Columnist Mike Preston gives his position grades for the Ravens' game against the Chargers. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
From a signature defensive game to the wisdom of keeping John Harbaugh as coach, here are five things we learned from the Ravens' 22-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
For all the talk about Lamar Jackson, the Ravens are winning behind a defense that will go down as one of the best in franchise history.
They hinted at their potential with an 11-sack shutout in Tennessee. They played a brilliant all-around game in Atlanta against Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. And on Saturday night, the 2018 Ravens defense made its case to be remembered with the record-setting crew from 2000 and the 2006 group that represented the peak of the Ed Reed-Ray Lewis partnership.
They’re not as physically overwhelming as the 2000 defense, which featured Lewis at his absolute apex and held opponents to an absurd 10.3 points a game. They’re not as star-studded as the 2006 defense, which featured Reed, Lewis and youthful versions of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, all led by the unruly genius of coordinator Rex Ryan.
But they do everything well, and they’ve stifled a murderers’ row of opposing quarterbacks, including Most Valuable Player candidate Philip Rivers of the Chargers. Rivers entered with a 112.4 passer rating and at least two touchdown passes in 13 of his 14 games this season. He finished with a 51.7 rating and zero touchdown passes against the Ravens, who sacked him four times and intercepted him twice. The Chargers finished with under 200 total yards for the first time since 2014.
Ravens tight end Mark Andrews summed it up, saying: “I think you go back and look at that game on tape, and I’m excited to watch that, because our defense — that’s an ass-whooping. That’s plain and simple. And they do that to everybody, so they're incredible to watch.”
It’s impossible to single out a hero from this signature effort.
Was it Brandon Carr for his game-opening interception? Unsung linebacker Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor for his two sacks and clutch punch-out against Chargers tight end Antonio Gates? Tony Jefferson for his crunching hits around the line of scrimmage? Rising star Marlon Humphrey for his second interception in two weeks? The interior linemen for their power rushes up the middle? Za’Darius Smith for overpowering or zipping by the blockers who tried to match him one-on-one? Eric Weddle for his leadership in a satisfying homecoming? Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale for his usual witch’s brew of blitzes, stunts and shifting coverages?
That’s the point. Aside from the 36-year-old Suggs, there isn’t an obvious Hall of Fame candidate in the bunch. There also isn’t a weak mark for offenses to exploit. We’ve talked a lot in recent weeks about the Jackson-led offense helping the defense by keeping it off the field. That was not the case in the second half against the Chargers. The Ravens defense faced a heavy burden and tossed it over their collective shoulder with panache.
When Bisciotti said he contemplated making a coaching change after last season, most of us assumed Harbaugh had better make the playoffs in 2018 or else.
But the Ravens owner always said he would not manage by ultimatum or be hemmed in by others’ black-and-white conceptions. He looked past any short-term frustrations and recognized that he already had the right coach to lead the Ravens into a new era.
Harbaugh proved that over the past six months as he managed the transition from Joe Flacco to Jackson without giving up on the short-term ambitions of a veteran team. So on Friday, the Ravens announced that he’ll be back in 2019, with a contract extension in the works.
This season could have turned into an unmitigated disaster when the Ravens lost three straight games and their starting quarterback heading into the Week 10 bye. Even as reports swirled about his lack of job security, however, Harbaugh found his grip on the team.
His staff had spent months designing a shadow offense to play off Jackson’s skills, so the rookie was not set up to fail when Flacco’s injury forced him into the breach. Instead, the Ravens discovered a new identity on the fly as they kept their tenuous playoff hopes alive. They adapted.
After 11 seasons, that’s Harbaugh’s identity as a coach. He does not let trying circumstances — a horrid slump and a near-mutiny in the locker room during the 2012 Super Bowl season, the Ray Rice crisis of 2014 — sink his teams.
If you look carefully, how many underachieved? When he had elite rosters, the Ravens made deep playoff runs and ultimately won their second championship. When Flacco’s mammoth contract made it harder to fill out the rest of the team, he still kept the Ravens in annual playoff contention.
Harbaugh is not a perfect coach. He’s not going to design the offense or defense himself, and that means he’s more dependent on coordinators than some of his peers. On offense, especially, he has not always hired the most dynamic or progressive coaches.
