Preston: Missing in recent seasons, hunger and roster competition drive Ravens in 2018

The Ravens’ 21-0 win against the Tennessee Titans on the road Sunday could define their 2018 season.

The Ravens (4-2) had another possible defining game the week before in an upset loss to the Cleveland Browns, so it was important to see how the team rebounded against Tennessee.

The Titans are a poor excuse for an NFL team and the Ravens’ win wasn’t just a victory but a beat-down so severe that Tennessee virtually gave up on its last offensive play of the first half.

This was impressive because it shows what the Ravens have been missing the past couple of years. These guys, including the coaching staff, are hungry and nasty because they have so much to prove.

The Ravens sacked Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota 11 times and held the Titans to under 200 yards of total offense. On offense, the Ravens were balanced and got wide receiver Michael Crabtree involved again.

But it goes deeper than that. Wide receiver Willie Snead IV, who caught seven passes for 60 yards, got knocked down and trampled and still converted a third-down play into a first down. And then he got in the face of several Titans defensive backs.

He wasn’t showboating, just standing his ground. Crabtree was the goat the previous week against Cleveland, dropping three passes, including the potential game-winning touchdown, but he was on a mission Sunday.

He had six catches for 93 yards, but the best moment was in the second quarter when quarterback Joe Flacco overthrew him. Crabtree was irritated and steam was coming out of the ear holes of his helmet.

That’s when I knew old, irritable, grumpy “give me the ball” Crabtree had returned to form. John Brown isn’t as demonstrative as Crabtree, but he has the same type of passion and energy.

Ravens receivers weren’t like that last year. Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin were here to collect paychecks. Crabtree, Brown and Snead play because they want to prove their former teams were wrong by allowing them to leave because they were too old, slow or small.

Flacco is in a similar situation. He got comfortable because there was no way Ryan Mallett could beat him out. Rookie Lamar Jackson couldn’t beat him out either, but Flacco got the message when the Ravens drafted Jackson late in the first round in April.

All of a sudden Flacco started working out with the receivers during the offseason outside the team’s training facility.

Before Jackson, the Ravens selected South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst with the 25th pick in the first round and then Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews in the third round. Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle, two veterans competing for roster spots, came into training camp swollen as if someone had pumped helium into their chests and arms.

Competition is a good thing.

It was a driving force behind the defensive effort against the Titans. The TV announcers gushed over Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and the number of looks he gave Mariota up front.

The schemes certainly had an impact, but the Ravens simply overpowered the Titans up front, chopping them down as if they were redwood trees.

Why?

The Ravens wanted to put on a strong effort against their former coordinator, Tennessee’s Dean Pees, and at the same time let fans know previous shortcomings weren’t their fault.

It is no different from when teams change head coaches, just like the great effort the Ravens gave Harbaugh when he replaced Brian Billick after the 2007 season.

A lot of things are driving this team. Right guard Marshal Yanda is usually one of the most controlled players on the field, but even he went after two Titans on Sunday.

The Ravens continue to move forward. They finally got offensive balance, with 35 rushing attempts and 37 passes Sunday. It’s not important that these numbers be close, but it makes life easier for the offensive line and Flacco when the Ravens can do both.

Being able to run the ball will come in handy when the Ravens play at Kansas City later in the season, especially if rookie running back Gus Edwards continues to be impressive.

He is more of a north-south runner than starter Alex Collins and has more explosion than top backup Buck Allen. On defense, the Ravens spent so much time celebrating sacks that it looked as if they were contestants vying for a spot on a dance show.

It will be interesting to see whether they can mount that type of pass rush against the Saints and Drew Brees when New Orleans comes to town Sunday.

But after beating the Titans on Sunday, the Ravens have given more reason to be confident of that happening than there was at the beginning of the season, and certainly last week after the loss to Cleveland.

Pressure apparently is a good thing. Harbaugh needs to get to the playoffs to save his job. Flacco wants a contract extension. His receivers and certain tight ends want to prove they belong in the league.

Like Flacco, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith wants a new contract, and this might be the last season for fellow outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. After failing as a defensive coordinator in Denver in 2010, Martindale wants to prove he can dial up plays with the best of those in the NFL.

The Ravens are hungry and driven. They haven’t had this much motivation in years, and they have responded well.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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