From the Ravens meeting their match to Lamar Jackson’s nemesis to unsung defensive heroes, here are five things we learned from a 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Ravens met their match, and they still won.
Life is awfully fun when you’re winning by 31 points a game, as the Ravens did throughout November. But such dominance does not offer a fair picture of the road ahead for a Super Bowl contender, and on Sunday, the Ravens found themselves back in sopping, punishing reality against an opponent just as confident and talented as they are.
The 49ers did to the Ravens what the Ravens have done to other teams, jumping to an immediate lead, moving inexorably on the ground, creating a key turnover and living off the poise of their young quarterback. The 49ers even made Most Valuable Player front-runner Lamar Jackson look quasi-mortal at times.
But each time the 49ers punched, the Ravens punched back. Whether that meant safety Chuck Clark’s early strip sack to set up a touchdown or a clutch defensive stand in the fourth quarter or Jackson’s fourth-down sneak to sustain the game-winning drive, they summoned the necessary answers. On a day when everything did not go their way, they beat one of the only other contenders for best team in the NFL.
A “grit win,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh called it. And just the medicine his team needed at this point in the season.
“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Harbaugh said. “We expect — as Lamar said — we expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”
Many called it a potential Super Bowl preview, pitting the league’s best and most unusual offense against a frightfully fast and gifted defensive front. Despite a driving, chilly rain, the combatants lived up to the hype. Neither team emerged clearly superior.
The victory offered tangible benefits for the Ravens, moving them tantalizingly close to a second straight AFC North title and keeping them in the driver’s seat to earn a first-round playoff bye. But the payoff was as much experiential as numerical. The Ravens already knew they could blow out almost any team in the league. Now, they know they’re equally capable of surviving a “dogfight,” as tight end Mark Andrews described it.
If their destiny lies in a Feb. 2 rematch with the 49ers, bring it on.
Foul weather has been Lamar Jackson’s nemesis, relatively speaking.
NFL defenders and their coordinators have come up empty searching for ways to stop Jackson this season.
On Sunday, however, the elements achieved what opponents have not, robbing the potential MVP of his confidence and precision as a passer. Jackson missed a succession of short throws, finishing the day 14 of 23 for 105 yards. His passer rating of 86.3 was his worst since Week 7 against the Seattle Seahawks, a game also played in extremely wet conditions.
“Horrible,” Jackson said when asked about the rain. “Oh man, I was throwing passes behind my receivers. … It was ticking me off. A lot of passes were getting away from me. It messed with me a lot.”
It was a rare admission of frustration from an athlete who wears a T-shirt that reads: “Nobody Cares. Work Harder.”
“It was so wet. The ball was just so slippery,” said Andrews, who led the Ravens with three catches for 50 yards. “I couldn’t imagine being a quarterback and trying to grip the ball. He did a great job of finding his guys, but obviously, it’s harder, everything’s going to be harder.”
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was more efficient in the slop, completing 15 of 21 for 165 yards, and that surely offended the perfectionist in Jackson.
His dissatisfaction (also fueled by a third-quarter fumble) was a reminder of the high standard to which he holds himself. After all, he still ran for 101 yards and still found a way to win the game, picking up vital first downs with a pair of short runs and a 12-yard pass to Andrews on the decisive drive.
An old enemy reared its head in the form of the 49ers’ outside runs.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember weeks 3 and 4, when the Ravens allowed consecutive 500-yard performances as they fell to 2-2 on the season. But one characteristic of those shoddy defensive efforts was the team’s difficulty setting the edge against outside runs.
The Ravens knew the 49ers would try to exploit that weakness. As Harbaugh said, Kyle Shanahan’s staff “has been running that play for about 100 years.”
Yet the Ravens seemed helpless to stop shifty running back Raheem Mostert for the first three quarters as he dashed to a season-high 146 yards on just 19 carries. The 49ers averaged 6 yards per carry overall, and most of their big runs went outside the tackles.
Poor tackling was the culprit on some plays, but this was not a banner performance for the Ravens’ edge defenders. The 49ers found particular success running at rookie Jaylon Ferguson, who looked confused on some plays and physically overmatched on others.
Harbaugh gave credit to San Francisco’s blocking and to Mostert, a former Raven whom he said “has a real good feel for that play.”
But he acknowledged that the Ravens need to make repairs, something they’ve done effectively all season on defense.
“We’re going to have to look at that, and that’s something we’re going to have to get squared away,” Harbaugh said.
Among the Ravens’ unsung defensive heroes, no one has been more important than Chuck Clark.
Tony Jefferson’s season-ending knee injury in Week 5 was potentially traumatic for a defense still trying to find itself. Though Jefferson hadn’t played to his usual standard, he was an emotional linchpin in the locker room and had taken over signal-calling duties for the defense. Clark, a quiet third-year pro who’d started just three games, was thrown into the breach.
Earl Thomas III raved about Clark’s intelligence at the time, predicting he would thrive in Jefferson’s spot. The All-Pro safety proved prophetic; Clark has played almost every defensive snap over the past seven games and has graded as one of the league’s top-10 cover safeties, according to Pro Football Focus.
Clark hasn’t made any flashy interceptions, and a casual observer might forget he’s on the field. So it felt like justice when he was the one who streaked in off a blitz and stripped Garoppolo to set up the Ravens’ first touchdown drive. Clark went on to tie for the team lead with seven tackles.
Anyone can appreciate the talents of a Jackson or a Marcus Peters, but an NFL roster doesn’t work without people like Clark.
“I’m just being a versatile player wherever the defense needs me,” he said in a fittingly unsexy summation of his essential contribution to this season.
Justin Tucker gives the Ravens an ace in the hole that other elite contenders can’t match.
It’s not as if Ravens fans take Tucker for granted; before the rise of Jackson, he was probably the most popular player on the team. It’s not uncommon for football people to describe him as the greatest kicker in NFL history.
But every so often, we need a contextual reminder of how much Tucker’s brilliance means.
On Sunday, the 49ers trotted out Robbie Gould, a kicker who’d missed seven of his 20 field-goal attempts in 2019. The New England Patriots, another consensus top-four contender, relied on Kai Forbath, whom they’d signed because Nick Folk needed an emergency appendectomy four days after he’d missed twice in a narrow Week 12 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Would either team have felt confident betting on its kicker to win a game from 49 yards out in Sunday’s soggy, blustery conditions at M&T Bank Stadium?
The Ravens, meanwhile, felt no urgent need to pick up a few extra yards for Tucker’s sake. They didn’t bother to run a third-down play as the clock ticked down to three seconds remaining.
“He’s got that golden leg,” Jackson said. “I’m on the sideline praying, but at the same time, I’m like, ‘I know Tuck can do it.’”
A tidy summary of life in Baltimore over the past eight seasons, even as kicker chaos has befallen so many other NFL cities. Tucker made the game-winning kick, of course, despite weather he described as “not ideal throughout the game.” He’s made 22 of 23 on the season and an all-time-best 90.6 percent in his career.
He’s so good so often that we rarely bother commenting, until we’re reminded how other teams, even excellent ones, are living.