At halftime Sunday, the Ravens decided to do what they now do best, to do what they perhaps should’ve done all along. Here they were, one week off a season-high rushing performance, with 10 carries. There the Oakland Raiders were, one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, down just three points at M&T Bank Stadium.
“It's easy to say, 'Run the football more.' It's easy to say that, right?” right guard Marshal Yanda said afterward. He wore an Iowa football shirt, as full-throated an endorsement of smash-mouth offense as anything in this universe. “We just execute the play.”
But the Ravens ran away with a 34-17 victory because they recommitted to running. They held on to the AFC’s second wild-card spot because the Raiders could not stop them from running: 43 carries, 242 yards, one touchdown, a second straight win.
They ran because Lamar Jackson is their quarterback — because Lamar Jackson was their quarterback? That part is unclear. When asked about the team’s plans under center for Week 13, coach John Harbaugh did not quite pull a Matthew Judon and dash into a tunnel. But he did leave the Ravens’ slow-cooking quarterback controversy to simmer further, as much out of uncertainty as gamesmanship.
Flacco’s timetable for recovering from his right hip injury, Harbaugh said, was three to four weeks. Sunday’s game in Atlanta will mark four weeks since Flacco was hurt in Week 9. But he has not been cleared to practice. And he won’t play if he hasn’t practiced. And besides, Harbaugh said, “If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know.”
The Ravens’ quarterback change, temporary though it may be, has heralded an obvious philosophical shift in their offense. There are run-pass options and zone reads. There are 17-play drives that drain the clock and weaken the knees. But even as the Ravens (6-5) have substituted a heavier ground game for their high-risk, high-reward, high-volume passing days, their offense has not suffered. The opposite, in fact.
Over the Ravens’ first nine games, all of which Flacco started, they averaged 5.2 yards per play, among the NFL’s five or six worst rates. In their past two, with Flacco on the sideline in sweats, they’ve averaged 5.7 yards per play, which entering Sunday’s game would have tied the New England Patriots for No. 14 overall.
The Ravens have not done anything as well on offense this season as they have running the ball with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. They also could not have found two defenses worse suited for those particular talents than the Cincinnati Bengals’ and Raiders’. How the unlikely electrifying backfield of Jackson (11 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown Sunday) and running back Gus Edwards (23 carries for 118 yards) might fare against the Falcons is as unknowable as the durability of Flacco’s hip the next time it’s thrown against the ground.
“Obviously, we want to win the game any way possible, but getting to run the football and getting those carries, yeah, it's awesome,” Yanda said. “We really enjoyed it. It's fun. I enjoyed running the football, but I understand, too, that we're going to have to pass a certain amount to get that done, too. But yeah, 'O' linemen love pounding the rock.”
Which made the Ravens’ first-half philosophy Sunday curious. A week after turning back the clock to rush 53 times for 267 yards, after possessing the ball for over 16 minutes more than the Bengals, the Ravens entered halftime with nearly twice as many passes attempted (18) as runs (10).
It was not a matter of relative effectiveness; Jackson completed just half of his passes, and two ended in the hands of Raiders defenders after fortuitous tips. Edwards, meanwhile, was averaging over 6 yards a carry, and Jackson over 5, their zone-read game as unstoppable as it had been against Cincinnati.
So before their offense took the field for the start of the third quarter, the Ravens decided on a change of plans. “We felt like we needed to” run the ball, Harbaugh said. And run they did, so often and so successfully that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr likened it afterward to what his Fresno State teams faced against Air Force in college.
Those Falcons teams relied on the triple option; the new-look Ravens have the zone read and one of the NFL’s fastest-ever quarterbacks. After punt returner Cyrus Jones (Gilman) and kicker Justin Tucker provided all of the Ravens’ first-half scoring punch, the offense finally found the end zone with a drive chart unusual outside Baltimore: 13 plays, 12 of them runs — and the one pass was an easy-money shovel pass.
Their next drive made that nearly seven-minute possession feel as short as a commercial. Over 17 plays and 71 yards and 8 minutes, 53 seconds, the Ravens mixed runs and passes — yes, plural — to extend their lead to double digits once more. On their first second-half drive, Jackson scored easily on a naked bootleg. This time, on third-and-goal from Oakland’s 8, he fired a dart to former Raider Michael Crabtree for a touchdown.
“Our offensive line does an incredible job,” said Jackson, who finished 14-for-25 for 178 yards, the touchdown and two picks. “They were pushing those guys around, not just the defensive line but the linebackers and the secondary, just rolling the guys on their backs.”
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“Lamar was just being Lamar,” Crabtree said. “It’s ‘The Lamar Show.’ You just have to sit back and watch, because he’s electrifying. He’s going to run with his feet, because that’s what he does. He’s going to throw it, he’s going to run it, because that’s Lamar Jackson.”
Through two weeks, The Lamar Show is a wholly immersive experience: Not only has the offense improved, but the defense as well. When Flacco was hurt, the Ravens led the league in yards allowed per play (4.8). With Jackson in, that mark has fallen further, to 4.6 per play.
The trickle-down might have been most evident late Sunday. For most of the game, Carr was almost always upright in the pocket, if not always right on target downfield. But midway through the fourth quarter, he was suddenly under siege. It was as if the Ravens defense had found its second wind.
Three times in three plays, Carr was sacked by outside linebacker Matthew Judon. He fumbled on the first, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ 43-yard scoop-and-score effectively ended the game. After the third, Judon jogged down a tunnel in celebration. The Ravens were by then running Oakland (2-9) out of town anyway.
“In those types of games, the offense kind of has to pass the ball, because they don’t know when they’re going to get the ball back,” Judon said.
When the Ravens got the ball one final time, Jackson broke free for a 39-yard scamper, the team’s longest run of the season. He might’ve gone the distance, if not for a muscle cramp. For the second straight week, that was about the only thing capable of stopping Jackson and the offense from running even more wild.
“When our offense is on the field, running the ball,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said, “it’s a direct correlation to us winning.”