under 63% accuracy — for 287 yards and an impressive third-and-long touchdown to wide receiver Devin Duvernay. On a normal afternoon, his numbers perhaps would’ve ended up closer to a 65% completion rate, 400 yards passing and three touchdowns. Brown would be the first to acknowledge as much.

“Marquise is going to be great, man,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “I told him, ‘Just be yourself, be you, keep going.’ Things like that happen. He’s a dog at the end of the day. He’s going to continue to be great and continue to make plays. This is not going to define him at all.”

But for all the shortcomings out wide — Watkins appeared to have a catchable deep shot bounce off a hand, and Jackson was often left to scramble and hope for separation downfield — Sunday’s game continued a troubling trend for Jackson and the Ravens offense.

After throwing an ill-advised pass in the fourth quarter, Jackson is now tied for the fifth-most interceptions in the NFL (five), as of Sunday night. He also was charged with a fumble for the fourth time this season, though he recovered the ball and turned the first-and-10 play late in the first quarter into an incompletion to Andrews.

In the span of a few hours Sunday, Jackson showed a downfield passing touch that has been largely missing over his career in Baltimore, even during his Most Valuable Player-worthy 2019 season. He also showed some of the overeagerness that undercut his play during his lowest points in 2020. If Jackson can consistently get the help that every quarterback needs — be it from his receivers, his backfield or his linemen — the pressure he feels to do more should lessen.

All Jackson needs to do is play like himself. On most days, that’s more than enough.

The Ravens have survived the injury bug — for now

When four key defensive players hit the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, an already banged-up Ravens team took another hit.

On Sunday, it was one step forward and another two steps back. Cornerback Jimmy Smith returned to the field for the first time since December, but outside linebacker Daelin Hayes was carted to the locker room in his NFL debut with an ankle injury and safety DeShon Elliott exited with a quad injury.

After missing the trip to Detroit, outside linebackers Jaylon Ferguson and Justin Houston and defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Justin Madubuike are expected to return against Denver. Williams and Madubuike are key run-stuffers against an undefeated Broncos team that has rolled up 127.3 rushing yards per game, while Houston entered Sunday as the team’s third-highest graded defender, according to Pro Football Focus, behind only Calais Campbell and Oweh.

Smith was active Sunday in his first game in more than nine months, including a solid pass breakup over the middle. Rookie third-round pick Brandon Stephens has held his own as Elliott’s replacement, too, recording five tackles against the Lions. Cornerback Anthony Averett has shown why the Ravens think so highly of him by stepping in admirably for All-Pro Marcus Peters.

The Ravens should have the horses they need on defense to stop the Broncos. The offense might be getting a boost, too.

Wide receivers Miles Boykin (ankle) and Rashod Bateman (groin) are eligible to return from injured reserve and play in Week 4, and Boykin indicated in an Instagram post Sunday night that he could be ready to play soon. Bateman’s timetable, however, is still to be determined. Boykin has been running at practice, but Bateman, the team’s first-round draft pick, has not.

With a league-high 15 players on injured reserve, the Ravens are still 2-1. Staying afloat through this rough patch has kept their biggest goals in sight.

The tackling problem isn’t going away

It’s been no secret that the Ravens, ravaged by injuries and yet another COVID situation, have had their issues tackling and pressuring the quarterback. But without Williams, Madubuike, Houston and Ferguson, Baltimore held its own rushing the passer Sunday. The tackling? Well, that’s still an issue.

During the first two weeks, Lions quarterback Jared Goff put together one complete game — two quarters in each — and continued that trend against the Ravens, completing 14 of 15 passes for 159 yards in the final two quarters after going 8-for-15 with 58 passing yards in a scoreless first half. Harbaugh claimed his defense didn’t get worn down during the second half, when the Lions marched to the end zone twice with back-to-back drives worth a combined 23 plays, 150 yards and 14 minutes, 20 seconds, but it certainly didn’t look like the Ravens defense from the first half. The poor tackling was especially evident during Detroit’s first scoring drive that ended with running back D’Andre Swift plunging in for a 2-yard touchdown.

“Our defense is going to be tackling,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got to become a better tackling team and we know that.”

Baltimore sacked Goff twice. Neither was by a defensive lineman or a linebacker, as it was safety Chuck Clark and cornerback Tavon Young bringing Goff down. But the unit did have five tackles for loss, including two by so-far defensive Most Valuable Player Campbell, and hit Goff six times. According to Pro Football Focus, both Patrick Queen and Tyus Bowser graded poorly and combined for five missed tackles and three first downs allowed in coverage. The Ravens still pitched a shutout in the first half.

After having such a clear and obvious problem tackling the Chiefs last Sunday night and the Raiders in Week 1, seeing the Ravens struggle again against a much less talented Lions team is cause for concern heading into Denver. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale might need to convince Harbaugh to put the pads on this week at practice.

Week 4

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RAVENS@BRONCOS

Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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