This was the finest hour of 2018 for Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense.
The Ravens didn’t set records the way they did in their 11-sack shutout of the Tennessee Titans. But considering the stakes and the quality of the opponent, they played their best defensive game of the season.
With Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey taking turns covering Jones, he caught just two passes for 18 yards on eight targets. His previous season lows were five catches and 62 yards. Not many cornerbacks can match Jones’ combination of size, speed and combativeness. It’s an incredible luxury for the Ravens that when everyone is healthy, they have two such defenders.
The secondary’s sound play, especially impressive given that Chuck Clark filled in for the injured Tony Jefferson at strong safety, facilitated the fiercest pass rush we’ve seen from the Ravens since Week 6.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan rarely had clean chances to look downfield, as the Ravens hit him seven times and held him to 131 passing yards, about 200 below his season average.
Though the Falcons had struggled to finish drives in recent weeks, the Ravens were the first opponent to stifle them to this degree.
Now, Martindale’s crew will prepare for an even sterner test in Kansas City against the cannon arm of Patrick Mahomes and the cutting-edge schemes of Andy Reid. It’s foolish to predict any team will stop the Chiefs flat-out, but the Ravens have done enough to make this one of the more tantalizing offense-defense matchups of the season.
The Ravens have found an identity under Lamar Jackson, and they need to ride him.
Jackson played his sloppiest game as an NFL starter, squandering scoring opportunities with amateurish throws and keeping the Falcons in the game with a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
But you have to zoom out to the wide picture and recognize that the Ravens have become a different, better team since Joe Flacco’s hip injury pushed Jackson to the fore.
They’re out of step with the modern NFL, but it works to their advantage as they choke the life out of opponents with a run-heavy offense that can’t be forced off the field. Their ball control — they held it for a remarkable 80 percent of the second half in Atlanta — has also facilitated fresher, more opportunistic defense in the late stages of games.
Yes, Jackson has worked his magic — the Ravens have produced at least 200 yards on the ground in each of his starts — against three of the worst run defenses in the league. But it’s hard to imagine the Ravens turning away from the formula that has carried them back to the driver’s seat for the AFC’s second wild-card berth, even if Flacco is cleared to play next weekend against the nitro-powered Chiefs.
Now for the nitpicks. Jackson revived misgivings about his throwing ability with a 12-for-21 performance that featured some of his worst tics. He used an odd sidearm release on a wayward third-down attempt to John Brown late in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he floated a potential touchdown pass well beyond Brown’s reach, clenching his fists in frustration at the missed opportunity.
Jackson also put the ball on the ground three times in the first half, a natural risk the Ravens will have to accept given the benefits of his free-running style.
Wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV both dropped potential first-down catches on short throws by Jackson. Those mistakes loom larger when you’re already dealing with a quarterback whose accuracy come and goes.
The parade of errors prevented the Ravens from sustaining early drives and left them unable to capitalize on a superb first half by their defense.
It’s also worth noting how much kicker Justin Tucker helped patch over the Ravens’ offensive flaws. Jackson (and Robert Griffin III) didn’t have to finish drives to keep the team ahead, because Tucker was dead-center on three of his four field goals, kicks of 41, 45 and 47 yards. Never take him for granted, folks.
C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs broke out of slumps and set the defensive tone.
In addition to free safety Eric Weddle, linebackers Suggs and Mosley are the mental and emotional leaders of the Ravens defense.
Neither man played up to his high standards in November, but both made significant plays behind the line of scrimmage as the Ravens knocked Ryan and the Falcons on their heels in the first half.
Suggs had gone four games without a sack, but he broke that streak in the first quarter when he overpowered Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who was trying to block him one-on-one.
On the previous play, the 36-year-old linebacker had demonstrated his intelligence by reading and disrupting a pass from Ryan to the flat.
He hit Ryan three times overall and derailed another running play when he pounced on the ball carrier just after hand-off.
Last week, Suggs praised coaches for managing his workload in the first half of the season and promised to floor his pedal for the stretch run. Against the Falcons, he delivered.
Mosley, meanwhile, came into the game leading the Ravens in combined and solo tackles, as he usually does. But many of his hits seemed to occur well past the line of scrimmage. He had tackled opponents in the backfield just twice all season.
That changed on the first drive Sunday as Mosley stuffed Falcons running back Tevin Coleman for a 2-yard loss. He stopped Atlanta ball carriers for gains of 2 and 3 yards later in the first half and made a key tackle to stop wide receiver Calvin Ridley on third down in the second half.
It’s no coincidence that the Ravens’ signature defensive performance featured aggressive outings from their stalwarts. They’ll need more of the same from Suggs and Mosley if they hope to play into January.
Pierce, the third-year defensive tackle received some well-earned love from CBS analyst Tony Romo when he crashed into the Atlanta backfield for a stop in the first half.
Pierce has taken a step forward each season, from a terrific value as an undrafted free agent in 2016 to a rising starter in 2017 to one of the 10 best interior defenders in the league in 2018, according to the scouting website Pro Football Focus.
He’s unlikely to produce a huge volume of sacks or tackles for loss, given his role. But he consistently mauls opposing blockers and creates free tackling lanes for the team’s linebackers and safeties. He’s also better at collapsing the pocket on passing downs than Williams, his partner on the inside.
Williams signed a five-year, $54 million deal before last season, and he’s delivered his usual sturdy play against the run in 2018. He played one of his best games of the season against the Falcons, helping to set up the Ravens’ defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter with his powerful push off the line of scrimmage.
Williams and Pierce keep each other fresh by rotating constantly (Pierce has played fewer than half as many snaps as superstar interior linemen such as Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox and Akiem Hicks).
It will be interesting to see whether the Ravens ever use Pierce as more of an every-down defender or whether they believe he’ll always need to conserve energy to maximize his impact.
Right now, there’s no reason for them to mess with what’s working.
The Ravens took an essential step in setting up their playoff push.
They would have remained in the thick of the AFC wild-card race, even with a loss. The streaking Indianapolis Colts did them an unexpected favor with a dud performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That said, if you took a practical look at the remainder of the Ravens’ schedule, this set up as their best chance to steal a needed road victory. They knew it, even if no one said so during the week. And they delivered a dominant performance against a reeling but dangerous opponent.
Now, the Ravens merely need to hold serve at home against two beatable opponents — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns — to get to 9-7, likely the lowest entry point for the second wild-card spot. They’re even back in the AFC North race (a half-game back) after the Pittsburgh Steelers fell on Sunday night.
They’ll be underdogs in Kansas City next weekend and in Los Angeles, against the Chargers, on Dec. 22. But they should be set up to play loosely and confidently in those games, knowing that if they snatch another road win, they’ll be the wild-card favorite.
This was the blueprint for the Ravens to get back on track coming out of their bye week. Give them credit for following it, no matter what happens from here.