In the one game since Election Day that the Ravens haven’t won, on the one play they would like to have back, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale ran zone.
Sure, the Ravens were in man-to-man coverage on fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter when Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes found Damien Williams for a last-minute, game-tying 5-yard touchdown. But the game had swung earlier in the drive, when the Ravens rushed just four defenders, dropped everyone else and watched powerlessly as Mahomes scrambled to the right sideline on fourth-and-9 and threw one up.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill had found a sliver of space, a soft spot in the zone, and that was all he needed to make a 48-yard completion that kept the Chiefs alive in an eventual 27-24 win at Arrowhead Stadium.
It figures, then, that when the Ravens needed to make a stop Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, their playoff spot on the line late in the fourth quarter, they brought the house, over and over again.
“We did it the last four plays,” Martindale said after the 26-24 win, sealed with inside linebacker C.J. Mosley’s fourth-down interception. “Because of the way we’ve been all year, they knew what the calls were going to be. That’s why they were all laughing when they came over. To win the game, we’re not playing some zone.”
As the Ravens prepare to face the Los Angeles Chargers again Sunday, they will take into their wild-card-round matchup a high-value asset: a defense that can play with fire without getting burnt. Over the second half of the season, driven by smart play and bold calls, there has been perhaps no better closer in football.
Week 11: Cincinnati Bengals
Even as quarterback Lamar Jackson, starting for the first time in place of an injured Joe Flacco, and running back Gus Edwards rushed for over 100 yards apiece, the Ravens needed a late defensive stop to seal their first of six wins in a seven-game span.
Trailing 24-21, the Bengals took over from their 10-yard line with 2:45 remaining at M&T Bank Stadium. Quarterback Andy Dalton completed his first two passes on the drive, but two straight incompletions forced Cincinnati into fourth-and-3 from its 37-yard line.
The Ravens sent five pass rushers after Dalton, who lined up in shotgun formation with three wide receivers to his left and one to his right. Importantly, none of them were A.J. Green, who was out with a toe injury.
Dalton’s first read looked to be to slot receiver Tyler Boyd, but safety Tony Jefferson, helping out cornerback Brandon Carr’s man-to-man coverage, alertly cut off the free space created by a rub route.
So Dalton looked right, targeting Cody Core, who had all of 113 receiving yards coming into the game. The ball was out before Core got out of his curl route, and it was accurate. But the pass was thrown just far enough inside for cornerback Marlon Humphrey to get a hand on it, knocking it free.
Week 12: Oakland Raiders
The most decisive of the Ravens’ victories in the season’s second half also featured one of the more dominant three-play stretches in franchise history. On three straight plays late in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens already up by double digits at home, outside linebacker Matthew Judon sacked Oakland quarterback Derek Carr.
The first came on fourth-and-8 from the Raiders’ 38. Like the Bengals the week before, Oakland had three receivers to Carr’s left and another split out right. And like the week before, there was nowhere to throw, and even less time. Judon timed the snap perfectly, just beating right tackle Brandon Parker around the edge and ripping through his hold before coming down on Carr’s throwing arm.
The ball squirted loose, popped around the ground and eventually reached the hands of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who did his best Ed Reed impression with a winding 43-yard scoop-and-score. The touchdown extended the Ravens’ lead to 17, but Judon sacked Carr on the Raiders’ next two plays anyway.
Week 13: Atlanta Falcons
The Ravens’ signature defensive play from their 26-16 win in Atlanta did not come on fourth down. It did, however, come in the fourth quarter. And it mirrored the aggressive calls the Ravens used to extend their season Sunday.
Leading 19-10 midway through the fourth quarter after a field goal by kicker Justin Tucker, the Ravens lined up for the Falcons’ first play of their next drive as if nothing big were imminent. Then safety Chuck Clark crept closer to the box. And slot cornerback Tavon Young vacated his spot to threaten a blitz. When Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan finally snapped the ball, only four Ravens weren’t headed for his No. 2 jersey.
There was chaos in the pocket. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was inches short of falling onto Ryan’s toes. Inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor hurdled a block. When he landed, his right hand poked the ball loose from Ryan, who was about to throw to Mohamed Sanu, the one open Falcons receiver.
A blitzing Young hadn’t gotten around left tackle Jake Matthews, but when the fumble bounced his way, he picked it up, shrugged off a tackle attempt from Matthews and coasted into the end zone for a 12-yard score.
Week 15: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Until Jimmy Smith’s two-interception, one-catch-allowed performance Sunday against Cleveland, there was little question about which cornerback’s single-game performance was the best of the season.
So of course he was the one to make the final play for the Ravens defense in their 20-12 win. Trailing by eight midway through the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers got as far as the Ravens’ 30-yard line on their final drive of the game. But a 3-yard loss on third-and-1 forced fourth-and-4.
Quarterback Jameis Winston had two wide receivers split left, but he was always looking right, in Humphrey’s direction. Wide receiver Chris Godwin and tight end Cameron Brate lined up in a bunch formation, just yards from running back Peyton Barber, positioned to Winston’s right in the shotgun formation.
At the snap of the ball, Clark cut off Barber’s flare route. Brate, acting more as a screener than receiver, never got open. And as Godwin ran a smash route, starting to the middle of the field on a diagonal pattern before cutting back to the sideline, Humphrey was with him every step of the way. The pass never had a chance, and Tampa Bay never got possession again.
Week 16: Los Angeles Chargers
Unlike in previous weeks, the most important play of the Ravens’ biggest win of the season — for a week anyway — wasn’t made in coverage or with the pass rush. It was made after a catch by tight end Antonio Gates, with just under three minutes remaining and the Ravens up six.
Their defense forced just 10 fumbles all regular season, sixth fewest in the NFL, but Onwuasor said after the 22-10 win in Carson, Calif., that he’d told Young earlier in the game that there were opportunities to punch the ball out.
As Carr held up Gates slightly after a solid completion on first-and-10 from the Ravens’ 49, Onwuasor threw a balled-up right fist at the ball.
“I saw the ball and I just punched,” he recalled. “We work on that at practice every week, going out there and practicing stuff like that. When I saw my opportunity, I just took it and the ball came out.”
Young, who’d missed the initial tackle attempt on Gates, was again alert to the bouncing ball. With none of the Chargers’ fastest players in his path, he ran the fumble back unimpeded for a 62-yard touchdown and 12-point lead. The next day, the Ravens were back in first in the AFC North.