This was one of the Ravens’ best-coached games in recent memory.
Coach John Harbaugh and his staff faced widespread criticism after a Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals — for game-planning with little imagination, for squandering the talents of running back Alex Collins and for managing the late-game clock with little urgency.
The Ravens could have fallen apart again Sunday after a demoralizing game-opening sequence that featured a sack of quarterback Joe Flacco, a blocked punt and a quick Denver touchdown.
Instead, Harbaugh’s staff answered with a superbly balanced offensive plan and a defensive rotation that held the Broncos scoreless over the final three quarters despite the absence of Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley and surging defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg found numerous ways to neutralize Denver’s fearsome front seven, led by all-world pass rusher Von Miller.
The Ravens did not run for big gains, averaging just 2.8 yards on 28 carries. But Collins carried the ball seven times in the first quarter, just two fewer that he did in the entirety of the team’s previous game, a 34-23 loss in Cincinnati. And that commitment set up the rest of the team’s attack.
On the Ravens’ first scoring drive, Flacco handed off to Collins on first down and followed with a play-action fake that left tight end Mark Andrews by himself in the middle of the field for a 30-yard catch and run.
Flacco has always been at his best as a play-action quarterback, but he made a variety of excellent throws against Denver and perhaps most importantly, he made them quickly.
On the last play of the first quarter, he rolled out by design and fired a 15-yard strike to John Brown. In the second quarter, he took advantage of Michael Crabtree’s 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame with a perfectly thrown back-shoulder completion for 19 yards on third-and-9.
The Ravens followed that with a pair of cleverly designed throws to running backs Alex Collins and Buck Allen to complete a go-ahead touchdown drive.
On the first drive after halftime, Flacco shook off a poor throw to Andrews and fired a confident 29-yard pass to the rookie tight end on the next play.
By mixing throws and runs, deep balls and screens, rollouts and play-action, the Ravens prevented Miller and company from asserting themselves. Take the odd special-teams plays out of the game, and they clearly outplayed one of the more talented defenses they’ll face in 2018.
The Ravens’ offensive line redeemed itself after a dismal Week 2.
Flacco appeared to be in for a long afternoon when Denver’s star rookie, Bradley Chubb, crashed past left tackle Ronnie Stanley for a sack on the second play of the game.
The Ravens’ first drive in Cincinnati ended similarly, and it was easy to envision a nightmarish repeat, with the Baltimore offensive line utterly helpless to stay in front of Miller and Chubb.
Instead, the Broncos dropped Flacco just once the rest of the game, and Miller — whom the Ravens game-planned around all week — produced as many offside penalties, two, as tackles.
Given the disappointment against Cincinnati and Miller’s potency, much-maligned right tackle James Hurst played one of the best games of his career.
“We knew we weren’t up to par last week,” he said. “And we wanted to come out and have a different outcome and know that we can play better than we did.”
Stanley also held his own despite an injured right elbow that required him to wear a brace. The brace kept slipping off, and at one point, Stanley flung it to the ground rather than exit the game in the middle of a key second-half drive.
It was a welcome display of fire from the laid-back third-year tackle, who called the victory “a get-back-on-track game for us.”
The offensive line has yet to overpower opponents in running situations, but Hurst said Mornhinweg’s early commitment to using Collins helped set the desired tone.
“Even in this game, our run average wasn’t where we wanted it to be, probably,” he said. “But it’s an attitude thing. It’s just getting downhill and being physical with those guys. They’ve got to defend it for four quarters.”
The Ravens leaned on their depth to deal with C.J. Mosley’s absence.
We saw the Ravens fall apart after Mosley exited the Bengals game with a bone bruise. And the defense didn’t look so hot in the first quarter Sunday when several players bit hard on a faked handoff that set up a 35-yard end-around touchdown by Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
But the Ravens didn’t allow a point after that, and their rally was a story with many characters rather than a tale of one conquering defender.
Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith set the early tone with a sack and four quarterback hits. Rookie Kenny Young swarmed sideline to sideline for a team-high 10 tackles. Fellow inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor helped kill Denver’s hopes with a snap-reflex interception in the fourth quarter. Terrell Suggs made several key run stops on the Broncos’ last significant drive. Safety Eric Weddle kept the machine running smoothly as fill-in signal caller.
The Ravens would certainly have a better chance to dominate with Mosley, Pierce, Willie Henry and Jimmy Smith in the lineup. But they held their own with a diminished roster and that speaks to how many good players they have on the defensive side.
One troubling subplot for the Ravens was their continued difficulty with large wide receivers. A week after A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd beat them in Cincinnati, 6-foot-3 Demaryius Thomas and 6-foot-4 Courtland Sutton combined for 100 yards on seven catches. If Denver had started a more dynamic quarterback than Case Keenum, the Ravens might have been in real trouble.
Smith’s return in Week 5 should help, but it’s a problem worth monitoring.
Mark Andrews has given the offense a surprise big-play dimension in the middle.
A muscle tissue injury hampered Andrews early in training camp, and he didn’t look like much of a player once he posted for action. While fellow rookie tight end Hayden Hurst showed off wide receiver-level mobility and a gift for making catches in traffic, Andrews seemed overmatched by the speed of NFL defenders and unsure of the hands that had marked him as a star at Oklahoma.
Given the Ravens’ spotty track record at drafting tight ends in recent years, it was easy to be skeptical.
Andrews seemed on track for game-day inactive lists, until Hurst’s fractured foot created an opening. Whether the urgency of actual games agreed with him or he finally banked enough practice repetitions to feel comfortable, he blossomed.
Andrews’ 30-yard catch and run in the first quarter showcased his ability to gobble up open space with long strides. More impressive still was his 29-yard catch in heavy traffic to set up a Baltimore touchdown in the third quarter. Andrews brushed past a missed connection on the previous down to make one of the most important plays of the game. That one earned a celebratory chest bump from Harbaugh.
The Ravens would have a more dangerous receiving corps this season even if they got nothing from their tight ends. But opponents will have to account for Andrews and eventually, Hurst.
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“That was a really good third-down defense, and I think Mark’s a huge [threat],” Flacco said. “He can be a difference-maker down the middle of the field on things like that. He’s a big body. He can run well. … It’s huge how a guy like that runs down the middle of the field.”
This win was crucial to the Ravens’ ultimate ambitions for the season.
There’s probably no such thing as a must-win in Week 3, but this was an important game for the Ravens to bank with four of their next five coming on the road.
Look back at last season when their Week 6 home loss to the Chicago Bears ultimately cost them a playoff berth. This game could have gone down a similar path after the Ravens surrendered a blocked punt and fell behind 7-0.
They were playing without their defensive signal-caller in Mosley against a 2-0 Broncos team led by one of the finest defensive players in the world.
If they lost to fall to 1-2 with a trip to inhospitable Pittsburgh looming next weekend, a greater unraveling would not have seemed far-fetched.
Instead, the Ravens outplayed Denver on both sides of the ball and asserted their home-field advantage with another double-digit victory at M&T Bank Stadium.
We don’t know the Ravens are a playoff team based on this performance. But they let us know they might be.