But before any specifics of offense or defense, an NFL head coach must understand his team’s identity and how to keep shaping it through the inevitable difficulties of a season. Harbaugh did that from the day he walked in the door, and he’s still doing it.
It seemed possible Harbaugh, and not Bisciotti, would initiate a breakup. He’d likely have found a lucrative four- or five-year deal in some other NFL city. We don’t know the details of his discussions with Bisciotti, but remember that Harbaugh has said he’d like to become an institution in Baltimore, a coach who endures through numerous roster cycles. Bisciotti, in turn, was not going to find a more accomplished candidate on the open market, so he committed to the man who’s done an excellent job for him through this difficult season.
Some fans will see sticking with Harbaugh as an acceptance of mediocrity. The Ravens would have begun 2019 with a tidy narrative if they started over with a new quarterback, a new general manager and a new coach. Instead, Bisciotti did the right thing.
Brandon Carr’s interception was a rare showy moment for the Ravens’ ultimate professional.
Carr made a tremendous play to start the game, using inside position to wrestle an interception away from Chargers receiver Mike Williams. It was his first interception since Week 1 after he picked off four passes in 2017.
But Carr’s lack of takeaways should not obscure his essential role as the glue of the Ravens’ excellent secondary. He’s neither as fast and aggressive as Humphrey, nor as big and fluid as Jimmy Smith. But he’s there every week (literally — he’s the Cal Ripken Jr. of NFL defenders), playing dependably on the outside and shifting inside to cover the slot when needed. In the locker room, the 32-year-old is just as much of a quiet rock as he is on the field. Want to get one of the team’s younger defensive backs talking? Ask him to extol the value of Carr’s counsel.
We’re voting on the Ravens team MVP this week, and one colleague made a case for Carr, arguing that he’s not the most talented defender on the team but is the linchpin who allows the defense to be good every week.
Carr probably won’t win the award, but what a bargain he’s been since the Ravens signed him to a four-year deal coming off a down season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016.
Mark Andrews has emerged as one of the least likely deep threats in recent Ravens history.
As the preseason drew to a close, you could have found plenty of people to bet on Andrews becoming the latest disappointing tight end picked by the Ravens on the first two days of the draft. He’d battled injuries for much of the summer and rarely looked crisp when he did play.
When the real games started, Andrews quickly put the lie to that impression, catching three passes in his debut and generally making the most of limited snaps. The 68-yard touchdown he caught against the Chargers represented a whole new level of tantalizing.
First off, Jackson caught his tight end in stride with perhaps the sweetest pass he’s thrown as a professional (his 74-yarder to Andrews in Week 12 might be the only competition). Andrews not only caught the ball, but he also used a powerful stiff arm to separate from his defender and then accelerated away from the rest of the defense. You don’t often see such displays of all-around athleticism from 6-foot-5, 256-pound humans.
Harbaugh called it “obviously the turning point of the game.”
Based on such plays, it’s possible to envision Andrews becoming the rare tight end who demands to be covered like a top wide receiver. Pro Football Focus has consistently graded him the best rookie tight end in this year’s class. He’s improbably emerged as Jackson’s most productive downfield target.
In retrospect, Andrews probably deserved more benefit of the doubt in the summer. He arrived with an impressive college pedigree from Oklahoma and glowing scouting reports on his receiving skills. He just needed time and a run of good health.
For all the elation Saturday, the Ravens still need to beat the Cleveland Browns, and that won’t be easy.
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The road trip to Los Angeles represented the more daunting half of the two-week stand the Ravens must mount to guarantee (almost, anyway) a trip to the playoffs.
But players and fans will certainly remember that they controlled their destiny going into last season’s home finale against the struggling Cincinnati Bengals and could not finish the deal. The Browns, despite their pitiful recent legacy, are not struggling.
They’d won four of their past five games coming into this weekend, with a suddenly potent offense led by rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and rookie running back Nick Chubb. Their defense, particularly stingy against the pass, also features young stars in cornerback Denzel Ward and defensive end Myles Garrett.
The Ravens will be favored at M&T Bank Stadium, but they know better than to expect an easy afternoon.
They’d certainly like to have another shot at their Week 5 road game against the Browns, who were still struggling to finish off opponents under since-fired coach Hue Jackson. Cleveland took advantage of a flat offensive performance from the Ravens to win 12-9 in overtime.